It is now an article of faith in the Tea Party and on the American Right that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution to restrict the power of the federal government and protect states' rights. But that analysis is simply wrong.
Like any government document, the Constitution can only be understood in the context of what it replaced -- and why. The Constitution superseded the Articles of Confederation, which guided the new country starting in 1777. The Articles granted broad authority to the states with only a weak national government.
As the Revolutionary War wore on and during the early years of peace, many American leaders -- including George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson -- came to view the Articles as unworkable and a threat to the survival of the new nation.
The Continental Army was especially disdainful of the Articles because they didn't grant taxing authority to the national government and thus -- when the states reneged on promised funding, which they did frequently -- soldiers were left without pay and munitions.
The answer to this political crisis took shape in 1786 with a growing movement for a much stronger federal government, leading to secret meetings in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a new governing document, the Constitution.
The Constitution created the framework for a powerful federal authority that could not only declare war and negotiate treaties, but could tax, print money, regulate interstate commerce and undertake a host of other governing activities.
Besides the sweeping federal authority delineated by the Constitution, the document also dropped key language from the Articles of Confederation that had suggested the supremacy of the states.
The Articles had described the United States not as a government or even a nation, but as "a firm league of friendship" among the states "for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare."
If that suggestion of the states' supremacy wasn't clear enough, the Confederation's Article II declared: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated." And very few powers were delegated to the federal government.
That powerful states' rights language was either eliminated by the Constitution or substantially watered down.
The Tenth Amendment Argument
Tea Party activists will often cite the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution as evidence that the Founders were strong advocates for states' rights, since it says "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
But again the Tea Partiers are missing the point. The Constitution granted broad powers to the federal government -- even over the regulation of national commerce -- so there were far fewer powers left for the states. The Tenth Amendment amounted to a sop to mollify the anti-federalist bloc that was trying to block ratification of the Constitution by the 13 states.
To further appreciate how modest the Tenth Amendment concession was, you also must compare its wording with Article II of the Confederation. Remember, Article II says "each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence," while the Tenth Amendment simply says powers not granted to the federal government "are reserved to the States" or individuals.
Stripped out of the new national governing document were the principles of state "sovereignty" and state "independence." In effect, American "sovereignty" had been transferred to the Republic that the Constitution had created. States were no longer dominant; they were subordinate to "we the people" as represented in the "union," the United States of America.
Of course, the anti-federalists did not entirely go away, especially when it became clear to the agrarian South that its economic model, based on slavery, was losing ground to the growing industrial power of the North and the influence of the emancipation movement.
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