The Decline of American Federalism

Introduction: The Unique American System of Government

On October 18, 1787, New York Judge Robert Yates, writing under the pseudonym of Brutus (Ketcham 2003, 269), wrote the following in his first essay arguing against ratification of the United States Constitution (USC, Constitution) drafted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (CC):

History furnishes no example of a free republic, anything like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world. (Ketcham 2003, 276)

James Madison
James Madison “The Father of the U.S. Constitution”

Yates invokes Montesquieu– a beloved and inspirational political philosopher of many of the Framers –in arguing that a republic is best when it is small in both geography and population. When writing his essay, Yates pointed out that the United States (U.S., America) contained just shy of three million people which were to be inappropriately represented by the new federal government. He held profound concerns of inappropriate representation at the federal level as a result of population growth. These concerns were not only justified, but in fact underwhelming compared to the current lack of federal representation. According to his figure, at the cusp of the ratification of the USC, one federal representative represented less than 30,000 citizens, whereas today one federal representative represents over 700,000 citizens. Stated differently, if U.S. citizens had the same federal representation in the U.S. House of Representatives (House) today, as they did in 1789, there would by approximately 10,000 representatives in the House. The famous American revolutionary exclamation that there should be, “no taxation without representation,” should penetrate the conscience of all watchful patriots when contemplating this reality. This is yet, only one concerning prediction that Yates and others (Ketcham 2003, 319) held, which indeed came to fruition. It’s paramount that we revisit the debates had between CC delegates to better understand the purpose of the federal government and the decline of federalism.

The genius of the Framers is that they designed America to be a government of balanced powers both within the federal branches of government, and also between the federal and state governments, in order to resist tyranny. Legislation is slow and often stagnant in America by design, not by accident or malfunction (Jacobson 2013, 689). Stagnation is part of the design which prevents the dominance by a majority and/or dominance by a single sovereign. As Abigail R. Moncrieff quips, “Congress can regulate more quickly and efficiently than the states. There is someone who can regulate more quickly and efficiently than Congress, too: King George III. The benefit of diffusing regulatory power is that it checks against governmental abuse and tyranny” (Moncrieff 2012, 303). Moreover, despite the lack of federal representation and the decline of federalism, America has not become a dictatorship because of both the Bill of Rights (BOR), and the very checks within the federal government which are also supposed to exist between the federal government and the states as well. This system of federalism, which protects liberty, provides the crux of this paper’s theme, the author’s assimilation of political science studies, and the core thesis posited in the final sentence of the next paragraph.

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