Federalism is the foundation for government in America as we know it. Without it and its many complexities, the United States wouldn’t operate in an even slightly similar manner. Throughout time, however, the balance between national and state power has shifted. After the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, the national government was favored over the states. Now, the national government is definitely favored above the states. And our defining documents favoring the national government over the state government isn’t a bad thing. National government is, and should be, favored. The states are more likely to be corrupted than the national government, they’re more likely to amplify inequalities between individuals, and the states could be more threatening to the central government, not the other way around.
After the Revolutionary War, the newly free people in America were hesitant to afford any large power to the national government in crafting their new constitution, understandably. Unfortunately, the lack of a central, national government proved to be detrimental to the new nation as its absence deprived the states of any legitimacy. Sure, the states were separate little entities, but this divide caused a rift between what should have been the confederate states. They were more akin to regular states. A loose alliance didn’t do much for anyone—if anything, it provoked more questions than it answered. When said questions were answered, the answers were not mirroring anything remotely close to efficiency.
For example, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no national currency, no federal taxes (the barely existent national government had to request money from the states), a law needed the approval of nine of only thirteen states to pass, and an amendment to the articles required all thirteen states to be on board. While the central government could declare war, they would have to rely on states to provide soldiers. They couldn’t raise their own army (Kutz). In short, the Articles were akin to a handshake or a fist bump—a menial gesture of friendship and “alliance”, nothing more.
So, when this issue was acknowledged in 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America was born. Despite many objections, this new document provided a much stronger national government to correct the faults of the first attempt. In an effort to get the states (primarily New York) to ratify this new constitution, the Federalist Papers, started to be published in newspapers. While they were first published under the pseudonym Publius, we now know Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay all contributed to the 85 essays. The Federalist Papers attempts to explain the constitution and dispel misconceptions and outright falsehoods to promote ratification.
In the simplest of terms, federalism is the cooperation of the national government with that of the states. Federalism is much like a layered cake that has been flipped upside down. The largest part of the cake is the national government and is supreme in its abilities over the other governments. However, immediately below the national government lies the state governments. They must comply with federal standards, but ultimately have a good bit of power enumerated to them. Below the states are the localities, cities, or counties. While the national and state governments have a certain amount of power, so do local governments—provided that their use of power doesn’t cross paths with either of the former, as the state government holds more weight than the local government, and the national government holds more weight than the state and local governments.
One of the main reasons that the national government should be superior to the state governments is that the smaller a government is, the more likely its constituents are to be manipulated or willfully ignorant. Publius discusses this in Federalist No. 17:
It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighbourhood, to his neighbourhood than to the community at large, the people of each state would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments, than towards the government of the union, unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter. (Publius 81)
It makes complete sense. People are much more likely to put their faith in those that they feel are closest to them. Some of these people might have their constituents’ best interests in mind. Others might not. Sometimes, constituents vote against their self-interest purely because of a conceived notion that those they feel are “closer” to them have their best interest at heart.
The subject of distance is where the extended republic theory comes in. People felt that the US was simply too big for a direct democracy, which it is and was. Madison explained the differences between the two forms and government and elaborated on how a republic would best serve everyone. Citizens electing others to represent them is not only about efficiency, but also has a lot to do with protecting the people against the rule of a majority faction. Madison says that “The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are most favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter” (Publius 47). He goes on to explain that a representative with ill intentions is less likely to be elected in a large republic because there are more people that have a say in who is elected, which is a safeguard against poor candidates. Madison admits that finding a happy medium in the number of electors can be difficult and that there are downsides on both sides:
By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representative too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal constitutionforms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests, being referred to the national, the local and particular to the state legislatures. (Publius 47)
By delegating the local interests to the state legislatures, Madison shows the beauty of federalism—the national government provides for all citizens and the state government supplements what the national government provides with what it feels is best for its constituents.
States also need to have checks on their powers. As displayed Barron vs Baltimore, the state governments, at one time, had the means necessary to upend someone’s life. Even though Hamilton argues that “we must extend the laws of the federal government to the individual citizens of America” (Publius 114), protections didn’t extend in the same way that laws did. Citizens weren’t protected by the Bill of Rights from the state governments—they were protected from the national government. It wasn’t until the 14th Amendment that the protections citizens had from the national government were extended to protect people from their state governments (McBride). Because the state has fewer interests to combat, it’s plausible that less wholesome interests might violate another individual’s rights.
Furthermore, Rossum’s analysis of this is spot on, “Under the Articles, the individual states were so powerful and their legislatures so dominant and unchecked that the tyrannical impulses that surged through the majority continually jeopardized the rights and liberties of their citizens” (Rossum 69). He explains how, even in its infancy, things could go south quickly.
In Federalist No. 6, Hamilton points out another flaw with states’ rights being supreme. “If these states should be wholly disunited, or united only in partial confederacies, a man must be far gone in Utopian speculations, who can seriously doubt that the subdivisions into which they might be thrown, would have frequent and violent contests with each other” and “The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable. There are some which have a general and almost constant operation upon the collective bodies of society… such are the rivalships and competition of commerce between commercial nations” (Publius 21). If states have no allegiance to one another, if they are not a part of another whole, there are so many ways that conflict could erupt. It isn’t exclusive to commerce, either—Publius wasn’t afraid to call out human nature’s desire for power despite public interests.
According to Drake and Nelson, Madison wanted a middle ground in which both the state and national government would protect the rights of the individuals. “He sought to repair the defects of government, which had plagued the nation and its citizens under the Articles of Confederation, with a ‘middle ground’ of the federalism principle” (Drake and Nelson 59). Madison’s interest seems to be pure in this respect as he believed both levels of government needed to prioritize the individual citizens.
The Articles of Confederation didn’t work. The Articles didn’t work for a reason. In the simplest case, the national government was too weak because it couldn’t levy taxes or raise an army, etc. However, the problem was much deeper than that. There were no safeguards for individual liberties from the states.
Those that opposed the Constitution, like the Anti-Federalists, would shame Hamilton for not believing a bill of rights to be necessary (as expressed in Federalist No. 84). Hamilton points out that states, primarily New York, that took issue with the proposed Constitution not having a clear and enumerated Bill of Rights had no qualms with their state constitution, which also lacked it (Publius 442-443).
The arguments coming from the opposition, at the surface level, make some sense. However, when the arguments become at all nuanced, they fall apart. Barber states this quite clearly:
The Preamble and the enumeration of powers in Article I and elsewhere indicate limited aims. Congress can regulate commerce, coin money, and declare war; there is no mention of power to promote highway safety, literacy, childbirth (as opposed to abortion), or sexual morality. Provisions for lawmaking, elections, appointments, and amendments limit the ways the government pursues its aims.
And the constitutional rights of individuals prohibit some means to those aims (Barber 7).
Congress can do what they need to do to keep the country on its feet, essentially. That doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want, but not having what are now super basic powers was a really bad move. A stronger national government doesn’t mean that there won’t be any state governments, nor does it mean that there is any larger scheme in play to wipe out the state governments. Publius knew that a stronger national government was detrimental to the mere chance of having a decent and productive society.
Aforementioned, the powers of the national government need to be given priority over those of the states. Albeit, there are some really cool things that states have done on their own accord, like the legalization of marijuana despite it still being illegal on the national level, that the national government hasn’t bothered stopping. That’s okay—it doesn’t need to. It doesn’t have to micromanage every state, nor should it. However, the national government should be able to manage the states as parts of the whole in an effort to promote common good.
The extended republic theory sums this up beautifully—the larger an area is, the more people a corrupt politician would have to manipulate. State and local government is just as likely to be infiltrated as the other levels, and is arguably easier to. The general population tends to favor their own self-interest (without regard to the interests of others). The Articles of Confederation was the chance for states’ rights to be supreme—it just wasn’t effective. Because of this, and the numerous things aforementioned (and not), it’s clear that the national government should have more power than that of the states’.
- Works Cited
- Barber, Sotirios A. The Fallacies of States’ Rights. Harvard University Press, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=502796&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Drake, Frederick D., and Lynn R. Nelson. Statesʼ Rights and American Federalism : A Documentary History. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=182308&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Elliott, Kimberly Kutz. “Challenges of the Articles of Confederation.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2017, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-government-and-politics/foundations-of-american-democracy/challenges-of-the-articles-of-confederation/a/challenges-of-the-articles-of-confederation-article.
- McBride, Alex. “Barron v. Baltimore (1833) .” Thirteen – Media with Impact, PBS, 2006, www.thirteen.org/wnet/supremecourt/antebellum/landmark_barron.html.
- Publius. The Federalist: the Gideon Edition. Liberty Fund, 2001.
- Rossum, Ralph A. Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment : The Irony of Constitutional Democracy. Lexington Books, 2001. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=632175&site=ehost-live&scope=site.