Freedom and the Consolidated State

A recent Washington Post article claimed that states in America are a relic of its past and should be disposed of for the sake of greater economic and governing efficiency. We should expect such an argument coming from a D.C. newspaper. Of course, this is primarily a reaction against the existence of the Electoral College and yet another immature complaint about the election results, but it is something more than that; it is a full admission of complete ignorance about the nature of our country, these United States, and a willful forgetting of the purpose of federalism as a load-bearing wall that restrains tyrannical government in the architecture of our republic.

During the ratification debates, Anti-Federalists objected that the proposed constitution would consolidate the states into a single nation that could not but destroy their liberty. While the Federalists agreed that a consolidation of the states over such a large territory (then only thirteen states!) would destroy liberty, they argued forcefully that the proposed constitution would certainly not constitute a full consolidation of the states. Ours is famously neither a “wholly national nor wholly federal” constitution, according to James Madison. The Founders on both sides of the great debate agreed that a consolidation of the states would be detrimental to liberty, though they disagreed about whether the proposed constitution would accomplish such a consolidation.

After the Constitution was ratified, Madison expressed his fears that the federal government was in fact tending toward such a consolidation that would render popular movements for justice -- and therefore liberty -- ineffectual. In 1791, in an anonymous essay titled “Consolidation,” Madison wrote of two dangers that would necessarily follow consolidation: there must be first be,

“so great an accumulation of powers in the hands of [the president] as might by degrees transform him into a monarch. The incompetency of one Legislature to regulate all the various objects belonging to the local governments, would evidently force a transfer of many of them to the executive department…. Second, were the state governments abolished, the same space of country that would produce an undue growth of the executive power, would prevent that controul [sic] on the Legislative body, which is essential to a faithful discharge of its trust, neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.”

Madison explains that if administrative centralization replaces local state governments, it will expand the prerogatives of the executive and render the people’s voice silenced and their consent reduced to a mere choice of administrators. He goes on to write that, though an administrative consolidation in the United States would be ruinous to liberty, the success of the federal republic depended on a consolidation of “interests and affections.” For the Founders, such common interests included the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives from all the states, that imply a right to self-government and genuine consent. Moreover, such common affections are necessary, Madison writes, to “consolidate their defence of the public liberty.” So what is needed is a consolidation of interest in and affection for self-government, consent, and liberty -- not greater efficiency through centralization.

We have had sufficient evidence during the last eight years that there is a growing divide and breakdown of common interests and affections in the United States. The left seems to have been quite successful at replacing the idea of a common good, especially justice, with the idea of identity politics and opposing goods with its concomitant form of “social” justice. We have also had sufficient evidence of the attempt to centralize everything from immigration to education to bathrooms in the hands of the executive branch. But it is only with this election that we now see proof of an actual desire from the left to do away with states completely and a belief that states as intermediary powers are not pillars of support to liberty but actually anachronistic obstructions to it.   

Montesquieu first articulated the modern idea of federalism as a fortification for liberty, and his thoughts greatly influenced both sides of the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate. Less than fifty years after American founding, Alexis de Tocqueville described what administrative centralization -- without the check of intermediary powers like states -- had been doing to liberty in France and would certainly do in America also if allowed; he famously described the effect that it had on the citizenry as “soft” despotism. No matter how dear or how sweet greater efficiency may seem to the consolidationists, they can only be purchased at the price of the chains of bureaucracy and administrative slavery. 

To the plethora of hindsight explanations for the recent election of Donald Trump, I will add mine. In the 1790s, Madison and other Democratic-Republicans worried that the American people were losing their ability to govern themselves and were instead being ruled by a cadre of Federalist elites. The election of Thomas Jefferson, the “Revolution of 1800,” put these fears largely to rest, along with the viable existence of the Federalists as a political party. Whether rightly or wrongly time will tell, but the American people have spoken in this election, and they have declared that they will not be ruled by an oligarchy of elitists and an administrative state that calls injustice justice. Donald Trump is no Thomas Jefferson, but we should take comfort in the fact that large portions of the American people are apparently as liberty-loving today as they were in 1800. A Trump presidency may prove to be just as prone to federal overreach as Obama’s, but one thing the left and the right need to understand is that a robust form of federalism is one of the best ways to limit the prerogatives of the executive by retaining to the states the powers granted to them by the Constitution.

Madison finishes “Consolidation” with a call for those who lean on either side of the confederate/national divide to work together “to maintain the various authorities established by our complicated system,” for he knew that liberty was in both of their interests. Writing in 1792, Madison proclaimed, “partitions and internal checks of power” can never be “the chief palladium of constitutional liberty.” The primary guardians of the republic must be the people, its authors, and “their eyes must be ever ready to mark, their voice to pronounce, and their arm to repel or repair aggressions on the authority of their constitutions.” As the people acted through their states to create the federal government, so also they must act through their states to control it. 

To attach citizens more closely to liberty in this republic, they must become more attached to their states, and this involves partly a battle for the imagination. Alexander Hamilton assumed that citizens would always have a “natural attachment” to as well as “be apt to feel a stronger bias toward their local governments, than towards the government of the union,” calling such affection the “great cement of society” and “a complete counterpoise” to the power of the federal government. However, with deracination in modern times, this preference should no longer be assumed. In creative ways, federalism must somehow be made part of the music of our regime again. We should teach our children well to take pride in their home state and to understand that doing so makes them more, not less, American. Practical ways this can be accomplished are by studying and retelling our state’s history, constitution, and stories of heroes and by flying our state flag next to the stars and stripes, both on our lapels and our porches. All the while we should not neglect trying to rebuild the national consolidation of affection for our founding declaration about justice, that all men are created equal and therefore should stand equal before the law. This is not an encouragement to some kind of worship of the state but a commonsense acknowledgement that what is not secure in the imagination will neither be secure in reality. 

We are not only kidding ourselves, but we are ignoring the arguments of the Founders if we think we can preserve liberty on such an extensive territory without robust federalism. It was part of a rallying cry this past election that if liberty and justice are to be restored and secured in these United States, the people must believe that their voice can be heard. But much more than that, they must also desire and believe that they can govern themselves better than a centralized administrative state can. To do that, they should reassert that ours is not a consolidated democracy but in fact a federal, constitutional republic.

 

A recent Washington Post article claimed that states in America are a relic of its past and should be disposed of for the sake of greater economic and governing efficiency. We should expect such an argument coming from a D.C. newspaper. Of course, this is primarily a reaction against the existence of the Electoral College and yet another immature complaint about the election results, but it is something more than that; it is a full admission of complete ignorance about the nature of our country, these United States, and a willful forgetting of the purpose of federalism as a load-bearing wall that restrains tyrannical government in the architecture of our republic.

During the ratification debates, Anti-Federalists objected that the proposed constitution would consolidate the states into a single nation that could not but destroy their liberty. While the Federalists agreed that a consolidation of the states over such a large territory (then only thirteen states!) would destroy liberty, they argued forcefully that the proposed constitution would certainly not constitute a full consolidation of the states. Ours is famously neither a “wholly national nor wholly federal” constitution, according to James Madison. The Founders on both sides of the great debate agreed that a consolidation of the states would be detrimental to liberty, though they disagreed about whether the proposed constitution would accomplish such a consolidation.

After the Constitution was ratified, Madison expressed his fears that the federal government was in fact tending toward such a consolidation that would render popular movements for justice -- and therefore liberty -- ineffectual. In 1791, in an anonymous essay titled “Consolidation,” Madison wrote of two dangers that would necessarily follow consolidation: there must be first be,

“so great an accumulation of powers in the hands of [the president] as might by degrees transform him into a monarch. The incompetency of one Legislature to regulate all the various objects belonging to the local governments, would evidently force a transfer of many of them to the executive department…. Second, were the state governments abolished, the same space of country that would produce an undue growth of the executive power, would prevent that controul [sic] on the Legislative body, which is essential to a faithful discharge of its trust, neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.”

Madison explains that if administrative centralization replaces local state governments, it will expand the prerogatives of the executive and render the people’s voice silenced and their consent reduced to a mere choice of administrators. He goes on to write that, though an administrative consolidation in the United States would be ruinous to liberty, the success of the federal republic depended on a consolidation of “interests and affections.” For the Founders, such common interests included the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives from all the states, that imply a right to self-government and genuine consent. Moreover, such common affections are necessary, Madison writes, to “consolidate their defence of the public liberty.” So what is needed is a consolidation of interest in and affection for self-government, consent, and liberty -- not greater efficiency through centralization.

We have had sufficient evidence during the last eight years that there is a growing divide and breakdown of common interests and affections in the United States. The left seems to have been quite successful at replacing the idea of a common good, especially justice, with the idea of identity politics and opposing goods with its concomitant form of “social” justice. We have also had sufficient evidence of the attempt to centralize everything from immigration to education to bathrooms in the hands of the executive branch. But it is only with this election that we now see proof of an actual desire from the left to do away with states completely and a belief that states as intermediary powers are not pillars of support to liberty but actually anachronistic obstructions to it.   

Montesquieu first articulated the modern idea of federalism as a fortification for liberty, and his thoughts greatly influenced both sides of the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate. Less than fifty years after American founding, Alexis de Tocqueville described what administrative centralization -- without the check of intermediary powers like states -- had been doing to liberty in France and would certainly do in America also if allowed; he famously described the effect that it had on the citizenry as “soft” despotism. No matter how dear or how sweet greater efficiency may seem to the consolidationists, they can only be purchased at the price of the chains of bureaucracy and administrative slavery. 

To the plethora of hindsight explanations for the recent election of Donald Trump, I will add mine. In the 1790s, Madison and other Democratic-Republicans worried that the American people were losing their ability to govern themselves and were instead being ruled by a cadre of Federalist elites. The election of Thomas Jefferson, the “Revolution of 1800,” put these fears largely to rest, along with the viable existence of the Federalists as a political party. Whether rightly or wrongly time will tell, but the American people have spoken in this election, and they have declared that they will not be ruled by an oligarchy of elitists and an administrative state that calls injustice justice. Donald Trump is no Thomas Jefferson, but we should take comfort in the fact that large portions of the American people are apparently as liberty-loving today as they were in 1800. A Trump presidency may prove to be just as prone to federal overreach as Obama’s, but one thing the left and the right need to understand is that a robust form of federalism is one of the best ways to limit the prerogatives of the executive by retaining to the states the powers granted to them by the Constitution.

Madison finishes “Consolidation” with a call for those who lean on either side of the confederate/national divide to work together “to maintain the various authorities established by our complicated system,” for he knew that liberty was in both of their interests. Writing in 1792, Madison proclaimed, “partitions and internal checks of power” can never be “the chief palladium of constitutional liberty.” The primary guardians of the republic must be the people, its authors, and “their eyes must be ever ready to mark, their voice to pronounce, and their arm to repel or repair aggressions on the authority of their constitutions.” As the people acted through their states to create the federal government, so also they must act through their states to control it. 

To attach citizens more closely to liberty in this republic, they must become more attached to their states, and this involves partly a battle for the imagination. Alexander Hamilton assumed that citizens would always have a “natural attachment” to as well as “be apt to feel a stronger bias toward their local governments, than towards the government of the union,” calling such affection the “great cement of society” and “a complete counterpoise” to the power of the federal government. However, with deracination in modern times, this preference should no longer be assumed. In creative ways, federalism must somehow be made part of the music of our regime again. We should teach our children well to take pride in their home state and to understand that doing so makes them more, not less, American. Practical ways this can be accomplished are by studying and retelling our state’s history, constitution, and stories of heroes and by flying our state flag next to the stars and stripes, both on our lapels and our porches. All the while we should not neglect trying to rebuild the national consolidation of affection for our founding declaration about justice, that all men are created equal and therefore should stand equal before the law. This is not an encouragement to some kind of worship of the state but a commonsense acknowledgement that what is not secure in the imagination will neither be secure in reality. 

We are not only kidding ourselves, but we are ignoring the arguments of the Founders if we think we can preserve liberty on such an extensive territory without robust federalism. It was part of a rallying cry this past election that if liberty and justice are to be restored and secured in these United States, the people must believe that their voice can be heard. But much more than that, they must also desire and believe that they can govern themselves better than a centralized administrative state can. To do that, they should reassert that ours is not a consolidated democracy but in fact a federal, constitutional republic.

 

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