At the time the U.S. Constitution was being drafted and ratified, there was a lot of skepticism over whether the proposed Constitution would prevent the new Federal Government from encroaching on the rights of the States. In fact, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams actually boycotted the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, and of the 55 delegates that did attend the Convention, only 39 of them signed the resulting Constitution. Those who didn't sign were very concerned that it granted the new Federal Government too much power, endangered the sovereignty of the States, and was a threat to individual liberty.i These men became known as the "Anti-Federalists." Those supporting the ratification of the proposed Constitution, the "Federalists," attempted to put their minds at ease by proving to them that the Constitution only gave the Federal Government a few limited powers and that safeguards did exist to keep it from going beyond those limited powers. One way the Federalists did this was through a series of newspaper articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, that later became known as The Federalist Papers.ii It was on these reassurances by the Federalists that the Constitution was eventually ratified by the States.

James Madison promised the Anti-Federalists that the new Federal Government would be very limited in power compared to the States. He explained, "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. The [powers of the federal government] will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State."iii Article I Section 8 of the Constitution is the list of those powers which are delegated to the Federal Government. Alexander Hamilton reassured the Anti-Federalists that any federal acts which go beyond these listed powers are not valid, but instead are invasions of State authority, and are to be considered merely acts of usurpation, and deserve to be treated as such.iv

Madison also pointed out that the States had no reason to be threatened by the presence of federal agents of any type. The number of individuals employed by the Federal Government would be much smaller than the number employed by the State governments. A State with their militia (made up of every citizen, each with their right to keep and bear arms) would greatly outnumber any federal standing army that might attempt to oppress them. The Federal Government would have tax collectors, but the States would have many more. At that time it was considered unlikely that the Federal Government would ever need to collect internal taxes, but instead would collect its revenue from external taxes (e.g., taxes on imported goods). And the actual collection of any taxes under the immediate authority of the Union would be made by the officers appointed by the States, and that the States would determine the rules on how they were collected.v

Madison assured the Anti-Federalists that State governments will always have the advantage over the federal. State governments are regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government, but the federal is in no way essential to the operation or organization of a State. Without the intervention of the State legislatures (via the electoral college) the President of the United States cannot be elected at all. The U.S. Senate was elected absolutely and exclusively by the State legislatures (until the 17th Amendment eliminated this provision in 1913). Therefore, through these safeguards the State governments were able to properly influence and maintain control over the Federal Government. On the other hand, the Federal Government has no such control over the appointments or elections of the State Government, and therefore has little influence over its members. (This was, of course, before the time of federal education grants, federal highway funds, energy subsidies, Medicaid grants, and other similar methods the Federal Government uses today to bribe State governments).vi

One of the arguments made by the Anti-Federalists was that the proposed Constitution did not sufficiently adhere to a republican form of government, that the Convention didn't adequately preserve federalism, which regards the Confederacy as a compact of sovereign States; that instead the Convention was framing a nationalist government which regards the Union as a consolidation of the States. In Federalist #39, Madison goes through great pains to explain that the United States is not a national government, but instead a mostly federal one. "The proposed government cannot be deemed a national one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects." vii

These were how the state ratifying conventions interpreted the Constitution at the time they agreed to its terms and therefore ratified it. As with any contract, it is the original interpretation alone that it is the legitimate Constitution.

John Pickerill


Montgomery County Tea Party