And very few powers were delegated to the federal government. Those power relationships between the states and the federal government were reversed in the Constitution, with the states' rights language almost completely eradicated.
Tea Party activists will often cite the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution as evidence that the Founders were strong advocates for states' rights, since it says "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."
But the Tea Partiers miss the point again. The Constitution granted broad powers to the federal government -- even the regulation of national commerce -- so there were far fewer powers left for the states. The Tenth Amendment amounted to a sop to mollify the anti-federalist bloc that was trying to block ratification of the Constitution by the 13 states.
To further appreciate how modest the Tenth Amendment concession was, you also must compare its wording with Article II of the Confederation. Remember, Article II says "each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence," while the Tenth Amendment simply says powers not granted to the federal government "are reserved to the States" or individuals.
Only years after the Constitution was adopted -- and the South began to appreciate that its agrarian economy and its institution of human slavery would be threatened as the North and the free states grew in industrial power and in immigrant population -- did an aggressive effort emerge to reinterpret the Constitution.
In the early 1830s, Southern politicians led the "nullification" challenge to the federal government, asserting that states had the right to nullify federal laws, such as a tariff on manufactured goods. In effect, the South was reasserting the states' sovereignty principle that had been lost with the ratification of the Constitution.
"Nullification" was thwarted by President Andrew Jackson who threatened to deploy troops to South Carolina to enforce the federal supremacy established by the Constitution.
In December 1832, Jackson denounced the "nullifiers" and declared that "the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed."
Jackson also rejected as "treason" the notion that states could secede if they wished, noting that the Constitution "forms a government not a league," a reference to the line in the Articles of Confederation that had termed the fledgling United States "a firm league of friendship" among the states, not a government.
The nullification crisis was defused, but a few decades later, the South's continued resistance to the constitutional preeminence of the federal government led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. It took the Union's victory in the Civil War to firmly settle the issue of the sovereignty of the national Republic over the states.
However, the defeated South still balked at the principle of equal rights for blacks and invoked "states' rights" to defend segregation during the Jim Crow era. White Southerners had amassed enough political clout, especially within the Democratic Party, to fend off civil rights for blacks.
The battle over states' rights was joined again in the 1950s when the federal government finally committed itself to enforcing the principle of "equal protection under the law" as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Many white Southerners were furious that their system of segregation was being dismantled by federal authority.
The South's anger was reflected in the prevalence of the Confederate battle flag on pickup trucks and in store windows. White Southerners were expressing the bravado of secession even if it was more tough talk than anything real.
That neo-Confederate spirit has resurfaced in today's Tea Party movement with one early favorite, Gov. Rick Perry, musing about the right of Texas to secede from the Union if the state disagreed with federal policies.
Perry's neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution reflects the Right's success in distorting American history for political purposes. And Perry's confusion about the century when the Revolution was fought is indicative of the stupidity that enables the false history to work.