The forgotten history of American resistance to centralized power.
This article was authored by Brian McFoy
A forgotten tradition in American history is being resistant to the centralization of political power. The men who fought off the armies of a great nation for their independence were resisting centralized power from Parliament and the King of Great Britain. The creation of the United States in 1787 was during the Age of Enlightenment, a time period which produced some of the finest philosophy about human freedom and government. But men are not perfect and the nation created in 1787 had many flaws which persist to this day.
There is an important reason why we have our local, municipal, and state governments, opposed to one national government calling all of the shots. There is an important reason why the Federal Government is split up into 3 branches and why the Electoral College system is decentralized and difficult to understand. Reviewing Federalism and the origins of the constitutional federal republic created in 1787 you will understand the founders and framers were terrified of centralized power, although there were some who did support it. The 19th and 20th century has seen the expansion and centralization of power to the Federal government. A remedy to the current ailments the nation faces may be cured by looking at what was under stood about these “United States” in the 18th century when the Union was created.
*Some of the earlier colonies in the Americas were proprietary colonies of England. Proprietary colonies were set up and managed by the civilians rather than the monarch or parliament. Many of the colonists were there on their own blood and sweat. For one example, the Cambridge Agreement of 1629 established Boston, Massachusetts. In this document, its founder’s stated:
“..to inhabit and continue in New England : Provided always..the whole Government, together with the patent for the said Plantation, be first, by an order of Court, legally transferred and established to remain with us and others which shall inhabit upon the said Plantation..”
Eventually throughout the decades, England made some of these colonies Royal/Provincial and exercised more control over them. While England did not attempt much micromanagement in the internal affairs of these colonies, they benefited from the trade and military positioning of them. Also during the formation of these colonies in the 17th century, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolutions were occurring in England. Conflicts that involved parliamentarians verse the crown (centralized power).
*Throughout the 17th century, many of these colonies established their own charters/governments. These are a wonderful resource to understand the motivations of the early colonists. The most powerful of the American colonies was Virginia which has the oldest legislative body in the United States, with its House of Burgesses being established in 1619. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties established in 1641 was a precursor to the English and U.S. Bill of Rights. The Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas was penned by classical liberal philosopher John Locke in 1669. The other colonies all have similar charters which established forms of local government. Reading these charters you can see clearly that the colonists managed their own local affairs and it wasn’t delegated to a central power. They also had an understanding of natural law and their rights.
*To help finance the French and Indian War, Britain started to impose a number of taxes and regulations on the colonies. The Colonies started forming conventions to voice their concerns with how they were being treated. The Stamp Act Congress in 1765 was a political convention held by delegates from the colonies to protest the Stamp Act. It reestablished that the colonies weren’t represented in parliament to have a say on these conditions, and that it was a violation of their colonial charters and the natural right of government by consent of the people. And the essays “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania“ written in 1767 by framer John Dickinson expressed how the Colonies had a right to manage their internal affairs. There are numerous historical examples to establish that the colonists were resistant to the centralization of power from Britain.
*After continuous violations of their rights and after their Olive Branch Petition asking the King to help them against Parliament’s aggression failed. The Colonists seceded from Britain with The Declaration of Independence. In this document, it clearly expresses that the colonies are independent “States” that could manage their own affairs just like the other states in Europe.
“That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
When the war was over, The Treaty of Paris in 1783 granted freedom to 13 individual states, listing them all by name. After the war the States created a republic with a weak central authority under the Articles of Confederation. In Section 2 of the Articles, it is established that each of the States in this confederation had sovereignty.
*To create the Federal government, each individual State had to approve/ratify it through conventions. There was not some central authority putting together the new government, it was done in each State through a democratic and representative process. Although the Articles of Confederation required 13 of the States be involved in amending the government. The Constitution required only 9 States to ratify it; some of the States didn’t even ratify the document, North Carolina and Rhode Island being notable examples. Since this new government was created without respect to the current one, you could argue that this was a form of secession. Many of the States also had their own written constitutions establishing their own republican government before the Federal Government was even created. Written Constitutions and ratifying conventions were an American tradition. Virginia ratified their own constitution and declaration of rights in 1776, Massachusetts ratified their own constitution in 1780, North Carolina in 1776…Thebig picture is these States already had a republican form of government before they created the Federal Republic.
*The legislative branch of the new Federal government was bicameral. The House of Representatives was popularly elected by the people. And each State government would choose 2 Senators to have representation in the Senate. James Madison highlights the importance of this in Federalist Paper 62, and in Federalist Paper 63 when he addresses the criticisms of the Senate becoming a powerful corrupt aristocratic class. Since the Senate was being chosen by the States, he dismisses their fears. Unfortunately in the early 20th century during the Progressive Era, the federal Constitution was atrociously amended. One of these was the 17th amendment which was ratified and made Senators elected by popular vote among the people.
“It is equally unnecessary to dilate on the appointment of senators by the State legislatures. Among the various modes which might have been devised for constituting this branch of the government, that which has been proposed by the convention is probably the most congenial with the public opinion. It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems… In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each State is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty.” (Federalist Paper #62.)
“In answer to all these arguments, suggested by reason, illustrated by examples, and enforced by our own experience, the jealous adversary of the Constitution will probably content himself with repeating, that a senate appointed not immediately by the people, and for the term of six years, must gradually acquire a dangerous pre-eminence in the government, and finally transform it into a tyrannical aristocracy.
To this general answer, the general reply ought to be sufficient, that liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power; that there are numerous instances of the former as well as of the latter; and that the former, rather than the latter, are apparently most to be apprehended by the United States. But a more particular reply may be given.
Before such a revolution can be effected, the Senate, it is to be observed, must in the first place corrupt itself; must next corrupt the State legislatures; must then corrupt the House of Representatives; and must finally corrupt the people at large. It is evident that the Senate must be first corrupted before it can attempt an establishment of tyranny. Without corrupting the State legislatures, it cannot prosecute the attempt, because the periodical change of members would otherwise regenerate the whole body.” (Federalist Paper #63)
The Constitution: http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa62.htm
*After the creation of the Federal Union, it was still established that the States do have rights when the 10th Amendment was ratified to the Constitution on December 15th, 1791 stating: “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.”
When John Adams and the executive branch overstepped its bounds with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison penned the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798 which reaffirmed that the States have a right to not follow unconstitutional laws. This is known as State nullification and these documents highlight the fact that the States created the Federal Government to be bound by a constitution.
“That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact to which the states are parties, as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting that compact–as no further valid than they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that, in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose, for arresting the progress of the evil and for maintaining, within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties, appertaining to them.” (James Madison, Report on Virginia Resolutions)
John Taylor of Caroline, an early American political philosopher and Virginia senator to the new Federal Republic under the constitution best describes the relationship between the States and Federal Government.
“In the creation of the federal government, the states exercised the highest act of sovereignty, and they may, if they please, repeat the proof of their sovereignty, by its annihilation. But the union possesses no innate sovereignty, like the states; it was not self-constituted; it is conventional, and of course subordinate to the sovereignties by which it was formed.”
University of Chicago: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch8s42.html
In conclusion, the summary and formation of the American Republic goes against the idea that this country was founded as “one nation”, as “one people”, etc. The Federal Government was created by States with cultures and people that predate the union they created. The decentralization of power from Washington D.C. and restoring a constitutional republic is a legitimate goal to bring more prosperity and freedom in our lifetime. And if Americans can relearn and embrace the history of their origins we can look forward to the States further standing up against Washington D.C.
Stay involved in State Politics. Our State governments are capable of providing more liberty to those who inhabit that State. A great example of this and a current look of State’s rights and Federalism in action is the recent nullification of the Federal Drug War by Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska
Dedicated to promoting personal and economic freedom.