| January 13, 2014

OCPA Research Fellow Spotlights Our Nation’s Founding Debate

The scene is a familiar one. You’ve seen it portrayed in paintings and pictures in history books and on television. It is the summer of 1787. America’s Founding Fathers are gathered in Philadelphia to repair the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. Instead of repairing the Articles of Confederation, they draft and propose a new Constitution.

Upon adopting the Constitution on September 17, 1787, they submitted it to the 13 states for ratification. Over the next 18 months, a vigorous debate occurred over the proposed Constitution. In September 1789, Congress proposed the Bill of Rights, which were the first ten ratified amendments to the Constitution modeled after the English Bill of Rights contained in the Magna Carta.

During the debate over the Constitution, two sets of men took their debate to the newspapers (their version of the airwaves). On one side were the Federalists, with Alexander Hamilton (future Secretary of the Treasury) and James Madison (future President of the United States) leading the charge. On the other side were the Anti-Federalists, including Robert Yates (future Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court) and Samuel Bryan (future Comptroller General of Pennsylvania). All of these men wrote using pseudonyms (Publius, Brutus, Centinel, and Old Whig), and all were distinguished and learned men.

One area of their debate focused on the powers of the new federal government under Section 8 of Article I. Specifically, the two sides portrayed drastically different versions of the federal government under Section 8. The Federalists casually dismissed concerns that the federal government would overpower the states. In contrast, the Anti-Federalists warned that the federal government could abolish state legislatures with its new powers.

A key topic of concern for the Anti-Federalists was the “necessary and proper” language in Section 8. Why did this language worry them? Because, along with what became known as Article V’s Supremacy Clause in which federal law trumps state laws, they believed this broad language gave the federal government unfettered power to do whatever it deemed necessary and proper to execute the enumerated powers granted it under the Constitution. Many Americans today view the federal government as the permanent behemoth whose shadow eclipses the sunshine of the states. They’ve never known an America where it wasn’t so encompassing.

To help you understand this key founding debate, in my new book, "The Founding Debate," I have reviewed the founding documents to find the core arguments on each side. In addition to the Constitution, the book contains the five best arguments presented by the Federalists (Hamilton and Madison), the five best arguments presented by the Anti-Federalists (Yates, Bryan, and the unknown “Old Whig”), the Bill of Rights, and select quotes from the 10 most relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases decided over the 200 years that interpreted the words debated so robustly by our Founding Fathers.

No matter where your ideology rests along the clamshell shape of the political spectrum, it seems fairly clear that the locus of power over our lives resides in Washington, D.C., not in the 50 state capitals. With the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and mounting failures produced by the federal government’s one-size-fits-all mentality, we must escape the sloth of the centralization status quo.

Perhaps the pathway to America’s future prosperity is to look to a principle from the past. Competitive federalism was a central doctrine powerfully espoused by the less-famous Anti-Federalist Founding Fathers.

Our Founding Fathers didn’t debate some esoteric issue high in the ivory tower of academia. The fate of our country hung in the balance. With 226 years of history behind us, that debate and its outcome in the future are as relevant and consequential as ever.

OCPA research fellow Matt A. Mayer serves as chief operating officer of The Liberty Foundation of America. Previously, Mayer served as a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, where he wrote extensively on the issue of federalism as it relates to national security. His latest book is The Founding Debate, from which this article is excerpted.

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