A Summary of: The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to the Constitution
by Kevin R.C. Gutzman
Compiled and Edited by
Dr. Jimmy T. (Gunny) LaBaume
Chapter 2: Federalism vs. Nationalism at the Philadelphia Convention
The Revolution required most of the Continental Congresses attention. However, they also faced other issues like, for example, the need for some type of government for the lands west of English settlement.
In 1763, after the French and Indian War, that boundary was the Appalachian Mountains. King George III banned settlement beyond those mountains because he did not want to further antagonize the Indians. This had quite an impact on many of the wealthier colonists because it made their claims to those lands essentially worthless.
In fact, one of the first things the ruling class did after winning independence was to “resuscitate its land titles.” But, as it turned out, many of these claims overlapped. Periodically, congress would attempt to settle title disputes. But, Virginia congressmen pointed out that there was nothing in the Articles of Confederation that gave Congress any such authority and they refused to discuss the issue in Congress.
If the Confederation Congress had been a national legislature, such questions could simply be answered by majority vote. Now logically, the fact that they were not, demonstrates that the revolutionaries considered the individual states as the sovereigns. In other words, they considered state sovereignty as the first principle of American government.
A constitution for the “United States”
The particular group that advocated a strong federal center became known as “Federalists.” It was a result of their agitation that the federal Constitution of 1788 was adopted. Their reasoning was that the Revolutionary War had revealed the weaknesses of the Confederation—the Army had been perpetually short of men, supplies and the money to pay for them. They arrived at the false conclusion that this was due to the difficult time they had in obtaining credit which was, in turn, because the Articles of Confederation were not adequate.
To support their position, the Federalists fabricated a litany of complaints about the Articles of Confederation that historians have been repeating ever since. For example, states were slow to pay their requisitions because they were “selfish and unpatriotic.” But this ignores the fact that total voluntary state contributions were more than the amount of gold and silver in the whole uS.
The Federalists tried to convince the states to cede more power to Congress. But, many of the congressmen refused because they just did not want to trade a distant, unaccountable authority for a local one.
The fact, as per Article I of the Treaty of Paris, King George III conceded defeat to the “sovereign and independent states” is further evidence that the states were sovereign. Furthermore, Article V of the treaty recognized that the states were not only independent of Great Britain but also of each other.
Reforming the Confederation
In 1785, delegates from Maryland and Virginia were to meet at George Washington’s home to negotiate an arrangement for sharing the Potomac River but the Virginia delegation was a no show. Thus, a new meeting was set for the next year in Annapolis with the state purpose of reforming the Confederation. Only five states sent delegates. This prompted leading figures to call for a new convention to be held the next summer (of 1787) in Philadelphia. According to the Federalists, the purpose would be to discuss amendments to the Articles of Confederation.
Rhode Island did not send a delegation. New York was skeptical but sent a small (3 man) delegation. In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee did not believe that the convention was “likely to do work he approved” and Patrick Henry “smelt a rat.”
Also in 1787 the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance which provided that states could be formed from what was Virginia’s former trans-Ohio River territory. Any such states were to be admitted to the union on an equal footing with the original states. In other words, and once again, the guiding principle was the federal principle—i.e. the principle of state equality.
A vision of national government: The Virginia Plan
James Madison decided to push for abandonment of the federal experiment. He encouraged his fellow delegates to arrive in Philadelphia several days early so that Virginia would be ready to present its plan at the beginning of the convention. These proposals came to be known as the “Virginia Plan.”
The first thing the convention did when it opened, after appointing George Washington to preside, was to vote to close the doors so the public would not know what was being discussed.
The Virginia Plan outlined a national/central government with all the power any national official could want. As we have seen, the people were averse to such a government. This explains why the convention operated in secret and its minutes were kept secret for years.
Fortunately, some delegates kept notes. Notable of these is New York ‘s Robert Yates. From him we learn that Edmund Randolph (governor of Virginia) explained the Virginia plan with 3 resolutions: 1) that a mere confederation of the states could not accomplish the goals of the Articles of Confederation; 2) that no treaty among the sovereign states could provide for their common defense; and 3) that a national government, consisting of a supreme legislative, executive and judicial branches, was what was needed.
At that point, a delegate objected that the convention’s purpose was to amend the confederation—not to create a national government. Further, the question arose as to what was meant by the word “supreme.” The answer was that, should there be a conflict between the two, the states would yield to the federal government. At that point, the convention proceeded to adopt resolutions concerning a “national” legislature and executive.
Monarchists and nationalists and federalists—oh my!
There were 3 parties at the convention. The monarchists proposed one unitary government for the whole continent. The nationalists wanted to push centralization as far as they could. The third group proposed reinforcing the central government but also maintaining the principle place of the states—i.e. they advocated a truly federal, not national, government. This group would win out in the short run but it wouldn’t be long before “constitutional law” would undo their victory.
From the journals of some of the delegates we learn that the convention decided early on to create a powerful national government with strong legislative and judicial branches. However, in the end, it created neither. This change was no accident. It was a carefully considered decision.
The individual states remained essential. The House of Representatives was to be elected by voters who were eligible to vote for their own state legislatures and senators were to be chosen by the legislatures of the states.
The final Constitution provided a hedge against excessive congressional power. Article I, Section 8 lists Congressional powers. Of the few powers that congress is granted, almost all pertain to foreign affairs and trade. And there is very little “wiggle” room in any of these.
The judiciary is constitutionally restricted in two ways. First, the Constitution does not require that there be any federal courts. It also lists specific types of cases Congress can authorize federal courts to decide meaning that congress cannot constitutionally authorize any other kinds of cases. In short, Article III leaves most judicial power in the states.
Further, it is important to note that the Constitution the people ratified gives federal courts no power to decide on such issues as flag burning, abortion, public prayer, homosexual marriage, etc. But that should not surprise anyone that is even remotely familiar with the history of the American Revolution. The people who advocated such a national authority were called Tories (or monarchists)—and they lost.
Patriots argued for home rule and states’ rights. They won the Revolution and they also won at the Constitutional Convention. But, needless to say, that was not the end of the fight.
The Essence of Liberty Volume I: Liberty and History chronicles the rise and fall of the noble experiment with constitutionally limited government. It features the ideas and opinions of some of the world’s foremost contemporary constitutional scholars. This is history that you were not taught at the mandatory government propaganda camps otherwise known as “public schools.” You will gain a clear understanding of how America’s decline and decay is really nothing new and how it began almost immediately with the constitution. Available in both paperback and Kindle versions.
You might be interested in the other two volumes of this three volume set: The Essence of Liberty Volume II: The Economics of Liberty and The Essence of Liberty Volume III: Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic.