The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

By David Brian Robertson | Go to book overview

13
Federalism

While they were constructing new national governing institutions, the delegates were enlarging the national government’s authority. All aspired to strengthen national government, but a strong national government also could be a menace. Too much national power could threaten republican ideals, slavery in the South, commerce in the North, expansion in the West, and well-being in any state.

At first, the delegates seemed willing to accept the wide-ranging national authority the broad nationalists sought. But as the independence and complexity of the new governing institutions took shape, it became more difficult to predict how the government would use its power. Uncertainty bred caution. Roger Sherman and other narrow nationalists gained ground with their arguments that the national government should be granted only a limited range of additional policy tools, leaving most of the nation’s policy authority in the states. First, the delegates defeated Madison’s proposed national veto of state laws, a tool he viewed as necessary for an effective national government. Second, they gradually accepted the previously inconceivable notion that the national and state governments could share sovereignty. Third, they enumerated the powers of the national government. By explicitly listing authorized national powers, the Constitution empowered opponents of national action, who could put national officials on the defensive by challenging the constitutionality of proposals that were not on the list. (Because states’ powers were not listed, states retained authority not prohibited by other parts of the Constitution). Finally, in defining the crime of treason, the delegates firmly institutionalized the concept of shared national and state sovereignty.

In the end, the delegates constructed an unfinished framework for American federalism, built by a chain of compromises and incorporating elements of both broad and narrow nationalism. Broad nationalists established many new national powers, along with elastic authority that could meet future national necessities. Narrow nationalists included limitations on national power and protections for state powers. Their compromises left the dividing line between national and state power ambiguous—and this ambiguity made federalism a primary battleground in American politics ever since.

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