The chaos that is engulfing Europe, where 17 countries share a common currency (the euro) but lack a unified fiscal policy, underscores again the wisdom of America's Framers, who cast aside a states-rights-oriented system in favor of a strong central government, which ironically is now what the Tea Partiers want to dismantle.
The Tea Partiers, with their intense hatred of the federal "guv-mint" and their love of states' rights, fail to appreciate what the Framers actually achieved in 1787 and why they did it. If the Tea Partiers could think clearly, they might look at the crisis in Europe and come away with a deeper appreciation of Washington, both the capital and the Founder.
American unity, contrasted with Europe's disunity, also has helped keep U.S. borrowing rates low by again distinguishing the U.S. dollar as the world's preeminent currency. Some countries and cartels were thinking about switching to the euro, but now have rethought that idea. Foreign capital is surging into U.S. bond markets. The dollar again is king.
Though the Framers of the U.S. Constitution couldn't have anticipated this valuable gift that they passed down to their posterity, their insights into the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation -- and the audacious decision by George Washington, James Madison and others to scrap that initial governing structure in 1787 -- have served the nation well.
The Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787, emphasized the independence and sovereignty of the 13 original states. Because of that, the young nation lacked a common currency and states could renege on promised financial commitments to the weak central authority.
General Washington, in particular, despised this system because it often left his troops without desperately needed supplies and contributed to near mutinies. After the Revolutionary War ended, Washington also observed how the divisions among the 13 states slowed the country's economic development and invited commercial incursions by European powers.
So, when Madison, as a Virginia legislator, tried to amend the Articles of Confederation to give Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, Washington lent his strong support:
"The proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure. We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be."
However, Madison's amendment was rejected, leading him to an even more radical idea -- seeking a convention ostensibly to consider a series of amendments to the Articles but to which he brought an entirely new governing structure. Once the delegates got to Philadelphia, the doors were closed to the public and the Federalists proposed scrapping the Articles entirely.
Ditching the Articles
After a hot summer of debate and compromise, the new Constitution stripped out all language about the independence and sovereignty of the states and made federal law supreme. The Constitution gave the central government the power to print currency and inserted Madison's commerce idea, granting Congress broad -- indeed unlimited -- powers to regulate interstate commerce.
The new federal powers were so sweeping that the Constitution stirred intense opposition from the Anti-Federalists who rallied to block ratification.
Dissidents from Pennsylvania's convention delegation wrote:
"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." [See David Wootton, The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.]
As resistance to Madison's plan spread -- and as states began electing delegates to their ratifying conventions -- Madison feared that his constitutional masterwork would go down to defeat or be subjected to a second convention that might remove important federal powers like the Commerce Clause.
So, Madison -- with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay -- began a series of essays, called the Federalist Papers, to counter the fierce (though generally accurate) attacks by the Anti-Federalists against the Constitution's broad assertion of federal power.
Madison's essays in the Federalist Papers veered from a spirited defense of the new system's advantages to a lawyerly downplaying of how drastic the changes were. In Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison envisioned major construction projects under the powers granted by the Commerce Clause.
"[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements," Madison wrote. "Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.
"The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete."