Welcome to our fourth post for Secession Week, in celebration of Independence Day this weekend. Today’s theme is federalism, which Wikipedia defines as:
“The term federalism is … used to describe a system of the government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (like states or provinces). Federalism is a system in which the power to govern is shared between national and central (state) governments, creating what is often called a federation. Proponents are often called federalists.”
Confusingly, in Europe the word is sometimes used for those who support a strong federal government, like the EU, but we are using the earlier meaning of a federation of fairly independent political units, whose central government restricts itself to activities with interstate implications, like national defense.
Federalism is not a fringe issue – the battle over states rights reached the nations highest levels in recent Supreme Court cases like Raich vs. Gonzalez and Kelo vs. New London. And as Real Clear Politics reports in “Can Federalism Solve America’s Culture War?”, popular blogger Andrew Sullivan recently defended federalism in The New Republic: “The whole point of federalism is that different states can have different public policies on matters of burning controversy–and that this is okay.”
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out that federalism vs. centralization has been an issue since the founding of the United States:
The Articles of Confederation of 1781 among the 13 American states fighting British rule had established a center too weak for law enforcement, defense and for securing interstate commerce. What has become known as the U.S. Constitutional Convention met May 25 — September 17 1787. It was explicitly restricted to revise the Articles, but ended up recommending more fundamental changes. The proposed constitution prompted widespread debate arguments addressing the benefits and risks of federalism versus confederal arrangements, leading eventually to the Constitution taking effect in 1789.
The “Anti-federalists” were fearful of undue centralization. They worried that the powers of central authorities were not sufficiently constrained e.g. by a bill of rights (John DeWitt 1787, Richard Henry Lee) — which was eventually ratified in 1791. They also feared that the center might gradually usurp the sub-units’ powers. Citing Montesquieu, another pseudonymous ‘Brutus’ doubted whether a republic of such geographical size with so many inhabitants with conflicting interests could avoid tyranny and would allow common deliberation and decision based on local knowledge (Brutus (Robert Yates?) 1787).
In what has become known as The Federalist Papers, James Madison (1751-1836), Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) and John Jay (1745-1829) argued vigorously for the suggested model of interlocking federal arrangements (Federalist 10, 45, 51, 62). Madison and Hamilton agreed with Hume that the risk of tyranny by passionate majorities was reduced in larger republics where sub-units of shared interest could and would check each other: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any improper or wicked project, will be less likely to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” (Federalist 10).
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