American colonists’ commitment to self-governance began with the Mayflower compact and the colonial charters that brought many immigrants from Europe to America. During Britain’s neglect of colonials from 1620 (the arrival of the Pilgrims) up to 1763 (the signing of the Treaty of Paris to end the French-Indian war), the colonies enjoyed a period of great and far-reaching local control and autonomy, only adhering to British supremacy when it came to international commerce, relations with foreign nations, and regional, national and international threats to the British and by extension its colonies in North America (Dye 64-65, Ellis American Creation 23). Thereafter, the British started to reorganize the structure of the imperial system, in particular colonies and territories that were held overseas. This change in tactics meant that the British were taking more control over their territories, most specifically, having the territories pulled under the direct authority of Parliament. The colonists objected to this change in relationship and because of this constitutional difference, the American Revolution began as the British government and the colonies fought for supremacy (Ellis American Creation 23-24). In the lead up to and during the midst of the Revolution, the colonies gathered in the Continental Congress to coordinate efforts between them and formed their own version of national government to battle the efforts of the British. As they sought more cooperation, the Congress and its delegates formalized its commitments with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation (Dye 66). The articles took a while to take hold and in the end as Ellis states, “the Articles was not really a government at all, rather a diplomatic conference where the sovereign states, each of which regarded itself as an autonomous nation met to coordinate a domestic version of foreign policy. It was designed to be weak” (Ellis American Creation 88).
With the ineffectual Articles in full display, many prominent leaders, namely George Washington, James Madison, among others, watched as the dream they had fought for was fading away. Three events or issues saw to sharpen the focus of those concerned with the state of the country after the colonies won their independence. First, the rebellion of farmers in Western Massachusetts was an alarm bell for many in political establishment as it showed the ineffectiveness of the “national government’s” response to the crisis. Second, the failed Annapolis Convention where very few states attended making it clear that reform of the Articles wasn’t on the mind of state governments. Third, was Western lands and the ability for the government to provide for new avenues for citizens into the future (Ellis American Creation 95-96). Both Madison and Washington thereafter became convinced that reform wasn’t a viable strategy. With this in mind, they advocated calling a Constitutional Convention with prominent political figures from all colonies, and most of all the hero of the Revolution, George Washington being present at the Convention.
With the Convention called, two plans were put forward, one, the Virginia Plan at the very beginning of the Convention and the New Jersey plan after other delegates were able to come up with a solution of their own. The Virginia Plan most resembles state constitutions signed after the Declaration of Independence. Three separate branches of government, a bicameral legislature, an executive with a council and a judiciary chosen by the legislature. The New Jersey Plan most resembled the Articles of Confederation, a unicameral legislature, a judiciary, and an executive. It left most of the power in the states hands, except that it added the ability for the national government to conduct foreign policy and the ability to raise taxes (Dye 71). Ultimately a compromise was found in that they would blend the proposals to create a unique creation in the structure that the signed Constitution created. The battle would now shift to the state’s themselves. The most important being New York and Virginia, two states essential to the Constitution’s success. In preparation for the New York convention, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison would write the seminal work known as the Federalist Papers. They were pro-Constitution writings that tried to galvanize support in New York for the Constitution and often are used in present day as a guide to the founder’s intentions (Dye 84-85). As for the Virginia convention, Madison spent a great deal of time researching the history of past republics in Greece and other places. He would use this research to lay out the reason for the complex balance and structure of the American government (Ellis American Creation 103). Ultimately, Madison concluded after careful and thoughtful reflection that [the Constitution], “It is in a manner unprecedented. It stands by itself. In some respects, it is a government of federal nature; in others it is of a consolidated nature. “We the people” did not refer to one great body but the people composing thirteen separate sovereignties” (Ellis American Creation 123).
The Constitution was purposely created as a multi-faceted document that allowed for changes in structure and the adaptability to respond to the evolution of America as a nation-state. The balance of power between the states and the federal government in the American system of federalism is a complex beast like that of the Constitution itself. As the country grew in both territory and population, the government and its institutions had to adapt to the conditions and circumstances of the people within its confines. The use of amendments and the co-existence of state and federal structures make this possible and adaptable to changes in how the government and the citizenry react in crises and fundamental changes in composition.
In the more recent era, a new drive to change the balance from what was seen as lopsided toward the national government and move toward regaining power for the states. It began in earnest in Reagan’s administration and continued through George W. Bush’s administration. It has increasing become a conservative mantra that the federal government is “too powerful” and as such the federal government has to become lean and smaller as a result (Dye 225-227). Roe vs. Wade in 1973 and the Supreme Court’s decisions on Obamacare and Congress’ ability to tax are seen as signs that the federal government has overreached. What this view fails to comprehend and appreciate is that in both cases, the failure of states to properly and responsibly deal with the issues addressed made it necessary and proper for the federal government and more specifically the Supreme Court to weigh in. In each cases, both with abortion and with healthcare, a multitude of states applied and passed laws that didn’t give transference between them as necessary until the articles of the Constitution. In addition, when case outcomes from the Appeals Court sends mixed signals about the application of law, the Supreme Court must act as the final orbiter of the Constitution. Both of these issues cannot be sorted out on the state level as they involve fundamental rights that are expressed protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The use of the “necessary and proper” clause and of “general welfare” is part of where the ability of Congress to legislate on the idea of healthcare and the well-being, welfare, of its collective citizens. The right to an abortion, as the Supreme Court saw it, was given in the Bill of the Rights and thus protected from state interference.
A new threat to the traditional form of federalism is the internet as it changes many of the traditional equations of law, commerce, rights and so forth. In describing the implementation of internet sales tax laws, Bowman points out that “45 sales tax states will forgo approximately $11 billion in lost revenue from untaxed e-commerce sales” (18). Because many businesses use online sales, they are not currently taxed in a uniform manner like you would if the business had a physical location in a city. Also, because these businesses often cross many state lines to get merchandise to their customers, this scenario is a perfect case for the application of the commerce clause under the Congress’ legislative duties and functions. Since one of the chief sources of state revenue is sales tax, the government structures need to adapt to the changing landscape of commerce. Federal, state and local laws need to do the same, especially when it comes to e-commerce, internet and electronic laws as well as rights and responsibilities of government and citizen action.
Part of the challenges facing the government in the 21st century is the internet and the acceleration of technology as Bowman writes, “The expectations for e-government is high. Jurisdictions see it as a more efficient means for delivering information and services to citizens, but citizens tend to see it as a mechanism for making government more accountable” (18). This discussion about e-government will broaden the prism that Americans discuss and view the changing landscape in the context of the national and state government’s role in their lives.
The context of this discussion is not whether one is bigger than the other but rather if each is given the ability to exercise the efficiencies and constituencies that mold the sovereignty of each in ways that balance and regulate the diffusion of power. On some issues, the state does this better and on some others the federal government does. One is not inherently better than the other and the issue of supremacy is not a concept that will be resolved at any point. As Ellis points out in both of his books, the conversation is never one to be resolved, merely the context in which we discuss the issues of the day and continue in the tradition of our forefathers. Seeing both the music and words of the Revolution in the personas of Jefferson and Adams, we see the undulation of the American promise with an endless circling of traditions. Both are traditions of the American people and they will continue to circle each other as the wheels of time turn.
Bowman, Ann O’M. “American Federalism on the Horizon.” Publius: Vol. 32, No.2, The Global
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Dye, Thomas and Ronald Gaddie. Politics in America. Tenth Ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Creation. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.
Michaels, Jon D. “An Enduring, Evolving Separation of Powers.” Columbia Law Review,
Vol. 115 No. 3 (April 2015). pp.515-597. Web. 8 November 2015.