The officially accepted “history of America” as taught in government schools often presents us with information that is not quite entirely accurate, and cannot stand up to some serious scrutiny. One such example involves the drafting of the constitution. A public school history teacher would tell you that after the revolutionary war, the country tried their best to adopt the model of a loose confederacy, consisting of strong states and a weak centralized government. So far so good. But then they go on to tell you that this model was an abject failure that produced loads of problems and that everyone hated it. Usually the examples and the facts are lacking on this part.
In any case, the good founding fathers all got together and drafted a new plan for a nation with a strong central government, and everyone loved it so much that the entire country stood up and unanimously supported it and America was born and everything was awesome ever since. This, of course, is not even close to reality. Not everyone wanted a new government to replace the Articles of Confederation. Many delegates to the “Philadelphia Convention” (it wasn’t called a Constitutional Convention because those delegates whose intention was to replace the articles entirely did not admit so until after it began) walked out once it became apparent that the Federalists (those who supported the new constitution and its call for a stronger central government) intended to draft an entirely new government, something it had absolutely no legal authority to do. Others refused to sign the final document entirely, citing various potential problems with the proposed new system. There was much doubt as to whether the new constitution would be ratified in a majority of states, much less all of them. In many states, New York in particular, the anti-federalists (those who opposed ratification) were entrenched and ready to fight a long and protracted battle.
Fortunately, our hero Alexander Hamilton came along to fire up his propaganda machine, drafting a series of pamphlets and essays that would come to be known as The Federalist Papers. With his friends John Jay and James Madison, he would work hard to distribute writings which made the case that the anti-federalists were just a bunch of whiny, paranoid idiots who could not appreciate the obvious benefits of a strong centralized government. All of their concerns were brushed aside as ridiculous, as these three authors explained in great detail how the constitution was designed in such a way as to guarantee that the federal government could never become too big and too powerful.
Today, we recognize that they were wrong. The anti-federalists have been vindicated by history, as all of their fears and speculations as to how the constitution could create a tyrannical federal government have proven absolutely true, and have all occurred in our current reality. This fact goes unappreciated by the masses as a whole, acknowledged only by libertarians, and maybe a few paleo-conservatives, but it’s quite easy to prove. As an example, let’s visit Federalist 45, in which James Madison guarantees us that the constitution will absolutely ensure that strong state governments could never be pushed aside in favor of an all-powerful federal government. Here are a few selections, with my responses:
“The State governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former. “
Absolutely false. Today, it is the federal government that is an essential part of the state governments, and not the other way around. The states depend on federal funding for significant portions of nearly every significant program they “run.” Because of this, the federal government can come up with any tyrannical new rule, regulation, or standard it desires, and the states are forced to comply or lose the funding. If you or I did this, it would be known as extortion, and it would be illegal. On the other hand, the states are in no way essential to the federal government. The feds would happily assume power and control of any program or process the states were willing to allow them, and have already done so on multiple occasions.
“Without the intervention of the State legislatures, the President of the United States cannot be elected at all. They must in all cases have a great share in his appointment, and will, perhaps, in most cases, of themselves determine it.”
Also false. State legislatures have next to nothing to do with electing the President as of this date.
“The Senate will be elected absolutely and exclusively by the State legislatures. Even the House of Representatives, though drawn immediately from the people, will be chosen very much under the influence of that class of men, whose influence over the people obtains for themselves an election into the State legislatures.”
The first part was successfully eliminated by the progressives with the 17th amendment. The second part is simply false. Almost nobody knows who their State legislators even are (myself included), and they have no substantial influence on any federal election.
“The number of individuals employed under the Constitution of the United States will be much smaller than the number employed under the particular States. There will consequently be less of personal influence on the side of the former than of the latter.”
The truth of this statement depends on whether Madison is referring to any individual state, or all the states combined. As of the 2008 census, there were about 2.5 million federal employees, and 3.8 million employees of every state combined. Does this count as much smaller? Is there really less influence on the side of the federal than the state governments?
“compare the militia officers of three millions of people with the military and marine officers of any establishment which is within the compass of probability, or, I may add, of possibility, and in this view alone, we may pronounce the advantage of the States to be decisive.”
Overwhelmingly untrue. As of 2011, there are over 1.5 million active military personnel. This standing army (which nearly every founder would have vehemently opposed) has entirely replaced the militias of colonial times.
“If the federal government is to have collectors of revenue, the State governments will have theirs also. And as those of the former will be principally on the seacoast, and not very numerous, whilst those of the latter will be spread over the face of the country, and will be very numerous, the advantage in this view also lies on the same side. It is true, that the Confederacy is to possess, and may exercise, the power of collecting internal as well as external taxes throughout the States; but it is probable that this power will not be resorted to, except for supplemental purposes of revenue; that an option will then be given to the States to supply their quotas by previous collections of their own; and that the eventual collection, under the immediate authority of the Union, will generally be made by the officers, and according to the rules, appointed by the several States.”
This one is just laughable. No states department of revenue can hold a candle in size, scope, manpower, authority, or influence to the IRS. The federal government taxes us constantly at rates over 35%, with absolutely no input from the states whatsoever.
“Within every district to which a federal collector would be allotted, there would not be less than thirty or forty, or even more, officers of different descriptions, and many of them persons of character and weight, whose influence would lie on the side of the State.”
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
This is one of the most often cited sections of any of the Federalist papers in terms of having proved historically inaccurate. We currently have a situation in which the exact opposite is true. The federal government assumes whatever power it can possibly think of, leaving very few (and constantly decreasing) specifically defined powers that it allows the states to have. Most of the governmental policies that affect our daily affairs are decided at the federal, and not the state level. The federal government typically taxes us at a rate three times higher than our state, a fact which alone should inform a thinking person as to which is more powerful and more involved in our affairs.
In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay present the case for ratification of the constitution, and the case for a strong central government. However, they make it very clear that they are making this case under very specific circumstances. They are promising a government in which the federal power never grows large, corrupt, and out of control. Unfortunately, their promise has turned out to be unfulfilled. The circumstances they made the promise under are no longer present. If we are to assume that the writings of The Federalist were their completely honest opinions, we are forced to assume that they would despise the current state of affairs in America. And one could hardly blame them.
Note: Much of the material and inspiration for this post was obtained from the U.S. History lectures given by Kevin Gutzman on Tom Woods’s Liberty Classroom, of which I am an active member.