In the film A More Perfect Union, James Madison, played by actor Craig Wasson asks Benjamin Franklin, (Fredd Wayne) if the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had good government. Franklin barely takes a breath before replying, “Alas no. It is controlled by one faction or another.” That line–whether authentic or not, seems to resonate in the historic record.
The bloody struggle over slavery, followed later by the violence of the civil rights movement, provides the clearest examples of state governments hiding agendas behind the 10th Amendment, and it’s political progeny–the States’ Rights doctrine.
How did this misunderstanding begin? And why so quickly after the ratification of the tightly-scrutinized Constitution in 1787? How did controversy emerge almost at once challenging the authority of the Federal Government in relation to the state?
The answer lies in the industrious pen of Virginia Planter, Thomas Jefferson.
Now, whether Mr. Jefferson intended to condemn the nation to perennial disarray is open to debate, as we only have his letters and other writings to peer into his 18th Century thoughts. But the fact that he was serving as ambassador to the French Court during the productive Philadelphia Constitutional Convention speaks volumes to his resentment for being left out of the monumental proceedings. The final document, had Jefferson been in attendance, would have read much differently, if finished at all.
Once the American ambassador returned to America from his overseas post, he got busy undermining the newly established sovereignty of the Federal Government. As his philosophy took shape, Jefferson emerged the outspoken defender of states’ rights, heading an alliance of like-minded political leaders, forming America’s first opposition party: the Democratic Republicans. The essential philosophy of these primarily Southern Planters was to challenge the role of the new central government in their internal affairs. As a sectional ruling class these planters had no intention of taking orders from any entity beyond their local legislatures (which these men dominated). Sadly this states’ rights ethos born in the late 18th Century has surfaced for better than two centuries. Local power has protected itself at all costs, and this sophistry finds vilifying the Federal government useful.
In my home state the cry has once more raised in support of the 10th Amendment and States’ Rights. Why again have shrill voices denounced the role and power of the Federal Government? (and certainly the Feds are not perfect, red tape, outright mistakes, and conflicting policies have certainly made Washington look bad). Yet, there is a sense that the Government of the United States is inherently bad, and that local government just isn’t.
We as American citizens and residents of our states should question the motivation behind thickly spread political propaganda. Are local pubahs so in love with their political rhetoric they can’t work within the federal system? Is insider cronyism and privilege driving legislative decisions? Are those locally elected too limited in their understanding of the federal system, and too steeped in their political theories to develop sound state policies?
Here in Idaho, the itch to develop public lands for grazing, lumber or mining rights runs high. Rural folk, possessing scant understanding that public lands near their homes belongs to all of us and agitate for less restricted use. Unfortunately these demands for local control usually means gaining access to federally regulated resources on those public lands, with cattle, cross cutting, and excavating for various ores. The U.S. government, at the same time has the obligation to manage those resources, with an eye to safeguard the land for future generations.
Jeffersonian philosophy runs close to the surface out here, and rose loudly with the election of Barack Obama. Outraged disapproval grew clear when school districts around the state asked teachers not to broadcast President Obama’s message to students. Idaho’s kids didn’t need to hear from this mistake of a president! Even our Congressional delegation has to keep up the anti-government charade, and these politicians ran to serve in Washington DC–the highest level of government! Talk about compartmentalized thinking!
This divisive States’ Rights doctrine doesn’t work well for “We The People.” Local community and political leaders can too easily blur what they want, over what is best for the people of the state. Idaho has cut funding to Medicare and Medicaid, while losing one federal court challenge after another, paying thousands of dollars to stop Gay Marriage, Obamacare, and an unconstitutional Ag-Gag law to stifle farm animal abuse. That money could better be channeled to improving education, overcrowded prisons, and mental health support. Sometimes I think political leaders here forget what this state would lose in aid if not for the rest of America’s tax dollars. It’s like they’re glad to open the checks but feel no reciprocal responsibility to America.
The ideal of localized power favored by Jefferson’s theoretical reasoning just hasn’t worked out in reality, not even for him. Following the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, members of his own party lambasted the President for using powers the Chief Executive did not legally possess.
As for me? I’ll take the collective wisdom of the nationalistic framers of the Constitution, which included George Washington. Those 40 men understood what kind of union they intended to shape. Article IV of the the document couldn’t be much clearer;
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding..