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The Right's Inside-Out Constitution

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Still, the Constitution prompted fierce opposition from many prominent Americans who recognized how severely it reduced the powers of the states in favor of the central government. These Anti-Federalists decried the broad and sometimes vague language that shifted the country away from a confederation of independent states to a system that made the central government supreme.

What Madison and his cohorts had achieved in Philadelphia was not lost on these Anti-Federalists, including the Pennsylvania delegates who had been on the losing side and who then explained their opposition in a lengthy report which declared:

"We dissent ... because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government. "

"The new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states. ... The powers of Congress under the new constitution, are complete and unlimited over the purse and the sword, and are perfectly independent of, and supreme over, the state governments; whose intervention in these great points is entirely destroyed....

"The new constitution, consistently with the plan of consolidation, contains no reservation of the rights and privileges of the state governments, which was made in the confederation of the year 1778, by article the 2nd, viz. ...'That each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.'"

The Pennsylvania dissenters noted that the state sovereignty language from the Articles of Confederation was stripped out of the Constitution and that national sovereignty was implicitly transferred to "We the People of the United States" in the Preamble. They pointed out that the Constitution's Article Six made federal statutes and treaties "the supreme law of the land."

"The legislative power vested in Congress ... is so unlimited in its nature; may be so comprehensive and boundless [in] its exercise, that this alone would be amply sufficient to annihilate the state governments, and swallow them up in the grand vortex of general empire," the Pennsylvania dissenters declared.

Extreme Fears

Some Anti-Federalists charged that the President of the United States would have the powers of a monarch and that the states would be reduced to little more than vassals of the central authority. Others mocked the trust that Madison placed in his schemes of "checks and balances," that is, having the different branches of government block others from committing any grave abridgement of liberties.

Famed Revolutionary War orator Patrick Henry, one of the leading Anti-Federalists, denounced Madison's scheme of countervailing powers as "specious imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances." Henry and other opponents favored scrapping the new Constitution and calling a second convention.

Though the Anti-Federalists were surely hyperbolic in some of their rhetoric, they were substantially correct in identifying the Constitution as a bold assertion of federal power and a major transformation from the previous system of state independence.

For his part, Madison was not only the chief architect of this shift from state to national power, he even favored a clearer preference for federal dominance with his veto idea over actions by state assemblies, the proposal that died in the compromising at Philadelphia.

However, Madison and other Federalists faced a more immediate political challenge in late 1787 and early 1788 -- securing ratification of the new Constitution in the face of potent opposition from the Anti-Federalists. Madison was particularly concerned that a second convention would eliminate one of his pet features in the Constitution, granting the federal government control over interstate commerce.

Despite Madison's ploy of requiring special ratifying conventions in the various states, the Anti-Federalists appeared to hold the upper hand in key states, such as Virginia and New York. So, to defend the new Constitution, Madison joined with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in anonymously composing the Federalist Papers, a series of essays which not only sought to explain what the Constitution would do but -- perhaps more importantly -- to rebut the accusations of the Anti-Federalists.

Indeed, the Federalist Papers are best understood not as the defining explanation of the framers' intent -- since the actual words of the Constitution (contrasted with the Articles of Confederation) and the debates in Philadelphia speak best to that -- but as an attempt to tamp down the political fury directed at the proposed new system.

Downplaying the Changes

Thus, when the Anti-Federalists thundered about the broad new powers granted the central government, Madison and his co-authors countered by playing down how radical the new system was and insisting that the changes were more tinkering with the old system than the total overhaul that they appeared to be.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at more...)
 

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The best historical background blog on the issue I... by Jim Arnold on Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012 at 1:52:23 PM