The creed of States’ Rights is all smoke and mirrors; a cover for the selfish interests of local napoleons, and the politicians they bankroll. When claimed as the only answer to the country’s problems, beware, States’ Rights never solved a thing.
Not in America.
Ours is a one of a kind, federal system of concurrent powers. Centralized authority layers and folds, meshing with state and local governments.This dynamic has functioned for over two hundred years and the bonds are subtle and sometimes conflicting. The most lethal confrontation between state and federal powers clashed in the Civil War, 1861-65. But that particular catastrophe was certainly not the first.
During the Revolution, state delegations, in an attempt to unify the embattled nation, drafted a national blueprint called the Articles of Confederation. Attending representatives squabbled endlessly to defend their own local interests, rejecting any language that bound state autonomy. So jealous were the original Thirteen of one another, political leaders dragged ratification out, while barely a step ahead of pursuing Redcoats. The Continental Congress dashed across Pennsylvania, into Maryland, and back, still resistant to real, national authority.
John Dickinson of Delaware, drafted some elements into this fledgling plan, but his model wasn’t helpful. General Washington still had to beg Congress for recruits and soldier pay, and Congress, in turn, had to beg States to fill those needs. One bright note is Congress did agree to dispatch diplomats, like Franklin and Adams, who continued the begging game across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile States such as New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, happily traded with coin-rich Brits, filling their personal coffers, while ignoring the needs of the war effort. The prospects of an American victory grew grim, as each state dug in, defending their own turf. In fact, the Confederation Congress was so toothless, the document itself failed ratification until a month before Yorktown.
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 these thirteen quarreling kingdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over currency, nearly ended the budding union. At that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. Both men, in reality, intended to dump them for a different, stronger plan. Recently retired George Washington agreed with both men, and chaired this new convention, assembling in Philadelphia the summer of 1787, and a determined Constitutional Convention worked hard to remedy many of the new nation’s ills.
This lesson from the past remains relevant. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal costs of road construction, nor of fire fighting. The former administration’s Covid-19 policies have proven, again the futility, and folly of every state scrambling for themselves.
The events of January 6, 2021, and now with the Texas legislature attacking both voting rights, and a woman’s right to choose, similar concerns arise. Is American law no more than a vulnerable rope of sand in the hands of the states?
Fellow Americans, do not buy into the so called advantages of States’ Rights. Hidden interests cloaked in virtuous words distract us from national needs, while the favored few push their political agendas. It’s not an overstatement to say States’ Rights again threatens the good order the Framers labored to establish.
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.