Checks and Balances and the Federalist Debates

Posted on May 2, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Rerunning our series on the Federalist debates; here in part 5 we reach the wrangle over whether that proposed document gave the states any real power to check the power of the federal government.

As we saw in part 3, the federal government was given unlimited power to tax the states by the draft Constitution, in the name of national security. Anti-Federalists, and even some Federalists, were uncomfortable with this power. The Federalist idea was that the federal government would only tax the states heavily during times of war, and even then it would be forced to put any tax measure up for renewal every two years, so that Congress would have a chance to remove an unfair tax.

But Anti-Federalists argued that relying on a branch of the federal government (Congress) to check the power of the federal government was illogical. Congress would have to vote to check its own power to tax, and why would it? Who gives up their power like that? It would be unlikely that Congress would be that self-disciplined and have that kind of integrity.

The Federalist shot back that Congress was made up of representatives of the states. So if “Congress” was committing a crime, it was really the states committing it, because the people voted for their Representatives, who then voted (at that time) for their Senators. Elect good members of Congress and you won’t have to worry about Congress hurting the states. What happened to your faith in “republican virtue”, Anti-Federalists? The common people you see as so virtuous and protective of liberty will elect their own people to Congress, so there won’t be a problem.

The Anti-Federalists repeated their argument that any representatives who had to travel to a faraway federal government would eventually, inevitably, become corrupt, and put their own power and glory ahead of the people’s liberties. And when that happens, the states are left with no way to check federal power with the Constitution we currently have.

The Federalists tried to swagger through this argument, saying that the state legislatures had many ways to check federal power. Now, this was and is not true—the Constitution does not give the states any power to block federal legislation. It was just another version of the “republican virtue” argument, and the Federalists knew it. When the Anti-Federalists pointed this out, the Federalists responded with a shocking argument, in Paper 46.

First, they said, members of Congress will always put the states first:

“It has been already proved that the members of the federal will be more dependent on the members of the State governments, than the latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the [interests] of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side of the State governments, than of the federal government… whilst it will rarely happen, that the members of the State governments will carry into the public councils a bias in favor of the general government. A local spirit will infallibly prevail much more in the members of Congress, than a national spirit will prevail in the legislatures of the particular States. Every one knows that a great proportion of the errors committed by the State legislatures proceeds from the disposition of the members to sacrifice the comprehensive and permanent interest of the State, to the particular and separate views of the counties or districts in which they reside. …For the same reason, [the] members of the federal legislature will be likely to attach themselves too much to local objects. …Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.”

That is, just as members of state governments care more about getting benefits for their districts than they care about doing things for the good of the whole state, so members of the federal government will always be pushing their individual states’ wants and needs rather than trying to do good for the nation as a whole.

This is an odd argument for a Federalist to make: the Paper is saying that the federal government will never really benefit “national prosperity and happiness, but the prejudices, interests, and pursuits” of the states. So why have a federal government at all?

This question is begged as the Paper goes on:

“…should an [unfair] measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a [fair] measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”

In other words, if the federal government passes a law the states don’t like, they can just refuse to obey it, and embarrass the government. This is hardly an argument that will convince the American people to vote Federalist. Again, why have the federal government if it cannot–even should not–control the states and make them obey federal law?

It only gets worse:

“But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?”

Yes, the Federalist Paper is saying that if the federal government passed enough laws considered to be assaults on states’ rights and individual liberties, the states can just revolt. There can be a civil war, and the United States government can be overthrown as if it were a “foreign yoke”. (This argument, by the way, would be dredged up in 1860-1 by Southern states to justify secession, saying that it was legalized by the Constitution.)

So the power given to the states by the Constitution to check the federal government is resistance to and war on the federal government. This is hardly a system of checks and balances; it is a system of obedience or war. The Paper wraps up thus:

“The argument… may be put into a very concise form, which appears altogether conclusive. Either the mode in which the federal government is to be constructed will render it sufficiently dependent on the people, or it will not. On the first supposition, it will be restrained by that dependence from forming schemes obnoxious to their constituents. On the other supposition, it will not possess the confidence of the people, and its schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments, who will be supported by the people.

On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.” [emphasis added]

So the Anti-Federalists’ fears that the federal government will crush the state government is wrong—state governments will actually crush the federal government. How the federal government can be strong enough to hold the states together in a union, and represent them as a nation to the world, while being at the same time too weak to impose its own laws on the states for fear of civil war and disunion is a riddle.

The Federalists knew this. They tried in several Papers to address the problem that the states cannot check the federal government, but the truth was that in our Constitution they cannot, and secession and civil war are not sanctioned by the Constitution, while state obedience to federal law is sanctioned, and despite the protests to the contrary in Paper 46, if the states did try to secede the federal government would use military force to bring them back, as it did in 1861.

The Federalists wanted a strong central government, and they did not believe that it would inevitably become corrupted. They backed the radical experiment of federalism over the morass of confederation, and really did not have any way to prove to the American people that the federal experiment would work and the confederate experiment would not. They asked the American people to take it on faith that they could trust their federal government, and moved on, as we will, to their own vision of republican virtue.

Next: the Federalist vision of the American Republic

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Virtuous Republicanism and the Federalist Debates

Posted on January 21, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In part 2 of our series on the Federalist debates, we look at the pros and cons of a strong federal government as argued at the time.

The Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government local. They did not want to change the sections of the Articles of Confederation that gave power to state governments and relegated the federal government to handling defense and foreign relations. That is, they wanted a confederation, not a union, of sovereign states that decided on their own whether they would heed calls from the federal government for taxation, or a military call-up, or a foreign treaty, etc. For instance, as we’ll see later in this series, when Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government must have the right to tax the states, unilaterally, in time of war, the Anti-Federalist response was to say, why not have the federal government go to the states when it felt it needed to raise money for war and the states would vote on whether to pay it. To us today that seems unworkable at best, crazy at worst, but it is clearly grounded in English law: the monarch had to go to Parliament to ask it to levy a tax to fight a war. This was a check on the monarch’s power meant to keep a monarch from bankrupting the kingdom in endless or losing wars. Parliament decided whether it would grant the money or not, considering whether the tax was in the best interest of the people. On the other hand, it was the breakdown of this system that had led to the English Civil War in 1642.

It’s obvious that the Anti-Federalists were worried that a strong federal government would begin to tyrannize over the states, as the British government in London had tyrannized its American colonies. But that British tyranny was just a symptom of a larger problem to the Anti-Federalists: the loss of virtuous republicanism.

Enlightenment political theorists described a successful republic as fueled by the private virtue of its citizens. Serving the state selflessly, devoting one’s energies to ensuring that the state fulfilled the common good, was an end in itself in the ideal/successful republic. All republics in history had failed, said the theorists, because civic virtue broke down—corrupted by power, or weakened by lazy inactivity. Of all the types of government, republicanism alone depended on the dedication of its citizens to the greater good and virtue as an end in itself.

This kind of republican virtue could only exist locally, according to the Anti-Federalists. When do people care about government? When they own it. When local people in local bodies make local rules, when you know your representatives and live next door to them and do business with them, then government is honest and effective, because it is truly representative, and any participant who goes against the common good is quickly voted out of office. State governments run by locally elected reps who live among their constituents can’t go wrong, especially in America, where the common people had proved their great republican virtue during the Revolutionary War by keeping their elected governments running and their local militias fighting.

The chances of local state governments remaining uncorrupted were made even greater by the fact that state reps would be elected by, and would mostly be themselves, farmers. Thomas Jefferson is the most famous of the advocates of the virtue of the yeoman farmer. A romanticized view of men who were “close to the land, close to God” was very popular during the Federal period, and continues on to a certain extent to the present day. To quote just one of Jefferson’s typical effusions:

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”

(How a man who saw most farming done by enslaved men and women whom he described as incapable of virtue could wax so poetically so often is a riddle.) At any rate, farmers were seen as the polar opposites of bankers and businessmen: farmers did not make their money off of other people, did not get rich collecting interest on debt, etc. Farmers made an honest living working the land. Therefore, farmers should be the heart and soul of local government. Of course, in the late 1700s, the American economy was predominately agricultural, and most people were farmers, so to have a government run by farmers was not only possible, but natural, and truly representative.

To remove government from the states to a federal government, no matter how centrally located, was to strike a blow against republican virtue. Reps sent to that distant national capital would be necessarily distanced from their constituents, and lose touch with them. Local interests in one state would have to fight with the local interests of another state in the capital. State needs could be overruled by cooked-up “national needs”. Traveling to and from the capital, in an era when the nation had few good roads, meant reps would be on the road or in the capital most of the time, not living amongst their constituents. Farmers would not be able to be away from their farms for months at a time to do this, so citizens might stop electing farmers, people like them, and start electing urban businessmen who could wheel and deal more effectively, but, as a result of that, politics would become sleazy. And, crucially, local needs and local focus would take a back seat to national needs and national focus, which impinged on the sovereignty of the states—when you focus on national laws and taxes, you prioritize the national over the state/local, and the states become cogs in a machine rather than separate political entities. As the nation grew, any capital, no matter how centrally placed in 1787, would become distant and out of touch with its far-flung state citizens, and then tyranny inevitably beckoned.

Again, we recognize here an argument that has never died out of American politics. “Washington insiders” are “out of touch” with “the American people”, “Wall Street” tyrannizes over “Main Street”, and the world “outside the Beltway” has nothing in common with the world inside it. “Big government” is ruining the nation, and government itself “is the problem”. We still even like to idealize farmers, at least in produce and truck commercials. And the push to weaken the federal government and return more power and sovereignty to the states has been going strong since the 1980s.

But the belief that state governments, because they are smaller than the federal government, cannot become corrupt was strange in 1787 and it remains strange today. Power corrupts, and any entity given power runs the risk of corruption. We see corruption at all levels of our government, from city halls to state legislatures. If the federal government were wiped away tomorrow, and the states ran everything, local corruption levels would rise commensurately. Mayoral elections in cities large and small are generally characterized by claims that the candidates do not reflect or represent the people; the same thing happens in elections for state government and governorships. Our population is too diverse for any one person, to fully represent all her/his constituents. And gerrymandering and redistricting efforts make sure that no group of legislators can accurately represent the people of their state.

Yet that is exactly why we can’t completely discount the Anti-Federalists’ desire to pin government to citizen virtue. If everyone felt they really had ownership in their local government, they would work harder to safeguard that government. They would vote, and run for office, and insist on reps who really represented them. A representative democracy like ours is a rarity in the world; only a relative handful of nations really have truly representative democracies. And it does rely on its citizens’ virtue: they have to really believe in life, liberty, and justice for all, and be ready to put their fortunes and even their lives on the line for it. Our current federal government, as well as our state governments, work well only when stocked by people who have that kind of virtue.The Anti-Federalists were right to insist on this.

So how did the Federalists answer these domestic concerns? Find out next time.

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