Republican Self-Governance Essay Series
THE COMPOUND REPUBLIC: FEDERALISM
The Political Theory of Federalism
Ginger Deegear - New Revolution Now Contributor
Perhaps the most important and certainly the most innovative of the “auxiliary precautions” featured in the proposed constitution for the American government is what was then called the “federal system.” While federations (or confederations) of sovereign nations had been known as forms of government since antiquity the federal system established by the American constitution was, as termed by constitutional scholar Benjamin Wright, “a new species of federal government". James Madison termed this new form of federalism a “compound republic” and defined its essential features in Federalist Papers #51.
“First in a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”
Up until the passage of the US Constitution in 1787, the central government in federations acted primarily as the agent of the member states and had no independent existence or powers of its own. Indeed, such was the character of the Articles of Confederation established by the newly independent American states. The 1787 Constitution established a political regime of dual sovereignty consisting of the existing states and a new central government of enumerated and independent powers that was given the same authority as the states to act, within its own sphere, directly on “individual citizens composing the nation in their individual capacities.” The new central government, like the states, would have legislative, judicial and executive authority, including the power of taxation; however, as Madison observes, “it cannot be deemed a national one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several states a residual and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” [Madison Federalist Papers #39]
To the founding generation the concentration of power was considered the enemy of liberty and the division of governing powers was held an essential principle of republican political theory but the division of sovereignty itself was an entirely new concept. The states brought with them into the new union a long history and tradition of constitution making and local self-government and the fear that the proposed central government would “usurp” the sovereign powers of the states and ultimately become a “tyranny” was one of the overriding concerns of the constitutional debate.
The existence of dual governments with concurrent jurisdiction on taxing and perhaps other matters increased concern over the role of the judiciary in deciding “controversies relating to the boundary between the two jurisdictions.” It was however this very division of sovereignty -- what we now call federalism -- that was heralded by the supporters of the constitution as the essential component that was to ensure the defense of the people’s liberties against governmental abuse.
“Power being almost always the rival of power, the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments, and these will have the same disposition towards the general government. The people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate. If their rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress….It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”[Hamilton, Federalist #28]
Factions, defined by Madison as groups of citizens advancing interests “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” were seen as the primary evil incident to popular governments. Majority factions in self-governing societies have the opportunity to pass legislation infringing the rights of other citizens. The plan of government established by the founders relied on two principle features to preserve the republican form against the influence of faction: representation and federalism. The compound republic as devised in the American Constitution assists citizens in securing their rights and liberties against the influence of factions by assuring two legitimate and competing sources of governmental authority to pose against each against the other in the event of abuse of powers by either one. “In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government” [Madison, Federalist #10]
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