The Last Centrifugal Force

By Nagel, Robert F. | Constitutional Commentary, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Last Centrifugal Force


Nagel, Robert F., Constitutional Commentary


The Constitution of 1787 was debated against a backdrop of rebellion, defiance, and factionalism. Disintegration seemed almost a law of nature:

... [I]n every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate ... orbs by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common center.(1)

Proponents of the Constitution appealed to this centrifugal principle not only in explaining the need for a stronger national government but also in minimizing the risks of centralization.

Thus the authors of The Federalist argued that there was a greater likelihood that the states would encroach on national authority than that the central government would usurp state authority. Again invoking the laws of physics, they repeatedly urged that human affection is "weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object." While "the strong propensities of the human heart would find powerful auxiliaries in the objects of State regulation," the operations of the national government would be less tangible and therefore "less likely to inspire an habitual sense of obligation ...." Supported by the loyalty of their citizens, states would be "at all times a complete counterpoise, and, not infrequently, dangerous rivals to the power of the Union."

Not only would the natural affinities of the people provide pressure against nationalistic excesses, but state governments themselves would stand ready "to mark the innovation, to sound the alarm to the people...." Indeed, once alerted, the people would be able--through their state governments--to create "plans of resistance," which ultimately would be backed by "trial of force." To modern ears, of course, this reference to armed resistance sounds odd and unserious, but the argument is pursued doggedly. The Federalist contains projections of the likely maximum number of soldiers in a national army (not more than "twenty-five or thirty thousand men") and envisions an encounter between that army and state militias "amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands...."

All this ferocious talk of conflict is easily ignored today; we are more inclined to notice the legal and institutional assurances than the arguments based on the psychology of loyalty and the methods of popular resistance. The more primitive bases for decentralization, however, must have seemed plausible to a people who had fought a war for independence and then lived through a period of political chaos.

In any event, the authors of The Federalist turned out to be right, at least for much of our history. The centrifugal tendency was dramatically manifested in the great armed struggle over slavery and in the violent resistance to school desegregation. Less dramatically (and more appealingly), it can be seen in the continuing vitality of state and local governments.

Nevertheless, it is now obvious that the federalists vastly underestimated the forces that favor centralization. Their claim that the operations of the national government would involve relatively abstract matters unlikely to generate "affection, esteem, and reverence towards the government" ignores two of the most visible and potent powers of government, the power to make war and the power to spend public funds. Moreover, it is absurd to insist, as The Federalist does, that the tangible concerns of local government are a source of popular allegiance and that these concerns will hold only "slender allurements" for the ambitions of national leaders. Even putting aside the obvious political incentives for invading areas of state regulation, there remains the great driving force of idealism. If the twentieth century holds no other lessons, it has emphatically taught that the rationalistic passion for engineered progress demands uniformity.

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