Federalism in Name Only Undermines Liberty at Home and Peace Abroad

Recently, Dan Gelernter offered readers an updated diagram of the three branches of government:

This is his snapshot of the national government we now have: one that regulates every aspect of our lives, drags us into fruitless wars, and has replaced the federal government conceived and built by the founders.

How did America lose its way so badly? That is a story with many chapters of course, but the turning point was 1913. 

The original federal government explicitly had limited powers. Here is James Madison in Federalist 45:

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 . . .

The federal government was to address “external objects” such as “war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce.” John Jay, who would become the first chief justice of the United States, argued the individual states needed a United States to be able to build and maintain a navy capable of defending American shipping and protecting Americans from being taken into slavery by the jihadis then known as the Barbary pirates. That successful war by the new United States is how “the shores of Tripoli” got into the Marines’ Hymn.

The Constitution assigned the federal government “few and defined” powers because of its limited purpose. Its primary focus was to be those external matters better dealt with by a single governmental entity instead of leaving each state to fend for itself among the nations of the world. 

Under the Constitution, the states retained all their powers except for those specifically delegated to the federal government. Madison continues:

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.

But today the central government rides roughshod over the states and regulates the lives of every American citizen to an extent that would have horrified the founders. The Supreme Court offered a glimpse of a healthy federalism in its recent Dobbs decision, but Dobbs pales into insignificance in the shadow of the vast and utterly unconstitutional monstrosity that stretches from the FDA and the Federal Reserve to the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education. When we had a real federal government, it was part of a federal system. In the absence of that system, the government in Washington, D.C. is “federal” in name only. 

The important point here is that the political independence of the states in the older, actual federal system was the mainstay of American liberty. Lord Acton, the great historian of liberty, put it this way:

Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.

Jefferson spoke for the founders’ commonsense understanding of the effect of concentrating powers into one body: 

What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.

Today, the central government in Washington, D.C. can regulate every aspect of our lives because along the way the states were neutered and federalism was abandoned.

When exactly did America abandon federalism, and how were the states neutered? We can date the turn with startling precision. The United States abandoned federalism on April 8, 1913, the day the 17th Amendment was ratified. It provided for the popular election of senators by the people of the individual states, the system we have now. Up until that day, the two senators from each state were chosen by the state legislatures. Consequently, before April 8, 1913, because the legislatures of “the several States” controlled the Senate, they had some control over the federal government. The founders’ purpose in having the Senate constituted by the state legislatures was to guarantee the federal system. 

The 10th Amendment, the final of the 10 amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, made explicit the central tenet of the federal system:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution . . . are reserved to the States respectively . . .

The founders’ design for the election of senators gave the states the political power to maintain the federal system. The original Senate could prevent the federal government from usurping powers reserved to the states. Once senators no longer had to answer to their state legislatures, the governments of “the several States” were essentially shoved aside. Federalism was finished. As Acton and the founders would have predicted, the central government began to transform itself into the thing it is today and American liberty went into rapid decline.

By ratifying the 17th Amendment, Americans in effect repealed the 10th Amendment, though they mostly did not realize that was what they were doing. Progressives cleverly sold the 17th Amendment as “electoral reform.” 

Everything changed in 1913, at home and abroad. Woodrow Wilson took office that year, and he and his fellow Progressives got busy laying the foundations of the new Progressive State of America, which replaced the United States of America. They also abandoned the founders’ commonsense foreign policy, which is easy to summarize: We mind our own business and leave other peoples to mind theirs. The story of how the Progressives replaced the founders’ prudent foreign policy with their ruinous worldview is brilliantly told in Angelo Codevilla’s magnificent book America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations. When America was the common sense nation, as it was once known, it naturally had a common sense foreign policy. The Progressives instituted a very different foreign policy, the results of which we can see all around us.

The states must be restored to their proper place in the federal system if we are to live again in the liberty at home and the peace abroad that the founders intended for us. Much will be required of us to accomplish that noble purpose. Not the least of our tasks will be the repeal of the 17th Amendment. Repealing that amendment, of course, will not be enough. What is required of us as a nation is re-dedicating ourselves to the American idea. Then all can be accomplished. We can restore the states to their rightful place in the American system of liberty, and reclaim American liberty for ourselves.

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