The Federalist Papers (1787-1789)
Federalist Essays No.45 - No. 46
The critics of the U.S. Constitution worry that too much power has been placed in the central government under the proposed plan of government. However, they do not think about how much strength is required in a government to sustain the union.
If the union is necessary for the safety and happiness of the American people, it is foolish to spend time arguing against the government that can sustain that happiness because that government takes rights away from the individual states. Was the American Revolution fought for the purpose of each individual state enjoying sovereignty and power? Every government should be designed with the best interests of the people in mind. If the Constitutional Convention had proposed a plan without that goal in mind, then the plan should rightfully be rejected.
There are many examples from ancient and modern confederacies that prove that the individual members often betray the union. Since the states, under the U.S. Constitution, keep a lot of power it is important to analyze whether enough checks have been placed on their authority to hurt the union.
The state governments gain from the relationship with the federal government. The federal government serves to protect states from disputes with their neighbors, to grant powers in the state governments and to provide the additional support of the people.
The federal government cannot run without the state governments. The state legislatures are the ones to elect the President of the United States, and to select the state Senators. Each branch of the federal government relies in these ways upon the state governments and will feel dependence towards them.
The number of federal employees will be much smaller than the total number of all the state employees. The state government employees will have more influence because of their larger numbers. State tax collectors will be much more present in the community than federal tax collectors which will focus on collecting tariffs on the seas. Even if federal tax collectors are to be appointed, they would be much smaller in number than all of the state tax collectors.
The powers granted to the federal government are few and specific and will be exercised towards external parties. Powers granted to the states are many and general and focused solely on internal affairs. The federal government will be the most important in times of war and danger, the state government in times of peace and security. The more powerful the federal government is to deal with war and danger, the less likely the will need to be most active.
The proposed plan of government does not propose new powers, but a strengthening of the original powers that were vested in it under the Articles of Confederation. The change does not enlarge powers, just proposes a new way of administering those powers. The federal power to tax seems to be the most contested, but it only differs from the previous power to tax in that it is a quota on an individual rather than a state.
If the states had complied more successfully with the Articles, there would have been no reason to change them.
Will the people support the federal government or the state government more? To answer this question it is important to remember that each has very different powers. The two are not two competing and equal forms of government, but they are different agents of the people and designed to work together. Additionally, the ultimate authority rests with the people, and neither will be able to expand its authority without the approval of the people.
People are more likely to be more supportive of state governments, which are geographically closer to them and in which they may have relatives or neighbors. Experience under the Articles demonstrates that people were more inclined to support their state, rather than the central government. If the people are to become more attached to the central government in the future it would only be through an improved administration by the central government, and the people should be allowed to place their authority where they have the most confidence.
Both the federal and state governments have authority to check the power of the other. The state governments clearly have an advantage because the people are more attached to them and the federal government depends on the states for elections. A local spirit will inevitably control the members of Congress, and make them inclined to focus more on local rather than national goals.
The federal government will not be able to take the power of the state governments because it would risk angering the people in the state. If the federal government tried to pass an act of legislation that the states disagreed with, the people in the state could protest that act by refusing to comply with it.
If the federal government was not responsive to the protest by the people, a general alarm would spread throughout the other states and they would unite as if uniting against a foreign enemy. Why would the federal government pursue their power to such a point? It happened in Great Britain only because it was the more numerous parts against the less numerous parts. Who would be the comparable parties in such a conflict between the federal and state governments?
The critics claim that the federal government will have enough power to amass a military force and force the state government to give up their power. As it was said before, it is very unlikely that an uninterrupted series of representatives would all support this military effort.
Even if it had happened, the people in each state are numerous enough to bear arms against such a military threat as evidence by the action of the local militia in the American Revolution. In addition to the people of the United States being allowed to bear arms, they have the advantage of being loyal to state governments who appoint the militia officers. This is an advantage that no European nations allow their citizens, and the one that will sustain liberty in this country.
Either the federal government is going to be so dependent on the authority of the people as to prevent the abuse of its power, or it will not have the confidence of the people and its plans to usurp power will be easily stopped by the state governments. In either case, the objections to the federal government on the grounds that it will hurt the sovereignty of the individual states have no foundation in reality.
The debate over whether the balance of power should rest with the states or with the federal government began in the Second Continental Congress, and has only been resolved over time through the guidelines placed by the U.S. Constitution and historical necessity.
The American people who sent representatives to the Second Continental Congress did so under the threat of war with the strong centralized government of Great Britain. They longed for the days of salutary neglect prior to the French and Indian War when their colony had governed itself without intervention by any outside force. This is what they hoped to attain when they constructed the loose confederation of states under the Articles of Confederation. Fearful of a strong national government, the people believed that they could best protect their rights by placing their authority in the state governments.
This dislike of a centralized government stemmed from the belief that the union of states was formed solely for the purpose of common defense against Great Britain. Radicals argued that the purpose of the Revolution was to form more democratic governments, by definition requiring a close relationship between the people and their government. To radicals, the only purpose of the confederation was to provide a foundation for mutual defense and foreign policy should they be threatened by an outside power again. They interpreted the Articles of Confederation as a pact between 13 separate states that agreed to delegate certain powers for specific purposes, not granting general powers to a central government.
The ineffective and disunited governance that resulted between 1781 and 1789 proved to the people that they could effectively disempower the national government by placing many checks and controls on its power. However, it also demonstrated to most people that their rights and liberties would be threatened in the absence of a national government that could serve as a supreme authority over all of the states. The majority of arguments in The Federalist rests on the theory that a strong central government not only prevents inter-state competition and hostilities, but also serves as the best means to provide for the common defense.
The U.S. Constitution provides a system in which the federal and state governments are interwoven and have some concurrent powers. Although the state governments are all subordinate to the authority of the national government and to national law, they perform significant duties to support the central government as well as to check its power. The concurrent powers include enforcing laws, establishing courts, borrowing money, protecting the health and safety of the people, building roads and collecting taxes. State governments are solely responsible for establishing schools, administering elections, regulating businesses within the state, establishing local government, regulating marriages, and any other powers not specifically given to the federal government.
Although the U.S. Constitution established the relationship between the state and federal government, it did not resolve the debate between those in favor of states' rights and those in favor of a strong central government. Slavery and tariffs were issues that became especially divisive along these lines, and raised the question of how far the federal government should interfere with state governments to ensure the protection of civil liberties. The Civil War began because the nation elected a president that not a single southern state had voted for. The southern states seceded from the union and the federal government had to invade in order to bring those states back into the fold. During the Civil Rights Movement as well, the federal government intervened against state governments to force the acceptance of equality and desegregation. In both cases, the affected states expressed tremendous resentment against the national government for intervening in state affairs.