7 Quotes About Federalism To Give You A Deeper Understanding Of The Fragile Political Balance
The United States has many things to be proud of, and one of those is our system of government: federalism. According to system, state governments and the federal government exist on two separate levels and balance each other. Since the Constitution was signed, there have been many memorable quotes about federalism, which may help you get to the bottom of exactly how the system works and why it's so important.
First of all, federalism in the United States first appeared in more or less its current form in 1787, after the Articles of Confederation proved to create a federal government that didn't have enough authority to govern properly. Putting this new system of government together was a hard-fought process. On one side there were the prominent Federalists, most famously Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, who wrote The Federalist Papers arguing that in order for the country to function properly, the federal government needed to have some powers that the the states did not have. On the other side were the Anti-Federalists, who felt that an overly strong federal government would end with the states losing their rights.
They ended up compromising with what would lay the groundwork for modern federalism, which splits power equally between the state and the federal governments. Today, however, that balance has arguably shifted a bit away from states and more towards the federal government. Here is what some of the finest thinkers from then and now have had to say about federalism:
1. Alexander Hamilton, Speech to the New York Convention (June 24, 1788)
The local interest of a State ought in every case to give way to the interests of the Union. For when a sacrifice of one or the other is necessary, the former becomes only an apparent, partial interest, and should yield, on the principle that the smaller good ought never to oppose the great one.
Hamilton's quote here about sacrifices that the states would have to make seems quite prescient now, as history has given us myriad examples since the country's founding of instances when the federal government stepped in with a decision that some states appreciated at the time and others didn't. However, this principle has been an instrumental part of the continuing struggle to provide equal rights to everyone.
2. James Madison, The Federalist Papers
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
Madison, although he was for a more powerful federal government, made sure to emphasize that it would not come to the tyranny that the country had witnessed as a British colony. Separating the sources of power that he lists above was a keystone of the government then, and it still is now.
3. Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.
In this discussion of safety versus freedom, Hamilton articulates an important balance that the government must strike: keeping its citizens as safe as possible while also letting them live as freely as possible. This discussion has also come up in recent years, though, especially related to the PATRIOT Act and the lengths that it went to in terms of surveillance in an effort to combat terrorism. Modern federalism gives the federal government enough power to protect its citizens, although the question of what lengths they should go to is still frequently discussed.
4. Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
This nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and ... this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
This quote from the Gettysburg Address is actually only related to federalism when you take the context into account. Lincoln gave this short speech to dedicate a soldiers' cemetery at Gettysburg during the Civil War, the main cause of which was of course the fight over whether slavery should have been legal, but a side issue of which was state rights. The Southern states maintained that it was overstepping the bounds of the federalized system for the federal government to declare slavery illegal, so their decision to secede was bolstered by a now-tyrannical (in their eyes) federal government. Lincoln thus faced the task of not only rebuilding a country torn to shreds, but also rebuilding his citizens' faith in the federal system that had only come into existence less than a century previously.
5. Rick Perry
Crucial to understanding federalism in modern day America is the concept of mobility, or "the ability to vote with your feet." If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol — don't come to Texas. If you don't like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don't move to California.
Agree with him or not, Rick Perry actually makes a good point about the nature of federalism as it applies today. What issues should be decided at the state level, and which at the federal level? The Obergefell decision that gave marriage equality to everyone was one recent case that brought this to the forefront of the political discussion. The dissenting justices, in their argument against universal marriage equality, contended that the judges had "[side-stepped] the democratic process." In their view, the decision to force states to grant equal marriage rights to everyone was taking away states' rights to make their own decisions on the matter. However, when it was an issue of a discriminated-against minority gaining equal rights, the Supreme Court ruled that upholding the principle of equal rights was more important than upholding the principle of federalism.
6. Jonah Goldberg
Our country, if you read the Federalist Papers, is about disagreement. It's about pitting faction against faction, divided government, checks and balances. The hero in American political tradition is the man who stands up to the mob — not the mob itself.
Jonah Goldberg, one of the best-known conservative voices in America, is making a decidedly bipartisan argument here. One of the major purposes of the American federalized government is to allow for disagreement between people and differences between the states. In order for progress that will benefit as many people as possible, there should always be multiple voices in the discussion. Today's Congress might be going a little too far, but Goldberg underscores the point that disagreement is actually the sign of a healthy government.
7. Llewellyn Rockwell
American federalism was the embodiment of political tolerance and decentralization — the expression of the liberal conviction that society can manage itself and needs no central plan.
Libertarian and anarcho-capitalist thinker Llewellyn "Lew" Rockwell would probably rather not see the existence of a government at all. However, based on this quote, he appears to see federalism as a compromise between a government that is too powerful and a government that doesn't do enough. Thoughts like this are why the American political right is so sensitive about the idea of socialist concepts making their way into the American political system. Socialism, the political system just to the right of communism, is a government with a strongly defined central plan, where more is mandated from the top than decided by the country's constituent pieces. In a federalist system, some things are indeed mandated by the national government — but importantly, a lot is left up to the states to decide on their own.
No matter which side of the political spectrum you place yourself on, understanding the inner workings of the American political system is an important thing you can do to be more involved in the process. Now you know why you need to vote on every level — thanks to the federalized system, your representatives on each level of government make decisions with important effects on your life.