The question of how power should be divided between the federal government and the states is really what American politics has been all about for well over two centuries. It is a question debated by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, debated by Federalists and Anti-Federalists during the ratification period, and debated between and within our political parties ever since. Elections have been won and lost on this question, and a Civil War fought over it.
The Constitutional Convention undoubtedly was called to broaden the powers of the federal government as they existed under hopelessly ineffective Articles of Confederation. Yet, there was considerable disagreement among the delegates as to how extensive the powers of the federal government should be. The document produced in Philadelphia in September of 1787 reflects numerous compromises on the question of the rights of states and the powers of the new federal government. While the sovereignty of states was preserved in most respects, specific provisions were included limiting their powers (States were deprived of the powers to, for example, “impair the obligations of contracts,” enact ex post facto laws, or pass bills of attainder). Most significantly, however, the Constitution in Article VI (“The Supremacy Clause”) made any valid exercise of federal law (and the Constitution enumerated a long list of federal powers, including the broad power to regulate commerce) superior to any state law “to the contrary.”
The Anti-Federalists opposed ratification of the Constitution. Their principal argument was that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government and took away too many powers of the states. They complained about the Supremacy Clause, about the powers of the President, about the six-year terms of Senators, and about the many new powers granted to Congress. Arguing for ratification were the Federalists, including such prominent figures as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison (authors of The Federalist Papers). The Federalists saw the states as impeding the development of commerce (through imposition of state tariffs and other laws) and threatening private property (Rhode Island, for example, had enacted a law cancelling all debts). The Federalists saw a stronger federal government as critical to the United States taking its place as a leader on the world’s stage. As a compromise necessary to ensure ratification, Federalists agreed to propose a Bill of Rights that would specifically limit the powers of the new federal government and would, through the Tenth Amendment, recognize that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
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