Constitution Lectures 5: Federalism vs. Nationalism (HD version)

Uploaded by shanedk on 25.02.2010

Welcome to Part 5 of our lecture series on the Constitution. In previous lectures, we’ve
been covering the founding principles behind our Constitution. They are the principles
that were universally agreed to, both at the time of ratification and in the court precedents
that follow it. But now, we look at a controversy to which there was no agreement.
Some of the founders were federalists, and some were nationalists. We’ll talk about
those concepts and what they mean. Understand that neither of these two factions won out
over the other, and so the Constitution is a compromise between these two.
The controversy was first laid out in the debates in the Federal Constitutional Convention.
According to James Madison’s minutes, it was Gouveneur Morris who laid out the controversy,
saying that a federal government was “a mere compact resting on the good faith of
the parties,” and a national government has “a complete and compulsive operation.”
He also expressed his preference for a national government.
So a federal system, or a federation, is a coalition or covenant of different groups,
in this case, states. The state governments came together to join a union, a federation,
and the Constitution creates that union.
A federal system is a bottom-up hierarchy, with supreme power emanating from below, in
this case, from the people, who give some powers to the state governments, and the states
give even fewer powers to the federal government.
This results in local governments having the most power. This was seen as being essential
to liberty, since it’s a lot easier to deal with an oppressive local government. People
have much more power and influence locally than they do federally. Not only that, it’s
a lot easier for someone to move over to the next town than it is to move to another state,
and it’s a lot easier to move to another state than it is to pack up and emigrate to
another country entirely. In this way, there was competition between different governments
and different ways of doing things.
This means that very few powers are centralized in the federal government. The federal government
has no business intruding into the internal affairs of the states, and it is limited in
what it can tell the states to do when dealing with each other or other countries.
A national government is opposite in practically every way. It is a large government divided
into states, the power structure is top-down, and it is the central government where all
the power rests. The central government then gives up some of its power to the states,
who give up some of their powers locally.
The Constitution is basically a federalist document. The people were very wary of strong
central governments, having just gone through a lot of trouble to overthrow one. However,
it is not purely federalist; there are nationalistic aspects of it.
The Constitution sets up the country as a union of sovereign states, each with full
autonomy over their purely internal affairs, as long as the actions taken by the state
do not violate the Constitution.
Some powers, as we saw in Lecture 3, are specifically enumerated to the Federal government. In those
particular areas, the Federal government acts as a National government, with full Constitutional
power to take all actions necessary and proper to execute those powers.
In addition, some powers of the states were expressly prohibited. For example, Article
I Section 8 gives the Federal government the power to coin money; Article I Section 10
prohibits the states from coining money, and from making anything except gold and silver
coin legal tender. So from a monetary standpoint, our government is nationalist, not federalist.
Also, it is the Federal government, not the states, that is the judge of its own powers.
The system of checks and balances set up by the three branches, as we discussed in Lecture
3, was put in place to prevent the Federal government from usurping too much power.
Of course, the states and the people do have one recourse when they disagree with what
the Federal government determines its own powers to be: the process of amendment.
Here’s where things get confusing. Federalism is now most strongly associated with Alexander
Hamilton and his faction. The Hamiltonians believed in a strong central government, with
extra-constitutional functions such as a national bank. This would make them nationalists. But
understand that the people were very wary of nationalism. Concerned for their political
future, they took the moniker, “Federalists.”
In this way, they sought to present their arguments as more palatable by the people.
Their main arguments, published in what have become to be known as The Federalist Papers,
lay the justification for the Constitution as proposed by Congress. However, a good many
of these were written by James Madison, who was only nationalistic in certain aspects,
as defined by the constitution, as we saw. He was more philosophically aligned with the
They were now stuck with the moniker “anti-Federalists,” even though they themselves were philosophically
federalist. If you’ve ever been upset by our government using the wrong word to describe
something in order to make it seem more desirable, understand that this practice started before
our country was even founded.
The end result is that we have a federalist (or Jeffersonian) Constitution in all areas
except those specifically mentioned in Article I Section 8. In those areas, the Constitution
is nationalist, particularly where those functions are prohibited to the states. That’s how
our government is primarily federalist in most ways, but nationalist in a few others.
We still refer to the central government as the Federal government, even though in recent
decades it has gotten more and more nationalistic and much further away from the federalist
government it was designed to be. Until next time, stay strong and be free.