Many conservatives like to think that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to limit the federal government, and they take comfort in the remark: “that government is best that governs least,” which is often passed off as being Jefferson’s or Paine’s. (Its authorship is not known.) If their assumptions were right, their “state’s rights” stand would be respectable, as would be their effort to curb the federal government’s power. But the actual history of the creation of our government gives more support to their opponents than it does to them. The constitution was written specifically to limit the powers of the states and to create a more powerful centralized government.
The First Continental Congress was called in September, 1774 to protest British treatment of the colonies. A second Congress was held in May, 1775 and met intermittently. Finally, on July 2, 1776, the representatives voted to declare independence and on July 4 they signed the Declaration of Independence, which announced this resolution to the world. But there was no government to support the volunteer army, and there wasn’t even a name for the new confederacy. It wasn’t until November of 1777 that the Articles of Confederation were approved, which declared that the name of this union would be “The United States of America.” The government was to consist of a single house with a single vote for each state, and it was empowered to establish post offices, to fix standards of weights and measures, to mint coins, to appoint all military and naval officers, to appoint and receive ambassadors, to regulate Indian affairs, to declare war, and to make peace. The states feared any steps towards nationalization and it took until March of 1781 to get them to agree to this union, feeble as it was. It lacked executive and judicial branches; could not regulate trade between the states themselves or between the states and foreign countries; could not enforce the raising of troops; and could not even compel the collection of taxes.
It was an absolute failure, as the phrase, “not worth a ‘continental’” (the currency issued by the Continental Congress) makes clear. It was obvious that something much stronger was needed and a Constitutional Convention was held in 1787. This group thrashed out a plan for a truly national government with an executive branch, a judicial branch, and a bicameral legislative branch. This government was given the power to compel the states to comply with treaties, to control interstate commerce, to enforce the collection of taxes, and to raise an army and navy. It was, of course, supported by all of those who stood to profit by it, but it also gained the support of those wise enough to see that there was little hope of survival for the young country unless something like it was approved. (There had already been an insurrection in Massachusetts—Shay’s Rebellion.) Farmers who exported their produce favored the new government, but rural subsistence-farmers opposed it, and this spelled trouble since such farming was widespread.
As a consequence, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, and these are the best contemporary accounts of the problems the Constitution was written to address. In Federalist 22, Hamilton lists a few of these. 1) Regulation of commerce. This was particularly important because the states violated trade agreements made by the federal government with other countries, and as a result, foreign governments were reluctant to enter into such treaties. 2) Power to raise armies. The existing system, which relied on the states to fill quotas they were committed to providing, presented many problems. 3) Equal representation. Since each state was given one vote in the existing government, the votes of individual voters in populous states were not given the same weight as those of voters in less populous ones. 4) A Supreme Court. As there was no judicial branch, the existing government had no way of defining what the laws meant, and this led to endless confusion. Against a great deal of opposition, the Constitution was adopted.
Of course, the government has grown over the years, as it must. There are now 50 states instead of 13. The population has grown from less than 3 million to 300 million. National highways unify the country and these must be developed under the control of the federal government, not the states. New technologies (oil, gas, telephone, microwave, etc.) span it from coast to coast. Complicated agreements tie us to the whole world. Our national interests—and these are the interests of all of the states—require that every state provide adequate education for its children, equal protection for its citizens, and a myriad services. The same thing is true of health care. This is all in the spirit of the Constitution.
In 1776, Thomas Paine, thinking of America as a model for the world, said that “the cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” Hamilton argued in Federalist 1 that Americans were in the unique position of being able to establish “good government by reflection and choice” rather than being dependent upon “accident and force.” Abraham Lincoln clearly regarded this union as a precious philosophical and political experiment, one worth fighting a bloody civil war to preserve in order that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The Constitution is the document in which this government is embodied, and every American president beginning with George Washington has sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend” it. To believe very strongly in state’s rights is to reject the Constitution. It is, in fact, the position taken by the Anti-federalists in 1787 and the South in 1861.