The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that only exists in the selfish vacuum of political rhetoric. If exploited as the only answer to the country’s problems, remember States’ Rights never solved a thing. Not in America.
Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority layers with state and local governments simultaneously. This system has been functioning for over two hundred years.
The most lethal challenge to centralized authority erupted in the Civil War. But that bloody conflict was certainly not the first confrontation.
Years earlier, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the fledgling states, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation.
Much like assembling a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 tried to forge a national government to function through the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 States proved rather feeble in practice.
The fatal flaw woven into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Each delegation mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce deference, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress could not even gather enough votes to ratify the document until the end of the Revolution.
The sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. For example, states like Virginia and New York, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands would have helped offset mounting expenditures. And Congress, nearly bankrupt, with no real clout, could do little beyond promise to help Washington’s Army.
Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from desperate scarcity, the General admitted privately he believed “the game was nearly up.”
Drifting, rudderless, Congress fretted, begging for loans from abroad, and printing worthless paper money.
Worse, states such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with the coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers in pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked grim, each state dug in, defending their own interests first.
Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real prestige, inevitable bloodshed quickly ensued among the thirteen quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency exchange, nearly dissolved the fragile union.
In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely dump them for a new, stronger plan.
A recently retired George Washington chaired a new convention assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied many of the ills of the struggling nation.
This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state grasping for themselves.
The events of January 6, 2021 raises a similar question. Do we come out of this unrest a weakened and vulnerable rope of sand? Or does this Constitution sustain itself in this moment?
E Pluribus Unum
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.