The United States of America is a unique experiment: it is a nation forged from individual sovereign states. It took two attempts at the US Constitution to get the balancing of powers between the national and state governments right.
But the following article argues that the current Constitution goes too far in consolidating powers in the federal government. This has created, says author Greyson Addicott, “an overreaching, bloated government far bigger than anything conceivable by the original colonists.”
The accusation however is exaggerated. The national government is no doubt bloated, but its attempts to overreach are rarely successful. The state governments have retained their true independence due to the simple notion that the center has no power to dissolve them. State governors and legislatures are accountable directly and only to the people of the state.
[Excerpts of article first published on St. Mary’s University website]
The American Constitution and the Death of the “Great Experiment”
[by Greyson Addicott]
What, exactly, makes the United States of America so unique? Is it our food, our inventions, our skyscrapers, or our fancy cars? Could the answer to this fundamental question lie within our superb economic system, abundant natural resources, or other environmental factors? No, not a single one of these things make the United States particularly unique. Instead, the key to our uniqueness lies within the name of our nation itself. We are, after all, called the United States of America for an important reason. It was our states alone that birthed, continued, and brought to conclusion exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville once famously called the “Great Experiment.”
The “Great Experiment” was not created in a day, nor was it created by accident. Rather, it was the natural result of the accumulation of different ideals and values held dear by the occupants of the British colonies. Even as early as 1643, there existed between Connecticut, Plymouth, New Haven, and Massachusetts a “perpetual confederation,” titled the “United Colonies of New England.” This particular union was crafted by the four colonies with great care, and guaranteed that the general government of the confederacy would never inter-meddle “with the government of any of the jurisdictions.”
When one truly considers the extensive cultural and societal history of the thirteen colonies, it seems only natural that they would enter into a confederation rather than consent to a consolidated government. They had, after all, already grown accustomed to governing themselves under British rule well before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The Articles of Confederation, when closely examined, ultimately reveals the very nature and spirit of the famed American Revolution. A direct product of the Revolution itself, the document was an ode to the “self-government” mentality that the colonists had slowly come to adopt after serving the British Empire for so long. Nowhere is this better examined than in Article II of the document, which reads:
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
Abandoning the Articles of Confederation was in no way an easy or quick process. In fact, the states had never originally intended to replace the Articles in the first place. Instead, they had originally called for a convention to “devise such further provisions as shall appear to them [members of the convention] necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” That is, the Confederacy had ordered the creation of a convention that would specifically draft amendments to the Articles, which were to be later examined by the general Congress for subsequent approval or rejection. The government did not, in any way, consent to or endorse the creation of a new form of government altogether. Little did the Confederacy know, however, that the convention would nevertheless betray the Union and do exactly that.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, the various delegates would quickly enter into secrecy. No longer officially representing their states, the men in the convention were acting illegally, attempting to undermine the very product and cause of revolution.
Regardless of origin, the Constitution had finally become available to the general public. Much to our founding fathers’ dismay, however, the unveiling of the document was met with immediate and almost unshakable controversy. Indeed, it took only eight days after the boarded windows were removed from the convention, for the first published Anti-Federalist paper to appear. The paper, titled “A Dangerous Plan Of Benefit Only to The Aristocratick Combination,” immediately sparked a debate that would later lead to the creation of both the Bill of Rights and our modern political parties.
The Federalists were not content with staying silent, and their published response to the first Anti-Federalist paper marked the beginning of a ravenous three-year-long debate that would constantly pit intellectual titans against each other in the public forum. If you lived in New York during the ratification process of the Constitution, it would not be uncommon for you to pick up a newspaper and find Alexander Hamilton and James Madison going against Patrick Henry and George Clinton on the front page. Every paper was published anonymously, which allowed almost anyone with an opinion and a knack for writing to join in on the grandiose debate. Not everyone, however, would be responded to. One of the most popular Anti-Federalists, a writer known only by his pen-name “Brutus,” for instance, published over six groundbreaking essays that never once received a proper Federalist response.
In the beginning, the two political “parties” were fairly evenly matched. As the public debate dragged on, however, the Anti-Federalist party began to crack. The unrest within the Anti-Federalist faction arose when a collection of amendments was first proposed by the Federalists as a sign of compromise. This idea of compromise would ironically grow to be the very thing that tore the entire Anti-Federalist faction apart. Half were content with the adoption and application of certain amendments to the Constitution, and the other half kept true with the original intent of the party: the rejection of the proposed Constitution altogether. The Federalists were quick to jump on the opportunity to divide their opponents, and promised to adopt certain (edited) Anti-Federalist amendments if the various states were to accept the proposed Constitution. In this way, the state governments became distracted, and the divide between the Anti-Federalists became even greater. Even more, the proponents of the old Articles of Confederation began to focus upon creating amendments rather than resisting the adoption of the document altogether. With their opposition all but shattered, the Federalists were eventually able to get the Constitution ratified by a majority of the states by June 21, 1788. The Articles of Confederation, and all of the ideas behind it, had almost officially been dissolved. The original ideals of the American colonists, of “expressly delegated” powers, and of state sovereignty, it seemed, were to be diluted beyond recognition, lost within a new government that would grow to eventually control and oversee every minute action taken by the states.
Although the Constitution had been generally adopted by the respective states, there still existed a great number of independent state legislatures that were not eager to invest their hard-earned freedom and self-governance into a government that could so easily turn against them.
A majority of the states, while certainly eager to adopt a new constitution to remedy the downtrodden state of the Union, refused to part with a specific number of liberties that they had enjoyed under the Articles of Confederation. Thus, the creation of an official movement calling for a Bill of Rights was born. Of the amendments proposed to be added to the Bill of Rights, one stood out among the others. This particular amendment sought to prevent the expansion of Federal power by reviving the Second Article within the Articles of Confederation and applying it to the Constitution. If adopted, this amendment would effectively kill the idea of “implied powers” within the Constitution, and render anything not “expressly delegated” to the Federal government open to the states—it would safely ensure the continuance of “expressed powers,” and preserve federalism indefinitely within the union. The amendment was the tenth item added into the proposed Bill of Rights, and many Anti-Federalists believed that it had the potential to remedy every problem that they observed within the proposed government.
Over time, as the Anti-Federalist argument faded into obscurity, the newly-adopted Federal government began removing any restriction that was placed upon it by the states. This gradual process began with a simple Supreme Court case: Marbury V. Madison. The intricate details of the case itself are wholly insignificant when compared to the Court’s decision, as it was the decision of the Court that spawned the dangerous idea of “Judicial Review.” From that day forward, the Supreme Court wielded a power over the states that was never expressly delegated in the Constitution. By adopting the doctrine of “Judicial Review,” the Supreme Court had finally grown out of its original constitutional boundaries into a creator of policy, rather than a reviewer of it. Wielding the seemingly endless variety of vague terms planted within the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as weapons against the interests of the states, the Federal government has finally reached a level of autonomy that the original Federalists could have only dreamed of. This statement is little more than fact: there is not today a single decision made by the state courts, nor is there a single piece of legislature, that can exist without the Supreme Court’s consent.
The conflict between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution is fundamental.
At their core, the many differences between the documents all originate within the way each empowered federal head interacts with the states. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government existed to serve the body politics that created it. Each and every member of the Confederacy received an equal vote, reserved the right to resume all delegated powers, and was protected from the overreaching, negative power of consolidated government via a collection of Articles that understood the power of “expressly delegated” powers. Under the Constitution, however, the states exist to serve the federal government. Each and every “member” of our modern Union is denied even the most fundamental rights that they once enjoyed so briefly under the Articles of Confederation. One of the many examples of this sad reality is the fact that our states no longer possess the mere right to elect representatives that should serve their interests within the Federal government. Indeed, they cannot even exist without the monetary and political assistance of an overreaching, bloated government far bigger than anything conceivable by the original colonists. This is the tragic and direct result of adopting a constitution that not only fails to understand or respect the ideas of “expressly delegated” or “implied” powers, but one that also provides the general government with the ability to change the “spirit of the Constitution” on a whim.
The Constitution, far from embodying the ideals of the American Revolution, is almost a complete rejection of the principles that created the Declaration of Independence. For better or worse, the contract certainly betrayed the American Revolution and the ideals behind it. If the American patriots of old where to catch a glimpse of the existing condition of the United States of America, they would certainly find it almost unrecognizable. Perhaps, in reviewing modern-day American politics, they would find themselves in the middle of a nation perfectly described by George Bryan or John Smilie on October 27, 1787:
It is beyond a doubt that the new federal constitution, if adopted, will in a great measure destroy, if it does not totally annihilate, the separate governments of the several states. We shall, in effect, become one great republic. Every measure of any importance will be continental.
The American Constitution has, regardless of the original intent of its creators, ultimately brought about the creation of a single consolidated Republic consisting of fifty administrative zones, i.e. states. The members of Congress today have no obligation to serve anything but a vague notion of “the people,” an obligation that they can exploit to no foreseeable end. Tragically, the very backbone of any republic, the once proud and powerful states, have been transformed into weakened shadows of their former image, required to carry out the endless mandates forced upon them by an ever-expanding Federal government. The line separating the states and the government that they serve has been so blurred as to render the two almost completely inseparable.40 In the minds of many, the states are today under the same amount of abuse that they had once endured under Great Britain. For one, the states can no longer elect members to serve as their representatives in Congress. For another, they are constantly forced to pay taxes to a Federal body that, again, does not necessarily represent their individual interest. They are, in almost every sense of the term, often forced to participate in “taxation without representation,” one of the main issues that once stirred the original American colonies to revolution.41 In the end, the American Constitution not only completely destroyed the “Great Experiment,” but it also indirectly contributed to the disastrous undoing of the very ideas that ignited the American Revolution itself.
This article was first published on StMU History Media on 29 October 2018