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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-4


A Citizens Introduction to Federalism: Federalism and the Future of Constitutional Government


Executive Summary



The late intellectual historian Stephen J. Tonsor wrote that in America “the founding is determinative, and the Constitution stands at the very center of American political conservatism.”[1]  As Tonsor wrote:


Central to conservative doctrine, and the translation of this doctrine into the politics of a particular time and place, is the fear of unchecked power and its centralization…It is for this reason that the checks of a balanced constitution are so important. It is for this reason that the diffusion of power to the states and particularly to local communities is imperative. Education, welfare, and social control must be taken out of the hands of the central power and its instrumentalities.[2]


Conservatives understand that the American Founding is based upon the principle of liberty and limited government. In framing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers believed that government should be limited, and they achieved this through specific structures and principles contained within the Constitution. These structures and principles consisted of the rule of law, limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.  Russell Kirk, the intellectual father of the post-World War II conservative movement, wrote that the “American political system, first of all, is a system of limited, delegated powers, entrusted to political officers and representatives and leaders for certain well-defined public purposes.”[3]


The Constitution is a written document that limits the powers of the federal government. Article I, Section 8, lists the enumerated powers of Congress, and these are the specific powers that Congress can exercise. During the ratification debates over the Constitution some, such as the famous Virginian Patrick Henry, feared that the Constitution actually granted too much power to the federal government and that it would not only endanger the liberty of the people, but also the states.


It is important to keep in mind that under the Constitution the people are sovereign. “The people delegate to government only so much power as they think it prudent for government to exercise; they reserve to themselves all the powers and rights that are not expressly granted to the federal or state or local governments,” wrote Kirk.[4] In reassuring that the true intent of the Constitution was to limit power, James Madison, the principle architect of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist Paper 45:


The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which remain in the state governments, are numerous and indefinite.[5]


Madison’s argument in Federalist 45 was further illustrated within the Constitution through the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[6]


With enumerated powers and the Tenth Amendment the powers of the federal government would be limited and the states would be protected. Debates over governmental powers and federalism are some of the main political and constitutional debates that occur today and throughout our history. The size and scope of the federal government has risen gradually during our history, but a fundamental change occurred during the 20th century. The Progressive Movement started to argue that the Constitution was out of date and the federal government needed more power to govern a modern, urban, and industrial nation. The result was the administrative and welfare states, which emerged under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.


John S. Baker argues that the “administrative state represents the very consolidation of power opposed by all of the founders — Federalist as well as Anti-Federalist.”[7] The administrative state that emerged as a result of the New Deal, Great Society, and recent expansion of the federal government “is normally the byproduct of a unitary sovereign,” wrote Baker.[8]


Donald J. Devine, a political scholar and veteran of the Reagan administration, wrote that “America’s progressive movement proclaimed the superiority of concentrated power over the Constitution’s separated powers.”[9] The result, as Devine argues, is that the “central government is the major decision maker on most important matters.”[10] Today it is hard to imagine any aspect of life that is not somehow affected by the federal leviathan. States as well as the people have become dependents upon the federal government.


To restore traditional federalism, states as well as the people will have to repent of progressivism and return to the principles of the Constitution. Donald Devine argues that President Ronald Reagan serves as an example of a person who “loved the Constitution” and held deep respect for the American founding.[11] Only by the people rediscovering the principles of the American founding will federalism be restored. Devine argues that “the past several years have been dispiriting for Americans,” and this will only be reversed by returning to the Constitution.[12]




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