Thursday, June 1, 2017

Federal Rights Versus States Rights

In reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 Penguin publication of Alexander Hamilton I am finding unexpected insight and a better understanding of what is involved in the political struggle we continue to have in America between advocates of federal powers versus States rights. Having ploughed part way through this outstanding biography of Alexander Hamilton, I find two points of particular interest thus far: 1) Alexander Hamilton is one of our lesser known founding fathers, and 2) the precedent for Federal Rights over  States Rights readily goes all the back to the Revolutionary War.

Conservative politics generally views the racial integration initiated under Lyndon Johnson’s Federal Civil Rights bill as an encroachment upon States Rights and conservative values. Had Confederates and Dixiecrats been allowed to retain their “States Rights” grip on Congress we would still live in a segregated America, more like that of the old white-dominated South Africa than the United States of America.

History tells me most of our founding fathers understood they could not fully resolve the slave issue in their time. They recognized that it would take the passage of time and future generations to resolve it. They did not foresee Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin or the resulting demand for cheap labor to support the economy of King Cotton. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the life of General George Washing, our first Commander in Chief.

In “the final and most radical act[s] of his life” George Washington freed his slaves. “The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labors in part I employed,” he wrote, “has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the adults among them as easy and comfortable as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit; and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not, I hoped, be displeasing to the justice of the Creator” (George Washington and the New Nation 1783-1793, James Thomas Flexnor. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1st ed. pp. 39-40)

That conviction, designed to please the Almighty, prompted the Father of our Country to free “all his slaves” Racial integration  was considered inevitable over time rather than a radical act of forcing federal rights over state’s rights as some believe today.

The issue of federal powers was very much at stake as early as the Revolutionary War, for without federal powers the Revolution would more than likely have been lost. Needed financial reform continued to hamper our revolution under King George. The new Congress found itself ineffective in improving the situation. A worried James Madison consequently confessed to Thomas Jefferson in a letter, “Believe me, sir, as things now stand, if the states do not vigorously proceed in collecting the old money and establishing funds for the credit of the new … we are undone” (137/Alexander Hamilton/Chernow). The revolutionary cause was at stake!

After Alexander Hamilton left General Washington’s staff, he found himself boning up on finance and working with Robert Morris, the new congressional Superintendent of Finance. Washington had faced repeated financial crises due to the Colonies acting as private individual states and financing their local militia’s while leaving Congress to pick up the empty bag that supported war efforts.

Hamilton eventually concluded that only a national Bank could resolve the issue because the Federal needs of the new Congress were continually preempted by the individual states protecting their own interests. Chernow picks up this theme:

          “Hamilton continued to stew about the Articles of Confederation, which had been
          ratified elatedly by the last state on February 27, 1781. Hamilton thought this
          loose framework a prescription for rigor mortis. There was no federal judiciary, no
          guiding executive, no national taxing power, and no direct power over people as
          individuals, only as citizens of the states. In Congress, each state had one vote, and
          nine of the thirteen states had to concur to take significant actions. The Articles of 
          Confederation promised little more than a fragile alliance of thirteen miniature             
          republics. Hamilton had already warned that if the ramshackle confederacy fostered
          the illusion that Congress had sufficient power, ‘it will be an evil, for it is unequal to
          the exigencies of the war or to the preservation of the union hereafter.’ Again,
          Hamilton appealed for a convention to bring forth a more durable government”  
          (Chernow, 157).

Chernow continues:

          “That the thirteen states would someday coalesce into a single country
          was far from a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the states had hampered many
          crucial war measures ...People continued to identify their states as their ‘countries,’
          and most outside the military had never traveled more than a day’s journey from
          their homes. The Revolution itself, especially the Continental Army, had
          been a potent instrument for fusing the states together and forging an American
          character. Speaking of the effect that the fighting had on him, John Marshall
          probably spoke for many soldiers when he said, ‘I was confirmed in the habit of
          considering America as my country and Congress as my government’ … These
          men had gotten many dismaying glimpses of the shortcomings of the Articles of
          Confederation, and many later emerged as confirmed advocates of a tight-knit
          union of the states” (Chernow/157).

Lack of funding forced General Washington to face every kind of crisis possible, including open mutiny, in which he had to take harsh action and hang several perpetrators. After leaving Washington’s staff, Hamilton converted his views into a cogently reasoned quartet of essays the  New-York Packet entitled “The Continentalist,” which became a precursor to The Federalist Papers.

Unless the Federal government was strengthened, Hamilton concluded, “the states would amass progressively more power until the union disintegrated into secessionist movements, smaller confederacies, or civil war. Commercial rivalries and boundary disputes would bring the Union to disaster. Hamilton listed what Chernow calls a “litany of powers” needed to sustain the union and avert disaster. “Only unity could wring from skittish foreign creditors the needed loans to conclude the war. He applauded “the national bank proposed by Morris, which would wed the ‘interest of the monied men with the resources of government.’ This alliance would help to prop up a shaky government.” As too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy, and both eventually to the ruin of the people” (Chernow, 157-68).

In other words, there is a rightful place of power for citizens and for states. There is also long historical precedent for the federal powers of the Union that goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Had our forefathers clung to their States Rights as fiercely as do some today, we would have failed utterly in our attempt to break free from the divine rights of King George’s Monarchy and its taxation without representation. We would still have slavery but I doubt that the cluster of petty confederacies would still be in existence.

Even more important than the strong military, was the wisdom of a national banking system. History seems to suggest that without it Alexander Hamilton, and that supporting cast of brave signers of our early Declaration of Independence would have no union today.

With this; we are far more blessed than we are cursed; but there are times when I wish BlogSpot worked more efficiently ... :-)