Friday, February 15, 2008

Presidents Day and States' Rights

As America prepares to celebrate 'Presidents' Day', it is a good occasion to reflect on what our presidents actually believed concerning the role of federal and state government. Over the next few days I will be posting a series of articles I wrote earlier in the year exploring the history of the American system, with particular emphasis on the importance of states' rights.

In order to understand the importance of states' rights, it is necessary to go back to the very inception of America. The earliest English settlers formed colonies that were fiercely independent. Each colony had a unique culture, a unique way of life and often different religious approaches. This being the case, there was frequent bickering between the colonies, as seen by some of the nasty comments they made about each other. One Puritan said of the Virginians: “The farthest from conscience and moral honesty of any such number together in the world.” Virginian William Byrd II, said of the Puritans: “A watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.” At least the Puritans and the Virginians could agree about Quakers, saying: “[They] pray for their fellow men one day a week, and on them the other six.” The Quakers, on the other hand, called the New Englanders, “the flock of Cain.” (From Dr. Thomas Woods' The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.)
The bickering amongst the colonies also extended to religious matters. As Dr. Thomas Woods writes:

Religion was fundamental to the colonists; and though they worshipped the same God, there was plenty of bickering. Indeed, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, raised the ire of many colonists. The Puritans, who thought they had purged their worship of the Church of England’s ritual and ‘superstition,’ were still too formalistic for the Quakers. Decades before William Penn settled in Pennsylvania in the 1680s, Quakers living in Rhode Island travelled to Massachusetts to rouse its benighted inhabitants from their dogmatic slumber and awaken them to the aridity of their faith. Quakers disrupted Puritan church services, heckled ministers, and even walked naked up and down the church aisles. The Friends were banned repeatedly from Massachusetts.

This mutual antagonism contributed in a peculiar way to the development of American liberty: Each denomination and colony was vigilant against interference in its internal affairs by others. The differences among the colonies created the presumption that each should mind its own business, and so should any potential central government.

As I shall be arguing, it was these marked differences between the colonies that made the framers and ratifiers of the constitution so anxious to preserve the autonomy of each state and avoid centralism. The colonists were wary of joining intercolonial confederations, unless for practical purposes such as defence. Even then, they insisted that the union should not infringe on the self-government of each colony.

In 1643, the Confederation of New England was formed in case of conflict with the Indians. But Massachusetts was sure to establish the principle that each colony held a veto over the actions of the Confederation. The same spirit led the colonists to reject Benjamin Franklin’s proposed Albany Plan of Union in 1754, which called on the colonies to yield authority to a new intercolonial government to help coordinate defence against the Indians. Not a single colonial assembly ratified the plan because they didn’t want to be joined together.

But didn't that all change when the constitution was framed? Didn't the states become 'united', as seen in the title of our nation, "The United States of America"? Well, yes and no. But that is the subject of my next article.
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