During the War of Independence, British North Americans expanded the principles of federalism and separation of powers by being among the first Europeans to codify their practices in written constitutions. Several colonial charters and their subsequent revisions established a practice of protecting the interests of towns, villages, and communities by securing their economic interests as well as their participation in colonial governments.
The Framers of the first American state constitutions drew heavily upon the practices of colonial assemblies, contemporary political ideas, the English common law tradition, and the effects of the western frontier.
Colonial assemblies, especially in Virginia and South Carolina, developed legislative rules that secured the sanctity of vested interests and prevented the most populous areas of their colony from dominating the rest. For example, in South Carolina following an uprising in the 1760s known as the Regulator Movement, colonial assemblymen commenced requiring “supermajorities” well beyond 50 percent of votes to pass laws. Consequently, the practice protected the vested interests of some minority settlements since those groups exercised a check upon laws deemed detrimental to their communities.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, ideas about natural rights and limited government, popularized by the English Whigs and the Scottish Enlightenment, challenged earlier assumptions that human flourishing only occurred under strong, centralized political power. Men like Algernon Sidney, John Locke, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, David Hume, and Adam Smith encouraged the notion that human beings, when left alone, could take care of themselves without constant political oversight. These ideas circulated throughout colonial America in newspapers and popular pamphlets.
But ideas alone were not enough to foster a commitment to federalism. The long practice of the English judicial system served as a reminder that custom could, over time, establish an orderly society. The common law system of England created the rule of law without political codes or legislation. In the ancient English judicial system, judges “discovered” the accepted patterns of life established by generations of custom. For the North American colonists, differences in the types of courts (criminal, civil, etc.) and how they grew in each colony established multiple, concurrent jurisdictions, which often competed with one another to establish legal practices. In effect, the competition in jurisdiction limited the total amount of power each court could exercise over a population.
Finally, the western frontier played a critical role in American federalism. Even though American Indians occupied much of the “west,” they and European settlers rarely formed cultural attachments beyond their surrounding communities. The vast diversity of frontier cultures created a kind of cultural competition not unlike that created by the common law system over judicial matters. But despite the diversity and sometimes violent conditions between groups, those on the frontier lived and traded together and even intermarried. Rural conditions and vacated space also beckoned those living in the East to entrepreneurially start afresh when economic conditions warranted. The frontier was not necessarily an “escape valve” for people to leave their responsibilities behind them. Rather, it ensured that no person, place, or institution would exercise supremacy over the rest. When things got tough or it appeared that someone or some thing tried to command a free person’s complete obedience, people moved to open territory.
Drawing from these intellectual and cultural conditions, new constitutional governments within the independent United States worked to protect communities, states, and regional cultures of the country.
In short, American society was “federal” long before there was a federal government. But not everyone understood the benefits of federalism. Political leaders after 1776 worked to centralize the country’s political power and tame its diverse communities. For example, the first proposal to create a single, national government for the United States—the Articles of Confederation—initially called for a highly centralized government until the Continental Congress revised it for ratification. Many of the perceived weaknesses of the Articles resulted from nationalist politicians being prevented from controlling the national economy. They then easily discredited the Articles and called for national reforms. At the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, leading nationalists proposed a more centralized government than the Articles, only to meet stiff resistance from those wanting a government that was “partly national, partly federal.” Anti-Federalist critics of the proposed Constitution, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, wanted even more checks upon centralized political power. They nearly sabotaged the Constitution because they feared it would undermine generations of federal traditions.
In exchange for ratifying the Constitution, Anti-Federalists insisted on specifically limiting its power over things best left to state governments.
The First Amendment offers an excellent illustration. While preventing the central government from politically supporting a national church, it ensured that only state governments could establish a religious denomination or not. Massachusetts and New Hampshire, for example, kept their religious establishments; Virginia kept none. All three maintained their diverse religious communities in their own way—and incidentally, religion flourished throughout the United States. This was real federalism at work.
It took time, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Americans settled into a familiar pattern of a limited, dull, national government; innovative state governments; and diverse and protected local communities. The result was an incredible and unmistakable freedom of association. Their flourishing fostered an endless array of parallel societies occupying the same country in a way that was truly exceptional among other nations. Social relationships grew in both number and complexity. While visiting the United States in the 1830s, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville invented the term “individualism” to explain what he saw. He argued that the source of American “democracy” lay in the intermediary institutions that existed between the individual and the national government—things like extended families, churches, trade associations, and even a myriad political offices at the state and local levels. The term he should have used, however, was “federalism.” At the time he wrote his famous Democracy in America, Americans were not individuals in the sense that intermediate institutions totally insulated them from political power. Instead, Americans found their attention pulled from innumerable directions and came to define freedom, not as a set of liberties granted to them by the government, but as membership in an abundance of relationships and associations. In short, freedom and federalism meant voluntary fellowship with one another.
Government, far from being at the top of society, became just another kind of association, equal to the rest and equally competing for a person’s attention.
At the same time, federalism also gave an uneasy lack of permanence to life if only because Americans constantly struggled with anything commanding their complete devotion. Until the twentieth century, no American city dominated the national culture. In fact, it was not until the 1830s that New York City exceeded the size of ancient Athens. There was nothing like a Paris, Berlin, or London let alone a sectional, ruling class setting the standard for what the rest of the country must believe. For that matter, there was no national culture. State and regional cultures flourished, and generations later, increased immigration and urbanization at the beginning of the twentieth century compounded the diversity.
Even those things many wanted to be supreme—religion, marriage, home and family—competed for a person’s time and attention. For Americans, possessing strong communal commitments led to a highly complex level of existence. In the twentieth century, many Americans found it easier to dedicate their lives to a limited number of things such as a factory, a union, a reform crusade, a local church, or even to simplistic, national political ideals made popular in the Progressive era. For this reason, political movements like Progressivism challenged both the inherent federalism of American common life and the federal political institutions that sustained it. The progressives’ main goals were to centralize the national economy, culture, and political system under their leadership, in order to exercise their dominance. But despite the best efforts of progressive politicians, educational reformers, and intellectuals, their success at centralizing American life could not overcome the instilled, communal mindset of Americans.
Dedicated as they were to a myriad of social relationships, Americans resisted progressive efforts at consolidation of a national culture. Even what was arguably the single greatest progressive reform—twelve years of age-graded, public education—served to further differentiate Americans by race, class, and cultural interest. While the end of racial segregation in the 1950s coincided with the emergence of a youth culture built around film and Rock and Roll music, the national youth culture quickly broke apart by the end of the 1960s. Within another generation, American public schools became proving grounds for a wide variety of youth cultures ranging from “jocks” and “geeks” to “hipsters” and “millennials.” Even the values of a national culture built by progressives and their intellectual descendants fell apart by the 1980s. The progressives insisted on instilling democratic values of inclusiveness, dedication to the national government, and a detachment from local communities. Ironically, their efforts often backfired and led to rising levels of migration, insular communities, and strong animosity toward national political policies. Perhaps the final defeat to nationalist measures emerged in the 1990s as the internet provided Americans with new forms of social networking. At odds with the progressive instinct for controlling information, the internet breathed new resilience into the American dedication to social federalism. It is likely these developments will erode progressive centralization of political power and reinvigorate political federalism.
To be clear, federalism and modern, liberal democracy are not synonymous. Indeed, they often work against each other. Modern democracy rests on the inherent equality of individuals, whose dignity as human beings derives from their inclusion and participation in a political system. In this regard, citizenship means exercising political power. Public service, voting, familiarity with political institutions, and advocacy that brings an ever increasing number of once private matters into public decision making, all identify good citizenship in a democracy.
Federalism makes no claims about political power being a means of acquiring human worth. Indeed, federalism seems to be the exact opposite. Centralized political power threatens the natural diversity of human interests and communities. Under federalism, human dignity, like human freedom, depends on the degree to which people associate with one another. Political obligations are merely one of countless ways people may interact, which in turn takes from politics its claim of superiority.
New social networking technology demonstrates how federalism often works against democratic, political institutions. Take voting for example. In a democracy, a person exercises power when he or she votes for a candidate. If one decides not to vote, then she technically has no real power or influence. Nonvoters are limited in ways to “promote” their interests. Social networking and the internet changed this. Now, through blogging, answering political surveys, social network postings, and “liking” countless human activities, people engage political life in ways previously unknown. Today, everyone is his/her own politician. Everyone can advocate, and anyone with an internet connection can campaign for a preferred interest. While they may not access taxpayer money, they still shape political policy and even the actions of many businesses and social groups through channels outside the political system. The end result could be further weakening of popular attachments to political institutions.
Federalism in all its forms also means that citizenship takes on a whole new role, especially for Americans. Americans shape their world in a variety of ways that are rarely political in the sense that they relate to government policies. Good citizenship does not require one to swear fealty to the government or its leaders. Instead, good American citizenship instills a willingness to defend those associations such as families, businesses, and social networks, that define us as members of our communities, that give us human dignity, make our lives worth living, and allow us to govern ourselves instead of being governed from above.