Has Federalism Failed in the United States of America?

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Has Federalism Failed in the United States of America?

Postby macko123456 » 16 October 2011, 10:31

This is really for mr-tom, but anyone else who wants to read and critique is welcome to do so.

Mackenzie Robinson-Hunt
Has Federalism Failed in the United States of America?

To properly answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the nature of a federal republic such as the United States of America and why America was set up as the Constitution outlines. A federal system of government is a middle ground between strong centralism and state powers, involving a degree of decentralisation but still vesting some major powers in a central government. In the United States, this translates into the never-ending conflict of wills between the individual states and what is known correctly as the Federal Government. But why did the Founding Fathers intend to set up a federal republic? Why did they not design a stronger government or give more power to the states? The answers to these questions lie in the background against which they drew up their Constitution during that sunny September of 1787.

On the 4th of July 1776, the fifty-six delegates to the first Continental Congress of the United Colonies signed into law a statement known as the Declaration of Independence. At the time, it was widely believe that they were signing their own death warrants, as the document would inevitably represent the first step to a war against England and their trial on the charge of treason. They could never have predicted that the anticipated conflict would end in victory – not only that, but the formation of a new country: the United States of America. They wrote the Declaration in response to what they saw as the tyranny of King George III. The King – and with him the Westminster Parliament – treated the United Colonies not as areas of the British Empire but as farmland, their only purpose to be exploited for as much money as possible. None of the residents had the right to vote or stand as MPs, and they were refused citizenship of Britain. It was this that drove them to commit a bold political move. The war had begun not long earlier and the states, sensing between them that it was not to be a short or peacefully resolved conflict, chose to simply declare their complete and total independence and live or die by it. They drew up a stunning document flying in the face of British values: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This sentence was aimed directly at the prominent philosophy of the day, the Divine Right of Kings, and made the United States of America the first country to openly deny it.

Six years later, in 1783, Britain and America signed the Treaty of Paris and formally separated into two nations. The Treaty consisted of several clauses, the last of which was the “total and official abandonment by the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Scotland of any claims to the land or people of the United States.” The war was won, and the United States of America was finally independent. In 1777, during the early stages, the Continental Congress had made the bold move of setting out a Constitution for the country in readiness for their potential victory. This document, named the Articles of Confederation, outlined the ways in which their country would be run. A fear of a unified kingdom under British rule led them to invest almost all of their power in the individual states. The second section of the Articles reads: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation directly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” In other words, the states had almost complete independence.

This system was always bound to fail. There was very little semblance of a national government, and what there was had no power to enforce its laws. National legislation was decided exclusively by Congress: there were no executive or judicial branches. Each state sent between two and seven delegates to Congress on the first Monday of each November, but they retained the right to recall them or replace them whenever they wanted. Furthermore, the states were given only one vote each, so Rhode Island had as much input as New York even though their populations were vastly different. The main weakness of this system was that it allowed the states to make independent treaties with each other and with other nations. There was also no mechanism for resolving disputes between states.

The United States after the War of Independence was an extremely weak country under the Articles. Even outcry from George Washington, who at that point was famous for being a well-noted military general and politician during the Revolution, did nothing to resolve the situation. Things came to a head in 1786, when influential and wealthy Massachusetts farmers gathered in the town of Uxbridge to discuss their unhappiness about having to pay money to France and the other European nations that had helped them during the War. These countries demanded a tax in gold and silver as repayment and the state government had agreed to levy an income tax on its residents in return. It even went so far as to confiscate houses and possessions. Veterans of the Continental Army, who had retired only three years earlier, formed a militia led by Daniel Shays and petitioned the state government in Boston. Finally, Governor James Bowdoin took action and employed two ex-generals, Benjamin Lincoln and William Shepard, to defend his courthouse so he could continue to issue property confiscation demands. He issued a statement warning that the country would descend into anarchy if the law was not followed. Shays set out for the Springfield Armory with the intent of defending it, knowing Shepard – being a politician – could only occupy it with Congress’ permission and that Congress was out of session. Shepard acted against orders, however, and moved to secure the building first. There was a brief confrontation in which Shepard fired his cannons, killing four of Shay’s men and wounding twenty more. The rebels broke and were all captured, but pardoned in 1788.

Shays’ Rebellion was not the only reason the Philadelphia Convention convened three months later, but it was a considerable factor. George Washington repeated his calls for a stronger national government to prevent the repetition of such an incident and this time, the states listened. After the Rebellion failed in February of 1787, many states began handing land over to the government, which the Articles said could not be taxed by foreign powers. It was widely agreed that the widespread calls for democracy after the Revolution had spread too much and needed to be contained. To this end, fifty-five delegates representing all the states met in Philadelphia and spent the next five months producing the United States Constitution, a document that was originally designed to enshrine the principles of the Articles of Confederation in a stronger law but ended up completely revising the political system and creating a Federal Government.

It was recognised that the national government under the Articles had been weak, indecisive and lacking in the authority to enforce its own laws. To that end, delegates representing the cases for and against a Federal Government drew up a compromise. There was indeed to be a national government, but separated into three distinct branches, only small elements of which would be directly elected for fear of too democratic a society. Congress, the legislature, was formed of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Only the latter was elected. The executive was headed by the EXOP, two members of which were elected: the President and the Vice-President. The Supreme Court was completely unelected but was to be chosen by the executive and approved by the legislature. So it was that the Federal Government came into existence.

In this essay, I will be looking at how the system of relations between the states and the government has evolved over time and I will consider how it works today. I will conclude with whether or not federalism in the United States of America has failed and whether the government as set out by the Constitution has been successful. In short, I will evaluate the intentions of the delegates of the Philadelphia Convention and establish whether they are still carried forth today. Before I can begin answering these questions, however, I must also mention that the Constitution was designed to evolve and to be amended over time. To this end, a process of amendment was written into Article V and interpretations of the Constitution have changed beyond the delegates’ imagining. Federalism in the United States has gone through three stages since the document’s signing, and I will also ask at the end whether it is now entering a fourth.

For the first 150 years of the nation’s history, from the 1780s to the 1920s, a system of “dual federalism” dominated the relationship between the states and the government. The focus was very much on states’ rights: literally, the rights, powers and duties of state executives. In President Washington’s day, there were only three Federal Departments: the Department of the Treasury, the Department of War and the Department of State. The relative lack of power of the government is reflected in the Presidents that led it, with names like James Polk, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant and Chester Arthur. All of these have gone down in history as little more than men who held a ceremonial post and did an unremarkable job. The role of the President was simply as a spokesperson for the government in terms of foreign policy. He had almost no domestic power at all. The federal and the state governments were both of the belief that the system worked extremely well, and guarded their roles zealously.

Even through this, the role of the executive gradually increased. When the dual federalism era began in 1787, there were thirteen American states. By the end, in the 1920s, there were fifty, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Native Indians had been almost eradicated, along with several indigenous species. Motorcars were commercially available and the population had skyrocketed from four million to one hundred and six million. A growing nation required management from a growing government, one whose duty it was to build roads, telegraph lines and oil pipes across a continent. In 1903, the Federal Departments of Commerce and Labour were formed. The amount of seats in Congress grew so much that in 1860, the Capitol Building had to have two new wings built to fit the Senate and the House of Representatives. More importantly, the role of President became more than just a ceremonial position. Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson found themselves with increased power over foreign policy as the nation’s influence over the world stage grew. But all this was to change with the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, American seemed to be falling apart. The economy was in freefall, crime was rising and the social issues of civil rights and a growing middle class began to dominate the debates in Congress. Republican values, placing the emphasis on individual states and even people within them, went out of the window with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. FDR, using his promised New Deal, completely reformed the country and introduced a new system of government, known as “cooperative federalism.” The states and the Federal Government agreed for once that they had to work together to overcome the problems facing their country. This was seen by commentators and the public alike as the beginning of the end for true federalism in the United States of America. New Federal Departments were created to cope with emerging policy areas: Defence in 1949, Health, Education and Welfare in 1953, Housing and Urban Development in 1965 and Transportation in 1966. The Federal Government began to use these to administer grants, which represented a way for it to dictate how states spent the money allocated to them. By 1970, the government was intimately involved in several areas where only states had previously operated – education, transport and welfare. None of this, however, came close to the growth experienced by the executive.

When George Washington became President of the United States, he had very little domestic power. He could only suggest new legislation and nominate judges to the Supreme Court. Even by the time Chester Arthur took office several decades later, the role was mostly as a figurehead for the government, someone for the people to blame. But FDR found himself vested with more power than any other President in history, solving economic problems that the states couldn’t handle themselves and fighting a global conflict larger in scale than any seen before. By the end of World War Two, the United States was the dominant world power. The President’s foreign policy role, originally intended as nothing more than a good face for a nation, was suddenly as “leader of the free world.” America found itself with the most powerful military, social and economic forces in the world, and the size of the government ballooned to make room for them.

This naturally could not go on. A series of recessions after the war almost brought the government to a standstill on several occasions, and there was a discernable movement towards decentralisation. President Nixon ran on a platform of what he called “new federalism.” Whereas cooperative federalism had operated under four Democrat Presidents – Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson – new federalism operated under four Republicans – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush. It saw a shift from grants, which were symbolic of the government exercising power over states, to block grants: large sums of money allocated to large and vaguely defined policy areas for states to spend at their discretion. As Reagan said in his inauguration: “It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the People. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.” This marked the beginning of a new era of federalism, one in which great steps were taken to restore America to traditional values – in the Presidents’ view, those enshrined in the Constitution. The public backed these moves strongly, electing four Republican Presidents and calling for overhauls of the entire system. Unbeknownst to them, however, this third era would prove to be extremely unsuccessful.

As the twin towers fell in Manhattan on September 11th 2001, America was given a wake-up call and moved seamlessly into a widely acknowledged and continuing fourth era of federalism. It does not yet have an official title, but it would not be too much to call it “modern cooperative federalism.” For the first time in the country’s history, Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that the Federal Government needs to be strong if America is to successfully face its enemies both at home and abroad. In 2001, George Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, the first new Federal Department since Transportation in 1966. Where many had thought he would continue his recent predecessors’ policies of new federalism, he oversaw the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted government spending since Johnson’s Great Society in the mid-1960s. The 2008 recession marked the beginning of unparalleled cooperation between the government and the banks, with the Federal Reserve deeply implicating itself in Wall Street and the nation’s stock markets.

So with all this evidence, would it be fair to say that federalism has failed? The answer, of course, is both yes and no. I will now present the evidence arguing the case for both sides. Firstly, the powers of the individual states within the United States have clearly declined. There was a time, for example, when states could legislate on the income tax they levied on their citizens. The famous Supreme Court case of Marbury vs Madison in 1803, however, forced Congress to amend the Constitution and give itself the power to levy income taxes on American citizens. Also significant is the 2004 Washington Gun Control Bill, which was declared unconstitutional by the Court and represents a state being forced to change its legislative policies by an external body. The Founding Fathers could not have predicted this. Both of these serve as examples of how the states can be forced to make political and economic decisions by the government and by the Supreme Court.

But there are also reasons to believe that federalism is still alive and well in the modern United States. Despite the erosion of their power, the states have retained certain rights. As their influence over their own economic futures has declined, so their independence relating to their judicial branches remains firmly in place. A good example of this would be the recent case with the execution of Troy Davis in Texas, where President Obama refused to step in because he believed it would constitute an interference in state matters by the Federal Government. In the same way, states have control over their executives to a large extent. They are free to elect their own governors and to organise their governments. Perhaps most important, though, is the power of indirect federalism: that is, the states’ abilities to elect Representatives and Senators to have their say in Congress. Through this system, states can dictate United States policy and influence legislation because only residents of a given state have the right to vote in Congressional elections.

The Founding Fathers would never have intended for their country to end up like this, but then the Founding Fathers never foresaw World War Two, Vietnam, Nine-Eleven and the War on Terror. Yes, the individual states have less power apiece, but the more pertinent question is now not whether this is the case but whether it is a bad thing. The political mood of the United States has swung towards and away from federalism over the past hundred years, yet with population figures booming and several costly wars, the size and role of the government has done nothing but expand. The powers of states are now restricted to basic domestic issues, and even then they draw much of their funding from Washington. Federalism in the Founding Fathers’ eyes has failed, but it has left behind a system that has evolved over time through countless refinements to operate better than many global governments.

And yes, my full name is Mackenzie Robinson-Hunt, but I prefer Mack or Macko. I think my parents were drunk.
Last edited by macko123456 on 16 October 2011, 13:41, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Has Federalism Failed in the United States of America?

Postby mr-tom » 16 October 2011, 12:40

Very good.

I could find no typos or anything like that.

The arguments seem well reasoned although I will be honest and say that the history of the USA isn't my strongest point, so I can't comment on accuracy or otherwise

It feels that much of the essay has already been written before you get around to addressing the main question, but I think that works as the arguments leading up to that point do demonstrate the answer, although I wonder whether your word limit allows more detail from this point onwards: "So with all this evidence, would it be fair to say that federalism has failed?"

Arguably, your final point is the killer one (as it should be): "Federalism in the Founding Fathers’ eyes has failed, but it has left behind a system that has evolved over time through countless refinements to operate better than many global governments." I can't really say whether it does operate better than many global governments - I don't know how one would measure that - maybe via a balance of indices, but then there are many questions such as the degree of value added (they are building from a strong and secure base) that still make that a challenging question. That said, the alternative approach, of defining their eminence in the world in terms other than military is also fraught with difficulty, but that said, they are seen as one of the world's key nations and arguably with good reason. That's a long way of saying that Your final point is probably fine. :lol:

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Re: Has Federalism Failed in the United States of America?

Postby snick25 » 16 October 2011, 17:01

Very good essay. Although I did find one thing:

Even through this, the role of the executive gradually increased. When the dual federalism era began in 1787, there were thirteen American states. By the end, in the 1920s, there were fifty, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

There were only 48 states in 1920. Alaska and Hawaii both became states in 1959.

Also, when you are explaining modern cooperative federalism, I will agree that the country was somewhat united after 911, but today it is more divided than it has been in a long time.

Other than that, very nice job!

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