American Federalism

In 1776, our founding fathers set out to construct a new system of government, one in which all power would be given by the very same people it was designed to govern.  This new government would be forged from the successes and strengthened against the failures of the great historical civilizations while embracing the new thoughts and ideas of the enlightenment period.  These new ideas centered on a common experience of the American pilgrims: that men could rule themselves better than any king or legislature.  This great “American Experiment” soon changed and inspired the rest of the world, but it has always had its critics.  At the time of the revolution, there were those who were loyal to the British Crown, later, some sought a constitutional monarchy, and today there is growing support for a more European style social democracy.

In contrast to these views, our federal republic was formed to keep society’s power where it is most easily managed by its citizens, with limited central control, and vast diversity and activity at the local level.  Over our nation’s history there has been a migration of power to the national level, where it is more easily manipulated by politicians and lobbyists, and is out of reach for the common citizen.  As this process has continued, American government has grown inefficient in addressing the needs of its citizens and clumsy in the implementation of regulation.  This has caused many to become disenfranchised with our republic and look for ways to fundamentally transform our system of government.  What these individuals fail to realize is that the reason our republic functions so poorly is because it has been operating in a manner wholly inconsistent with its original design.  If this republic is to be restored to a proper order and balance, it will require a more comprehensive education and involvement amongst its citizens at the local level and a restoration to its original purpose and design at the national level.

In the history of governments, American Federalism is rather new.  Many would argue that Communism, and its younger brother Socialism, is a more recent addition to the political arena, yet at its most basic, communal living is based on ideas as old as humans themselves.  The trouble with these systems, and even systems such as Democracy, is a matter of scale.  In a small, isolated community almost any form of government can be successful.  Property and goods can be held communally or privately with great success in either case.  Where trouble lies is when these theories are applied to large civilizations.  In these cases, the connection with those the government serves is lost, and governments become increasingly unjust and corrupt.  Whether control is held by a single individual, a party, or many differing factions, government will become oppressive of those who are not of the majority, or those who have no voice.

Where a republic differs from other systems is in its ability to manage large empires effectively.  “The large republic is more diverse and more moderate … making it more difficult to put together a majority” (Mansfield 11).  As demonstrated in Greece and Rome, republics have been successful in their time.  Even so, republics too are vulnerable to corruption.  This corrosive element has led to the downfall of all governments throughout the ages.  Our founding fathers sought “to make an ‘experiment for mankind’ to see whether a republic can actually be ‘good government’” (Mansfield 9).  Not only did our founding fathers hope to design a good republic, they also desired to create a government that would last through the ages.

The American republic and its federalist system were designed for a largely independent and educated population.  The early colonists were not used to having much government involvement in their lives.  Their ancestors had come to America to escape the same government control, and they were generally distrusting of anything a government promised or imposed.  The Americas lingered in a state very close to anarchy for a very long time, with each settlement devising its own laws and punishments.  If an individual did not agree with the way his settlement was run, he could leave and live on his own terms.  This environment was successful for quite a while before the British began to regulate American society in its own interests.  This caused a great deal of resentment from the colonists, who saw this interference as a great injustice and an affront to their way of life.  It is in this environment that our republic was crafted.

The first attempt at a colonial government was a confederation of largely independent States.  These States authorized a federal government to act on their behalf, yet insisted on making all decisions at the State level; “creating the weakest possible form of national government … [recognizing] that government was a ‘living creature’ that would seek to grow in power at the expense of personal freedom” (Beck, “Common Sense” 44).  This severely weakened the national government to a point that it could not achieve any of its responsibilities.  The founders saw this and began work on a new government that could achieve its national responsibilities without becoming so powerful that it would become oppressive of the States.  The Federal system that emerged from these negotiations has now endured for over 200 years and inspired the leaders of many revolutions and nations to reform their own governments.  This constitutional framework outlined a very specific and limited purpose: “defense of the members; the preservation of public peace; … the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries” (Hamilton, “XXIII” 119).  All other responsibilities were to be left to the States.

Freedom and power can be charted along a three-dimensional scale.  The fulcrum or point of balance for this scale rests somewhere in the middle and depends greatly upon the people a government is intended to rule over.  At one point of this scale is Communism, with Fascism opposing it at the other side (Skousen 9).  This part of the scale represents the way many Europeans view politics, that “fascism and communism are opposites.  In reality, they are closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space” (Goldberg 7).  European political theory attempts to achieve a balance somewhere in between these Totalitarian governments.  There is, however, a third point to this scale, which can best be described as anarchy.  This point represents no governmental power and total individual power.  In other words, our “American Founders considered the two extremes to be ANARCHY on the one hand, and TYRANNY on the other” (Skousen 10).  So across the top of our equilateral triangle we have forms of totalitarian government where individual freedom is non-existent and government is supremely effective and efficient.  At the opposing point is anarchy where there is absolute freedom yet no security or order.  Jonah Goldberg, in his book Liberal Fascism, describes Benito Mussolini’s definition of the term Totalitarian as “not a tyrannical society but a humane one in which everyone is taken care of and contributes equally … where every individual was part of the larger whole” (80).  Traditional thought has always believed that people need a government to take care of or manage them, but our founders believed government was a necessary evil.  American federalism was to be balanced as closely to anarchy as practical.  Our founders realized a pure state of nature would not be suitable for the growth of business nor would it protect the population from the elements of society that prey on the weak and vulnerable.  They had, however, seen that a government, given total power, would corrupt business, destroy competition, and would use the plight of the weak and vulnerable to further enrich and empower itself.  Harvard University Professor, Harvey Mansfield, described the size of government envisioned by our founders saying: “Government cannot be kept small by forbidding it to do what it must do.  … Limited government needs to be limited not in its power but in its scope” (13).  The founders believed that the people would always be able to fix any problem government encountered if power was accessible to them.  They therefore devised a federal system where the national government had power only in foreign matters and disputes between States.  The States would continue to hold most power locally where representatives were accessible to their constituents and the local problems were better understood and dealt with.

From the very first legislative session it was obvious that collection of power to the national level would be inevitable, this was not, however, unplanned.  Just as there is competition for power between the branches of the national government, there is also a competition between the States and the national government.  When one layer of government begins to be abusive of its citizens, the people can appeal to the other; this arrangement eventually enabled the freeing of southern slaves.  As the north appealed to the national government to end slavery and to even the playing field between the southern slave-based economy and the mostly slave-free north, the federal government necessarily overstepped its boundaries in dealing with the south.  In response, the south seceded and began a civil war.  While not diminishing the ultimate good this action caused by freeing the slaves, it is important to note the damage that this period did to the rights of States and their relationship with the national government.  This period cemented in the minds of the people the ultimate authority of the national government over the States, rather than them being equal parts in a whole.  This attitude has snowballed and still persists today.  The States look to the national government for funding and direction over countless decisions and programs that they have the right and power to direct unilaterally.  Another detriment to this competition for power was the loss of the Senate to popular vote.  The Senate was originally conceived as the Federal representation for the States’ interests in the legislature.  When this representation was given to the people directly the States lost much of their ability to influence national debates and resist intrusion in their authority by the national government.  This erosion of States’ power has continued through the process of incorporation where the protections from the federal government that citizens enjoy have also been forced upon the States.  While it is difficult to argue that this is in error, these decisions too have had a great impact on the diversity in style of governance between States, homogenizing them, and adding one more limit to the powers they possess.

From the very beginning there have been those who have worked within our federal system to alter and tweak it into something more of their liking.  This is a good thing, as our government was meant to be representative of the desires of the people.  However, at the turn of the 19th century a movement began to materialize, the goal of which was to drastically alter our republic into something more intellectually fashionable for the time.  This movement, which eventually became known as progressivism, boasted a better way where government took the reins and guided society through planning and regulation, where “problems are always solved by issuing more edicts or laws, setting up more bureaus, [creating] more regulators, and charging the people for these ‘services’ by continually adding to their burden of taxes” (Skousen 11).  This “progressive” approach professes to remove risk and ensure prosperity for everyone, ultimately assuming that “a cap on success is an appropriate price to pay for also having a cap on failure” (Beck, “Original Argument” 44).  With such fantastic claims, this movement gained vast popularity throughout the country.  Even as free-thinkers worldwide looked to America as an example of how man could rule himself and achieve prosperity, many in America looked abroad at updated flashy versions of the same tired ideas that had been oppressing humanity for generations untold.  President Woodrow Wilson, a pioneer in American progressive policy, outlined in his work Congressional Government the belief that government “falls not under the [Newtonian] theory of the universe, but under the [Darwinian] theory of organic life” (qtd. in Goldberg 86).  There were, and still persist, various progressive theories, many not even compatible with each other, which all worked together to achieve their ends, transforming American government into a European style planned society.  The primary concern with this approach is that, while “Progressives … say they believe in progress, … they have no way to define it because they have no fixed end toward which it might evolve. … [they provide only] a constitution of aimless ‘change’” (Mansfield 10).

While the nation enjoyed the increased prosperity that limited government produced, progressive ideas continued to fester and become main-stream.  In the 1920s “American entrepreneurs produced the most vibrant eight year burst of manufacturing and innovation in the nation” (Schweikart 538).  As the 1920s came to a close; however, a historically common, yet unanticipated event occurred.  The stock market crashed, causing a wave of uncertainty and financial struggle across the country.  The crash was so intense because it mirrored the excessive growth the era had achieved.  While not completely understood at the time, such events were not uncommon; only the magnitude was a surprise.  Many progressives looked at the state of the economy and determined that they could fix it, and even prevent such events, through government intervention.  While the economy quickly recovered, progressives devised plans to not only manage society in their utopian government, but to manage the economy as well.

When the stock market again crashed in the 1930s, the progressives’ ideas had fully infiltrated popular political opinion and although they saw early resistance, they were slowly enacted to manage the new recession, plunging it further into the great depression we all know.  When things finally did begin to turn around, they did so slowly, as the economy was uncertain due to all the government interference.  With programs like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and many others, the era’s progressive agenda was furthered at the expense of American individualism.  This new thinking is best illustrated by the words of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “The New Nationalism” in which he said:

“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used.  It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing any damage to the community.  We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” (qtd. in Beck, “Original
Argument” 64)

This new socialist attitude demonstrated a dramatic break from individualism and the founding principles of America, laying the groundwork for a new generation of citizens that would become more and more dependent on the government.  In fact, Teddy Roosevelt, a product of “milk water socialism … which was ‘the belief that it was unfair for anyone to be poor … [and that we must] eliminate this unfairness by siding with poorer over richer, worker over capitalist’” (Schweikart 555), championed a progressive income tax and national health insurance (Beck, “Common Sense” 64).

Many in today’s society look at the Constitution and our federal framework and think it is outdated and incapable of handling a modern society and its problems.  Andy Stern, former president of SEIU, recently proclaimed that our system of checks and balances has “become an impediment to making the changes necessary to keep America competitive”.  This could not be further from the truth.  Because our republic was designed to manage the instinctive nature of mankind it is timeless and adapts easily to new technology and social patterns.  There are many problems facing America today, but there are solutions to be found in our founding documents and their original interpretations.  It is not necessary to hand over our freedoms to others in order to secure a stable environment.  The nature of mankind has not changed, and therefore the Constitution is still the supreme structure to organize a modern society, so long as the people seek to maximize personal liberty and responsibility.

Social issues are a very tough topic in modern America, just as they were at the time of the founding.  When so many people are governed by the same entity it becomes very difficult to accommodate their differing beliefs and desires.  It is impossible to create a large society where everyone thinks and behaves the same way.  It is counterproductive and results in everyone feeling oppressed in one way or another.  Under the original federal model, the States were able to enact vastly different policies.  This allowed for the various differing populations of the United States to enact and promote their own social contracts.  Under this model it is entirely possible for both a Socialist and a Laissez Faire capitalist State to operate in the same federal system therefore accommodating the differing views of their populations.  This simple principal could also be applied to any other debates such as marriage, education, retirement, and health care.  The necessity that the entire United States must be confined to any one solution for any of these problems is not necessary, or logical, considering the diversity of opinion entailed.

The Constitution and words of our founders also provide a blueprint for interaction with other nations.  It is common for those who believe we should not be involved in the affairs of other nations to be labeled as isolationists, a term similar in attitude as that of a “flat-earther,” but these reactions are not always warranted.  It was the opinion of many of our founders that we should leave other nations to their affairs.  This does not mean we do not trade or ally ourselves, to some degree, with other nations.  We instead should maximize our influence throughout the world by trading with all friendly nations and not indulge ourselves in self-righteous conquests such as nation-building or spreading democracy throughout the world.  It is not our duty to overturn corrupt governments nor is it our right to replace them so long as they do not present a clear and undeniable threat to our own way of life.  If those in other countries are truly ready for the responsibilities that come with democratic and republican rule, then they will take that power into their own hands much the same as we did for ourselves 200 years ago.  The best thing we can do for them is to provide a clear example of how man can achieve and maintain self-rule and beware the contradictions that have plagued our reputation for many years.

The most serious problem we currently face as a nation, if we aim to restore our nation to the principals that made this nation great, is the current culture of dependence that has been increasingly fostered over the last hundred years.  The idea that the Federal government can solve our problems is the root cause for many of our government’s failings.  It is simply being required to do things it was not designed to do, for people who deep-down would be happier doing those things themselves.  If we once again educate children in civics and basic economics, then couple that knowledge with a drive to succeed without anyone else’s help, we will begin to see the entrepreneurial spirit reborn and the individualist nature begin to resurface in America.  When this happens it will, as it has always done in the past, lead to more innovation and prosperity.

Our current business market prizes self accomplishment and enrichment above all else.  Greed, while a negative human trait, is harnessed by capitalism and put to use for the common good.  It is when greed is not monitored by ethical standards nor punished by stigma and shame, that capitalism becomes corrupt.  It is the job of the media and the people to punish those who bend the rules in business.  When a company makes decisions that negatively affect its shareholders, employees, or the public, it is the job of a well-informed citizenry to call them out on their decisions and to not support them with theirs or the public’s money.  The government unarguably has a role to play with the prosecution of criminal acts in business.  These crimes should earn harsher punishments for those responsible no matter their position.  The current policy of micromanaging the market through government regulation encourages companies to constantly find new and more creative ways of bending the rules or violating the spirit in which the rules were passed.  Such policy also stifles good competition through fear that simple oversights will result in bureaucratic nightmares.  Many beneficial products are never produced for fear of legal eccentricities and persecution.

Political power in America has become far too centralized.  This power is meant to fluctuate between branches and levels of government so that such power can be kept from those elements that currently seek to abuse it.  Regrettably, this feature of Federalism has been all but forgotten; allowing the collection of more and more power to the national levels where it is nearly impossible for the people to have any effect on legislation and orders which have drastic effect on their everyday lives.  This collection can only be described as fascistic in nature, as it deprives power from the people and then wields it against and upon them.  One of the most effective tools used to collect power centrally is to use crisis and emergency “because it short-circuits debate and democratic deliberation.  Hence all fascistic movements commit considerable energy to prolonging a heightened state of emergency” (Goldberg 43).  The founders foresaw the need of the Federal government to occasionally exercise unrestricted power in the case of national emergencies like war, however, they may have failed to see that “government might one day consider every day to be an emergency” (Beck, “Original Argument” 342).

The American political environment has become far too polarized and professional.  Our founders saw political office as a calling for those with mental talent and passion for liberty and their country.  Regarding political parties, George Washington said “They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party” (Washington).  By voting partisans into office and propelling them into careers in government, we have destroyed one of the most effective checks on government power and oppression, the will of the common man, because “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of … [the] majority” (Madison, “X” 44).  Our voice is not heard by our legislatures because we have not voted for representatives; instead we have voted for self-interested and ambitious characters who are actors at best, but are more often swindlers and double-talkers.  Few of them seek the betterment of society; instead they seek recognition, fame, and legacy.  These career politicians hold office contrary to the wishes of our founders.  Due to the dereliction citizens have performed in regard to their duty to educate themselves in political matters and to vote, we all too often reelect or support incumbents based on party affiliation rather than their worthiness to possess public authority.  We no longer instill the fear the founders wished political leaders to harbor regarding “the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised” (Hamilton, “LVI” 316).  It is vital that Americans begin to vote for individuals in their community, nominating the best producers and the most passionate defenders of the American way of life.

Alexander Hamilton expressed the dilemma of government and liberty best when he wrote in support of our constitution:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (“L” 285)

If we intend for our collective future a society that is accepting of differing opinions, is innovative, and a leader in the world, we must nurture the individualist nature that personifies Americanism, and gradually restore the original balance of powers enjoyed at the foundation of this nation.  “The Constitution … is not a machine that runs itself.  Each generation has the responsibility to make it a success” (Mansfield 13).  As this new generation comes into its own it will inherit the duty to make our Federal Republic work, and with enlightenment and the resurgence of classic-liberal thought, we will once again inspire American individualism and restore our prosperity.



Works Cited

Beck, Glenn. Common Sense. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Print.

– – –, and Joshua Charles. The Original Argument – The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism – The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. New York: Broadway, 2007. Print.

Hamilton, Alexander. “No. XXIII – An Energetic Government Necessary to the Safety of the Union.” The Federalist. Ed. Goldman Smith. New York: Colonial, 1901. 119-123. Print.

– – –. “No. L – On Maintaining a Just Partition of Power Among the Necessary Departments.” The Federalist. Ed. Goldman Smith. New York: Colonial, 1901. 284-288. Print.

– – –. “No. LVI – Supposed Danger in the Plan of the Convention.” The Federalist.
Ed. Goldman Smith. New York: Colonial, 1901. 314-319. Print.

Madison, James. “No. X – The Numerous Advantages of the Union” The Federalist.
Ed. Goldman Smith. New York: Colonial, 1901. 44-51. Print.

Mansfield, Harvey. “The Wisdom of ‘The Federalist.’” New Criterion 29.6 (2011): 9-13. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 July 2011.

Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States.
New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Skousen, Cleon. The 5,000 Year Leap. US: NCCS, 1991. Print.

Stern, Andy. “American Idle.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 7 Apr. 2011.
Web. 2 Aug. 2011.

Washington, George. “Washington’s Farewell Address.” Avalon Project. Yale Law School. 1796. Web. 2 Aug. 2011.

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About Independent Thinker

As a twenty-something college student I am pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Law and Justice. I have a varied work experience including retail sales, management, loss prevention, and merchandising. I enjoy several hobbies including fishing, woodworking, auto repair, web design, programming, writing, and obviously politics. Politically I would consider myself socially moderate, and fiscally conservative. I am a tea party member and believe in original intent and a limited federal government. I believe most social issues can be effectively solved by state legislation, and that the federal government has no place in solving them. In the future I hope to attend law school to earn my J.D. and pass the bar in Utah. I hope to work as a prosecuting attorney with long term goals of public office in city and state governments, or appointment as a judge. We'll see if that happens.

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