Did the US Constitution create a National Government or a Federal Government?

Posted on May 28, 2011


The Myth

The government created by the United States Constitution is a powerful “national” government with political authority concentrated in Washington DC. The States are mostly controlled by Washington DC. This national government can pass any laws it wishes and the States must comply. These laws can touch each and every individual living in this country. The national government can regulate every aspect of private and commercial activity throughout the entire country.

The Truth

The government created by our Constitution is actually much closer to the “federal” type of government that is the weak central government tying together a confederation of independent sovereign nations.  The framers if the Constitution created a unique variation of the federal type government. Their new creation is stronger than a traditional federal government but is much closer to this type in terms of power and centralization of political authority compared to a national government.

The States are mostly sovereign entities that serve as checks on the power of the federal government. The federal government is sovereign over States only in areas spelled out in the Constitution. Federal laws can only reach down below the State level in a limited number of well defined areas mostly relating to taxation. The Constitution leaves with the States the vast majority of government powers affecting lives of the people living in the States.

The Facts

Most of the people living in the 13 Colonies at the time we broke from England had themselves, or their decendents, escaped countries with strong centralized national governments.  After living under the oppressive national government of England and witnessing similar conditions in all other European countries with national governments, our founding fathers knew that all-powerful centralized national governments were harmful to the individual liberty and the prosperity of the citizens living in those countries.

 Our founding fathers feared strong, centralized, national governments so much their first attempt at creating a government for the United States went too far in the opposite direction. The central government created by the Articles of Confederation was a failure because it proved to weak. This government consisted of just one legislative body made up of two delegates from each State. The legislature had virtually no power to restrain the States from engaging on acts that were harmful to the country as a whole. States constantly interfered with the free flow of goods between the States and printed vast quantities of worthless paper money. There was no chief executive to negotiate foreign trade deals with and make timely decisions in times of crisis. There was no Supreme Court to settle disputes with States. The federal government could only request taxes from the States. The US government had no authority to compel the States to comply with these requests.

 By 1787 there was general consensus by our founding fathers that the problems with the Articles of Confederation needed to be fixed.  They convinced the congress to call forth a convention of delegates from the States to fix the problems with the Articles. The convention was only authorized to fix the Articles, not write a whole new constitution. It was quickly decided by the convention delegates that there was no hope of repairing the Articles of Confederation. They decided the Articles of Confederation needed too replaced with a new constitution.

 Before all of the delegates arrived in May of 1787, the delegation from Virginia put together a plan for a new constitution for the United States. James Madison was the primary author of what became known as the Virginia Plan. This plan included some proposals that were more national in nature.  These national proposals included: federal government had the power to veto State Laws and the federal; government could send troops to force the States to comply. The New Jersey delegation introduced a plan that more closely resembled a federal government. These two competing plans were debated at length early on in the convention which focused the debate on whether the new government would be national or federal in nature. The Virginia plan proved to be the model the new government would follow but the most overtly national featured were removed. The US legislature could not veto State laws and could not call out the military on the States.

 The debate whether the new constitution would be a consolidated national government with very weak State governments or a federal government with sovereign states continued throughout the convention. When they finally wrote our Constitution they created a government that is a blended national/federal government that is mostly federal in nature.

The final product the framers of the Constitution created is a government that is mostly federal because each State is mostly a sovereign entity. Our government is not completely federal because the States are not completely sovereign as they are in a true federation. When the States ratified the Constitution they transferred some aspects of their sovereignty to the federal government but retained the majority of their government powers. These aspects of sovereignty they transferred are clearly spelled out in the Constitution and relate to the relationship of the State with foreign governments and other States. The States retained virtually all of their government powers that deal with the individual citizens that live in the State and commercial organizations that call that State home.

The new constitution specifically denied the States those government powers that led to problems under the Articles of Confederation. Only the federal government can negotiate treaties with foreign countries, regulate the commerce between the States, impose duties on imported goods, and create money.

The new government appears to be a national government from the outside because there is one government for foreign nations to deal with and there is a central government that keeps the peace between the individual States. From the inside the new government appears to be a federal government because the country is a collection of mostly sovereign States.

It is clear that the framers of the Constitution wanted the government of the United States to remain mostly federal in nature because they added many features to the Constitution that they believed would prevent the government from becoming a national government.. These protections include limiting the US government to only a predetermined list of powers that are clearly spelled out. The US government is made up of three separate branches that can check usurpations by the others. Because the States are mostly sovereign they make the majority of decisions for themselves that affect the lives of their citizens. This disperses government power throughout the entire country. The federal government remains small because it does not have to legislate and plan for the individual citizens of the country, that is left to the States. Because the federal government was meant to remain small and limited, the States can keep the federal government in check.

 Sadly the progressives have weakened all of these provisions by disregarding the original meaning and purpose of the Constitution. They weakened all the protections the framers placed in the Constitution to the point the protections are virtually gone. The progressives have transferred to the federal government those functions and government powers that were meant to remain with the States. Because these functions and powers were transferred from the States the federal government has grown in size so much the States can no longer adequately provide a check against the power of the federal government. The Sates are no longer sovereign because the federal government constantly passes laws that interfere with their sovereignty. The federal government first got the States to comply with these unconstitutional laws by providing money for the States to implement these laws. Large groups of the citizens became dependent on federally funded programs created by these laws. If the States later refuse to comply with existing unconstitutional laws or future laws the federal government uses the funding for these programs as a weapon to make the States comply.

The Progressives have moved us so far away from the federal government created by the Constitution that our government is now a national government that has proved to be as harmful to individual liberty and our prosperity as the governments our founding fathers fled.

The Proof

The founding fathers added the 10th Amendment to the Constitution to make it absolutely clear that we have a mostly federal government. Here is the 19th Amendment.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

There are only 20 powers assigned to the Federal Government and only a few denied the States

James Madison recorded the debates from the Constitutional Convention and they were published under the title Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.  These topics are discussed frequently throughout the entire book. Some example can be found on pages 74-76, 78, 79, 90, 91, 121, 123, 129, 152,153. This is only a small sample.

James Madison wrote about this topic in Federalist Paper 39. Here is s section from that essay.

The idea of a national Government involves in it, not only an authority over the individual citizens; but an indefinite supremacy over all persons and things, so far as they are objects of lawful Government

 the proposed Government cannot be deemed a national one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects

The proposed Constitution therefore is in strictness neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both. In its foundation, it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the Government are drawn, it is partly federal, and partly national: in the operation of these powers, it is national, not federal: In the extent of them again, it is federal, not national: And finally, in the authoritative mode of introducing amendments, it is neither wholly federal, nor wholly national.

 Thomas Jefferson discussed this in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.

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