Madison and States v. the Central Government

Madison went to Philadelphia wanting to increase the power of the central government over the states (quite a bit, in fact).

This is another post in partial response (or, at least, inspired by) Doug Mataconis’ post concerning the desirability of parliamentarism in the US (a post that also ranged into general discussions of the founding of the US and design of the US constitution).

A few caveats that should be considered in any discussion of the Founders/Framers:*

1)  Any one Founder/Framer does not speak for all (there were a lot of them, and many had divergent views).

2)  Any given Founder/Framer may have changed their minds over time.

3)  Just because a Founder/Framer thought something circa 1787 does not mean that it is holy writ that defines how things ought to be in the 21st Century.  While looking to the past can better inform our understanding (at least at times) of the present, such discussions should not be treated as a theological smackdown wherein one interlocutor attempts to out-Bible verse the other.**

Having said all of that, I also find that there is a mythos that has grow up (and indeed, competing mythoi) and embraced in contemporary politics.  These are usually utilized in a fashion dedicated more to making points about the now, rather than about then.  While I think we can enhance our understanding of our institutions by looking back, we have to place that understanding in proper context.  At a minimum we have to understand that the document produced and the system it created was as much what could get out of committee as it was a result of grand vision (the nature of federalism and presidentialism both very much fall in the camp of “derived from compromise”).

One of the topics that remains the subject of debate (for a variety of reasons) is the issue of the relationship between the states and the central government.  It was this topic that came to mind when reading the following passage from Doug’s post:

While the Founders recognized the fact that the Articles of Confederation were simply impractical for governing even a small nation located on the eastern coast of North America, they also recognized the dangers of centralized power. That’s why they created a system where three co-equal branches of government are, if things operate as intended, supposed to check each others power, where the states act as checks on the power of the Federal Government, and where the people act as checks on both.

While the bolded portion is the main topic of this post, there are a number of issues in that paragraph.  Two worth quickly pointing out:

1)  “even a small nation”—the thing is, the United States in the 1780s was anything but a “small nation” (it is only small in comparison to the current USA).   Indeed, one of things that Madison was interested in was how to make representative government work in what he called an “extended republic”.  The failure of confederacy was less about size as was about the general inability of confederation itself to govern much of anything.

2)   “That’s why they created a system where three co-equal branches of government”  There are various reasons why we ended up with separated branches with check and balances.  Size of the country, per se, was not the reason nor was specifically to deal with the question of central government power.  There is no theoretical reason that one has to have separation of powers with federalism (although this is a common claim in US politics).  As I noted in my previous post, there are several federal states that have parliamentary systems (e.g., Australia, Canada, and Germany).

In regards to “they also recognized the dangers of centralized power” the thing is, the whole purpose (as I have noted before) of the Philadelphia convention was to create a strong central government (and yes, one can debate the exact nature of the word “strong” in this context).  The entire nature of the failure of the Articles of Confederation was the lack of a strong central government.  This is not to say that there isn’t a legitimate and ongoing debate over the nature of the power relationship between the states and the central government, it is nonetheless true that the very purpose of Philadelphia convention and the constitution it created was to subordinate the states to the new federal government.

We can turn to the ever popular “Father of the Constitution” in a latter to the even more popular “Father of Our Country” on this count in April of 1787.  In this letter, Madison had a lot to say to Washington about what he thought needed to be done on the eve of the convention.

Madison readily allow that “consolidation” (or basically the erasing of the political significance of the states’ borders) was “as inexpedient as it is unattainable” and this lead to what he described as “some middle ground, which may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful.”  This leads to the creation of what we now call “federalism.”  Note that he describes the need for national supremacy.

Madison went on to state:

I would propose next that in addition to the present federal powers, the national Government should be armed with positive and compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity; such as the regulation of trade, including the right of taxing both exports & imports, the fixing the terms and forms of naturalization, &c &c.

The debate, of course, is to what constitutes “cases which require uniformity” (a topic we continue to argue over).  I would note that things the industrial revolution, technology and modernity in general have been very much responsible for altering our views on this category of policies.

In regards to the question of what Madison’s early views were on state power vis-a-vis the central government, the following is extremely telling (and contradicts the notion that Madison, at least, was concerned with giving the central government too much power):

Over and above this positive power, a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States, as heretofore exercised by the Kingly prerogative, appears to me to be absolutely necessary, and to be the least possible encroachment on the State jurisdictions.

Yes, Madison wanted to give the central government a veto (“a negative in all cases whatsoever“) over state laws (and there is a provision along these lines in the Virginia Plan).  This is not an intention for a person who is worried about the central government having too much power (or who saw a new constitution as tool for reigning in the dangers of centralism).  Now, granted, this idea did not survive the convention.

Ultimately, federalism as we understand it was the result of pure political compromise.  As Madison noted in a quote above, consolidation was not going to happen but the purpose of the convention was to get rid of confederation (i.e., where the states were dominate).  Madison wanted a different balance than what eventually was produced.  What was produced was the result of political deals amongst northern and southern, large and small, slave and free, agricultural and proto-industrial.  It was political in action.  It was far less grand design than we like to think.

Much of my point is this:  one can believe what one wants about how the constitution ought to work, but the degree which that is was that the Framers/Founders thought (or why they did what they did) is a different issue.

Looking back can help us understand why what happened happened.  It can help use understand the origins of our institutions.  It cannot, however, guide us in the moment in the way that many claim.  Because regardless of whatever else one wants to think, when we talk about the “US Constitution” we are talking about not just the document, but also two and a quarter centuries of practice.

*The term “Founder” refers to any number of individuals who were directly engaged in the establishment of the United States of America, while a “Framer” was someone who participated in the Philadelphia convention of 1787.  There are a number of important Founders who were no Framers.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams being the two most prominent .

**Increasingly this is how I think about most arguments about the F/F’s:  that a lot of folks think that quoting an F/F is all the argument that is needed.  Clearly, this is not the case if what we are after is actually logical argument.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Michael says:

    Inspired by your posts, I’ve just posted a quick look at the competing plans and how they compare to our current Constitution over at my blog:

  2. Laurie says:

    Interesting topic. I have wondered with DC so dysfunctional and gridlocked if federal spending will continue to go down and more responsibilities will fall to the states. We certainly have gridlock in MN as well with divided govt, but it doesn’t seem as bad.

    Also, Dr. Taylor, about founders and framers, I’d appreciate a brief comment on who is this “Jay ” that Krauthammer mentioned in his column about the MLK memorial:

    A roiling, revolutionary 18th-century British colony gives birth to the greatest cohort of political thinkers ever: Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, Jay. The crisis of the 19th century brings forth Lincoln; the 20th, FDR.

    I somehow missed him in my studies of history and govt.

  3. @Laurie:

    John Jay was one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers (along with Hamilton and Madison). In truth, I find his intellectual contribution thereto to pale in comparison to the other two authors. However, he was pivotal political figure during the revolution and was the first Chief Justice. His main contribution, I would argue, was in the are of diplomacy.

  4. Michael says:

    He also negotiated a rather important treaty with Britain that averted (until 1812) a resumption of the war.

  5. Wayne says:

    Re “It was far less grand design than we like to think”
    I am not all that sure of that. A grand design seldom ever started off as a finish product. A jet fighter design will have designers that wanted more and less power, greater and less maneuverability, more and less instruments, etc. There are pluses and minus on doing any of those things. The designers trade off one thing for another to get the best design that they can to do the job they want. A tri-plane has great maneuverability and a rocket has great power but neither makes a good jet fighter.

    The framers of the constitution recognized that the central government was too weak. That doesn’t mean that they wanted a “strong” central government but a “stronger” one. A 120lb weakling is stronger than an 80 lb weakling but he still wouldn’t be considered as strong.

    IMO the framers weighed the plus and minus on making the central government stronger or weaker. They decided on the final product. Yes some of it was out of compromised but IMO much was by design. Most of them wanted a central government that was able to take care of the needs of the country as a country but that was about it. They wanted the majority of the power to be pushed down to the lowest level possible. Their priority was the rights of individuals then the government. The government was there so people could coexist and to protect the “people” from foreign governments.