Why the 10th Amendment?

Email Print

The recent
rejuvenation of interest in State's rights, nullification, and
secession has been a welcome result of the explosion of federal
power since the housing and credit bubbles burst last fall. The
10th Amendment movements and "tea parties"
are, at least on one level, a pure form of "republicanism."
Unfortunately, there are those who call themselves Republicans
who have little understanding about the history of the republic,
namely how the Founding generation conceptualized the "united
States" as Jefferson called it in the Declaration of Independence.
"Country club" Republican "protesters" have
jumped on the bandwagon, and as folks on the LRC have documented,
these individuals are purely pawns for the demagogues in the GOP,
a party that has never truly been either for State's rights or
limited government. Simply rallying against unconstitutional taxes,
expansive federal programs, or shallow assaults on the Democrats
and Barack Obama is not enough. You can chant about the 10th
Amendment till you go hoarse, but without understanding the principles
behind State sovereignty, your voice will be useless.

It becomes
clear, then, that those who push for reasserting State power must
know how the Founders defined a republic in both size and scope
and what they meant by republicanism. Returning to the founding
principles of the United States is an obvious way to end the insanity
in Washington D.C., but it won't happen if State's rights are
consistently viewed as a knee-jerk reactionary response to unconstitutional
federal legislation. Yes, the 10th Amendment was included
in the Bill of Rights, but why did the Founders insist
on state sovereignty? Rather than a theoretical fabrication at
the 1787 Philadelphia Convention or the State ratification conventions,
State's rights were explicitly linked to the stability of the
United States from the Revolutionary War forward. That is the
key to the State sovereignty movement.

Thomas Jefferson
made two interesting statements concerning republics in 1816.
In a letter to fellow Virginian John Taylor — one of the most
insightful political economists and theorists of his day — Jefferson
said that a republic "is evidently restrained to very narrow
limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable
beyond the extent of a New England township." He also told
Isaac Tiffany that "A democracy [is] the only pure republic,
but impracticable beyond the limits of a town." In other
words, a republic is only plausible over a small distance. Anything
beyond that would destroy the ability of the people to control
the government, and that is the foundation of republicanism. Jefferson
wrote in the Declaration of Independence that legislative powers
were "incapable of Annihilation" because "they
return to the People at large for their exercise." State
and local governments were most responsive to the people and thus
the most republican in form.

To the Founders,
diffusing power over large groups of people and then placing it
in a small number of representatives violated the principle of
direct control of the government, and more importantly, the Founders
understood that the States stood as a hedge against factionalism.
George Mason, speaking at the Philadelphia Convention, succinctly
addressed this issue: "From the nature of man, we may be
sure that those who have power in their hands will not give it
up, while they can retain it. On the contrary, we know that they
will always, when they can, rather increase it." Only the
States could check arbitrary abuse of power which is one reason
why Mason said he would rather cut off his right hand than sign
the Constitution without a bill of rights. Factions, either sectional
or personal, could destroy the interests of the people without
recourse; the States provided that recourse.

the founding generation believed that the United States was nothing
more than a federal union formed solely for defense and commerce.
John Taylor, writing in his Tyranny Unmasked, explained
that "the experiment of a consolidated republic, over a territory
so extensive as the United States, is at least awful, when we
can recollect no case in which it has been successful. If the
people had believed it practicable, it would have been preferred
to our system of division and union…." Patrick Henry argued
during the Virginia ratification convention that State sovereignty
was the only safeguard against the "infinitude" of the
Constitution. He declared that "the delegation of power to
an adequate number of representatives, and an unimpeded reversion
of it back to the people, at short periods, form the principal
traits of a republican government," and feared that the Constitution
would lead to despotism and the subversion of republican principles.

The number
of Americans who consistently believe their vote does not count
on the federal level is a testament to the fact that the people
have truly lost their hold on the "representatives"
in Washington. Jefferson, Taylor, Mason, and Henry all understood
that the people had greater control over their State and local
representatives. They lived among them, went to church with them,
socialized with them, and maybe even had family ties. Four hundred
people protesting in Washington D.C. won't make a difference,
but four hundred people protesting in front of the local courthouse
will. It was, and is, simple economy of scale. Henry said, "The
governing persons are the servants of the people." State
sovereignty ensured that they remained the servants of the people
and that the culture and customs of local communities would be

this wasn't just a component of Southern political philosophy.
Northerners relied on State's rights to protect their local traditions,
too. John Adams once wrote that he considered federal representatives
to be nothing more than "ambassadors" from the several
states. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, one of most ardent
nationalists at the Philadelphia convention, considered the Senate
as originally designed before the perversion of the 17th
Amendment offered the only protection for the commercial States
of the East. Moreover, if the sections could not mesh politically,
he urged the following: "instead of attempting to blend incompatible
things, let us at once take a friendly leave of each other."
That was 1787. Roger Sherman of Connecticut considered the Articles
of Confederation to be insufficient for the facilitation of commerce
and defense, but he thought the powers of the States should be
protected in order to safeguard the cultural integrity of each
community. "Each state, like each individual, had its peculiar
habits, usages, and manners, which constituted its happiness.
It would not, therefore, give to others a power over this happiness,
any more than an individual would do, when he could avoid it."
Even Alexander Hamilton once said that the federal government
could not coerce a State. Incidentally, Massachusetts conditionally
ratified the Constitution with the understanding that a bill of
rights would be added. State sovereignty was number one on the

affirmed that the States were "FREE AND INDEPENDENT"
in the Declaration of Independence. Nothing changed that, not
the Constitution or efforts to reduce State influence and power
by successive generations. Instead of focusing on the narrow issues
of taxes and "big government," advocates of the 10th
Amendment movement should emphasize that the State is the most
responsive level of government, the most democratic, the purest
form of a republic, and the political entity most able to ensure
republican principles, which Jefferson listed as "simplicity,
economy, religious and civil freedom." All the Founders would

1, 2009

Brion McClanahan
[send him mail] received
his Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina
and is a History Professor at Chattahoochee Valley Community College
in Phenix City, Alabama. He is the author of the forthcoming Politically
Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers
(Regnery, June, 2009).

Email Print