“Federalism” and Federalist 48 – 51
Some crucial themes in early America’s bifurcated political identity rise to the surface in Rakove’s treatment of federalism. At the heart of the debate about the merits and perils of federalism was nothing less than the understanding of when precisely states became states in the proper sense. According to Rakove, James Wilson was the reigning historian on the matter, arguing that states became “states” (as opposed to mere “colonies”) by jointly declaring independence: “they were independent not individually but unitedly” (163). In this conception, the various original colonial charters that served as the geographic and sociopolitical underpinnings of the new states had to be evaluated under the rubric of assuming modern federated statehood in the course of, and as a result of, separation from monarchical antecedents in Europe.
But not everyone was persuaded. Rakove notes that “American concepts of federalism and statehood were coeval in origin and mutually uncertain in meaning” (167). I think that tension remains today, particularly in matters where state versus national authority come into play: education, controlled substances, regulated commerce, and laws governing birth, adoption, marriage, abortion, and end-of-life choices. Certainly, even a brilliant historian and statesman like Wilson could not have predicted that range of frictions, but our existing system maintains the federal supremacy of his argument without reference to independence. In all but the most recalcitrant of today’s fringe groups in the old Confederacy and their sympathizers in northern and western backwaters, the barbarous and immensely destructive Civil War put an end to fantasies of secession and disunion. Still, Rakove correctly locates the federal system’s binary pedigree in the institution of the Senate, where it resides today: “The Senate itself would embody the mixed character of the Constitution: It would be ‘federal’ in origin but ‘national’ in orientation, somehow protecting state sovereignty and the national interest simultaneously” (171).
As we know, the modern sensitivity to the nuanced difference between “federal” and “national” is somewhat handicapped, and likewise is our perception of what interest our U.S. Senators serve most faithfully besides their own. By way of a professional anecdote on this theme, in our editing work we have heartily debated the practice of adding state designations to footnotes for Senators and Congressmen, but in the end, we’ve decided (I dissenting) to drop the states in what I interpret as a symbolic nod to their fundamentally national orientation: thus, “Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan” becomes just plain “Sen. Carl Levin”. Of the two chambers, in fact, the House of Representatives seems to carry the reputation of upholding the majoritarian principles of state delegations looking after their home districts. But as a consequence, unfortunate in many ways, House Members, with their two-year terms, are perpetually campaigning for office, vulnerable to rapid and whimsical shifts in electoral sentiment and subject to near-constant fundraising. I’m not sure Wilson and his fellow federalists could rightly have predicted that scenario either.
Madison takes up that very theme in his essay (Federalist 50) offering a stunning rebuke of direct democracy, which falls prey to the swayable passions of men: “The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government” (317). Republican representation, on the other hand, was designed to temper the passions and filter them into actionable policy. In the same breath, Madison delivers himself of several of the more quotable maxims of the entire collection, including this whopper: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary . . . you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself” (322). Two centuries later, we are still awaiting evidence of either desideratum.