Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 4

Introduction   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

The Federal Leviathan

   In the debate over what to do to go beyond the Articles, the issue, for confederalists and federalists alike, was power.  Both shared the belief that great power, concentrated in one place, is an open invitation to abuse.  However, the Federalists did not object to centralized power.  For them, a strong central power was a necessary element in holding together and directing a continental-sized nation.  In a large, powerful and wealthy society, preponderant force must exist as the basis for rule.  The Federalists sought only to check the powers of a strong executive with a strong parliament.   They proposed, in other words, to grant this great power to the center but divide it.

   The Federalists’ fundamental charge against the Articles was that they provided for a government both too weak and inefficient and too open to local majorities and interests.   It could be argued that even the confederation of the amended Articles would continue to depend on the voluntary compliance of its member states and thus remain fatally flawed.  Without the ability to enforce compliance on the states, the central government could not perform that one function necessary in a community of individual entities each seeking advantage, to enforce cooperation and contribution to the common good.

   Throughout the brief confederal period, some states failed to fulfill commitments to the central government and there were always inter-state and inter-regional rivalries.   Clearly, without the states’contribution and active participation, the confederation could not prosper.  The Articles, even if amended, would not have done away with this problem.  Indeed, the Constitution of 1787 did not do so.  The Civil War had to be fought, hundreds of thousands of Americans had to die, and the federal government had to settle by force-of-arms the question of where ultimate authority resided before the Constitution could be “perfected.”

   Seeking the common good is a classic political conundrum that has called forth various responses.  The most obvious, and the one perhaps most used, is the Hobbesian option, constituting a “Leviathan” which can force obedience.  Although not all supporters of the Constitution of 1787 were so motivated, the option for creating a strong central authority had great appeal to many of the Federalists and their supporters, and most clearly for Hamilton.

   According to the Federalists, the government of the Articles did not create a national polity that could manifest the broad interests of the people.  Rather, it represented the states.  Dividing America into localities, it allowed local majorities to hold sway.  Holding power in the states, these “local interests” – or “factions” – did not seek the public good but their own.  Thus, the Federalists argued that the confederation lacked not only efficiency but also representativeness.  The new government that the Federalists proposed would merge these many local majorities together into one polity where they would have to contend with each other on equal grounds, i.e., as minorities.  Through the several institutions of government, the public view could be “refined” and a national will -- stripped of factionalism -- could emerge.  The Constitution would, in effect, arrange the political machinery so that a “nation” would form around the polity.

   The Founders as much as hoped to create “America” as to supply it with a government.  In this sense they were indeed “nation builders.”  The confederation stood in the way of this intended act of creation.  That in some cases the local majorities that governed in the states used their power against their “betters” -- such as in the chronic confrontation between debtors and creditors -- further motivated some of the Federalists to look to establish a federal government out of the reach of these local majorities.

   The Constitution of 1787 was a document of predominantly nationalist, not democratic, sentiment.  It took the politically necessary tact of presenting in republican form the Hamiltonian vision of an imperial America.  The Constitution stripped the states of sovereignty and established an what was in effect an “elective monarchy” with a president/commander-in-chief – chosen by a collection of local notables called the Electoral Collage – and checked by a national parliament.  In establishing a separate executive branch, the Constitution also provided the new federation with a nascent bureaucracy.  

    Because the contemporary political reality was based upon the sovereignty of the thirteen states, the Federalists did not highlight the issue of the states’ relationship to the proposed federal government.  But the anti-federalists were aware of the potential in the new document.  The Constitution sought to submerge the states within the framework of a national government that largely dispensed with them as localized aggregators of political input or prime vehicles of political output.  It established a national government with broad undefined powers and with legal precedence in those areas in which it was given authority.  It provided for taxes raised independently of the states and gave the central government a standing army and control over the state militia.

   To the confederalists, the changes proposed by the Federalists did not seem to guarantee the continuance of the political preeminence of the states.  If their fears were often exaggerated, the subsequent shift of the political center of gravity to the central government has supported their fundamental concern.  The states have not completely disappeared, in large part because of the strong American tradition of local government and a concomitant fear of big government.  But the growth in the size and importance of the federation’s central government -- and the increased power within that government of the president -- have filled in the mere outline of electoral monarchy established by the Constitution.

   It was the “genius” of the Founding Fathers to move beyond the states to structure the basic political dynamic around the contention of “faction” writ large.  Implicit was the notion that the “natural” community of man was the mass of individuals competing in the “state of nature.”  In the face of this abstract “community”, the states added nothing and, indeed, got in the way.  As long as the central government followed its own rules, there would be nothing between it and the individual and little role for state governments.  It is not surprising that even some Federalists were alarmed enough by this prospect to push through the first ten amendments to the Constitution of 1787 even before it was adopted.   

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