Constitution Day 2005

Federalism: A Constitutional Concept,
an American Habit, a Current Debate

By William Woodward, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Seattle Pacific University

To the horror of a nation, the storied city of New Orleans drowns. Before our eyes, an arc of the Gulf Coast disintegrates.

Slowly — doubtless too slowly — relief arrives, recovery begins. And recriminations fly: Who ought to have planned better, responded sooner? No matter how one casts (or denies) blame, at the center of the crossfire of accusations, I think, is this fundamental question: What level of government should step in when? Should America’s first response to disaster be the job of local, state, or national agencies?

Who’s in charge of this country, anyway?

Emergency response, like education or highways, is about both state’s rights and state’s responsibilities, about both federal action and federal restraints. How much power conferred on the federal government is enough, but not too much? How much independent action maintained for the states allows for rapid and locally appropriate action, without losing accountability to national standards and protections?

Take the use of National Guard troops as an example. It’s an organization often misunderstood. Some days after Katrina’s blitz, National Guard troops rolled into the picture even as complaints crescendoed that Washington, D.C., was responding too slowly. Now, many may miss the subtle irony here. It is indeed a key mission of the National Guard to augment emergency services when the need overwhelms regular civil resources. During my own 25 years as a Guard officer, the Washington National Guard often was called out to respond to natural disasters: fires, floods, and once, a volcano. In each case this was at the order of the governor, for in peacetime the National Guard is a state agency. George Bush has no authority to order the Guard into a disaster zone.

In its equally key mission as a military reserve, however, the National Guard is indeed a federal entity as well, subject to the call of the President into federal service. That the Guard can serve as both a state and national force has become much clearer to Americans, including so many in Washington state, as a result of the last decade’s repeated deployments of Guard men and women to the Balkans and the Middle East. So it is that the Washington Army Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team has recently returned from Iraq, and its 66th Aviation Brigade is now providing soldiers to the Katrina relief effort.

In short, citizen-soldiers who constitute the states’ first resource for augmenting emergency services have spent a lot of time training for and executing operations in support of overseas military missions.

My purpose is not to blame or exonerate, nor to explore the complexities of the Guard’s dual role. I merely use it as an illustration of the messy but justly celebrated system of government Americans have chosen to live under: a federal system, that is, a structure that limits and disperses power between national and state authorities.

The U.S. Constitution, whose 218th birthday we mark this September 17, established this fundamental philosophical and structural system called “federalism.” It has been highlighted anew by the Katrina catastrophe.

Moreover, it has received just a bit more attention lately in assessing the legacy of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice, William Rehnquist. Justice Rehnquist argued relentlessly for restoring power and autonomy to the states. In the mid-20th century, that view would have seemed quaint. Now it is respected, even if contested. The pendulum of power has been swinging back. Justice Rehnquist’s advocacy for reinvigorating the authority and prerogatives of state governments helped reverse a longstanding trend.

Has that been a good thing? In its appraisal of the Chief Justice, The Seattle Times gave tentative editorial approval. But those who believe the federal government should be ready and able to act directly and preemptively in a disaster may press for greater power to federal agencies, at least in emergency planning and management.

The debate over the precise balance of federalism goes on.

Let’s briefly review how the federal idea got started. Remember that as English and Dutch settlers displaced the native peoples of eastern North America, many distinct colonial governments were set up, with a range of connections to the home governments — some direct (New York), some quite tenuous (Rhode Island). By the mid-1700s, American colonials enjoyed relative autonomy from the crown, governing themselves mostly through the representative assemblies of their respective colonies.

That worked as long as the British government preferred commercial profit over imperial rule. But conflict with the French, whose imperial domain stretched from Quebec to New Orleans, changed things. In talks designed to woo the Iroquois tribes’ support for the British rather than the French, Benjamin Franklin, to enhance British colonial defenses, proposed a plan of intercolonial union that divided authority between Parliament in distant London and a super-legislature in America representing the several individual colonies. In short, Franklin imagined a “federal” relationship between colonies and crown. Too bold for 1754, Franklin’s plan was scorned on both sides of the Atlantic. But he was on to something.

Interestingly, the Iroquois League, the Six Nations of upstate New York, was itself a model of shared power. Some historians suggest Franklin got his federal concept from the Iroquois; others doubt a direct link. But clearly, in the vast spaces of North America, some kind of innovative administrative system was needed to balance central power and local control.

Within a decade after Franklin’s plan, colonials all along the seaboard had risen to protest increasing centralization of power in London. As the dispute worsened in the 1770s, John Adams offered a compromise: consider the colonial assemblies as mini-parliaments, he suggested, with each one directly loyal to the English monarch. Adams’ blueprint envisioned a kind of federal empire, with power allocated in part to a central government, in part to the constituent colonies in North America. Adams’ model would finally emerge in the 20th century as the British Commonwealth of Nations. But for now, British leaders would have none of it, and the Americans declared independence.

Let’s stop right there. Who declared independence? Go back to Philadelphia in July 1776, when the Continental Congress voted twice — once for independence, once for the text of the Declaration. In each case the members voted as a delegation, by state. In fact, the original printed (or “engrossed”) version of the Declaration reads “united States of America.” The word “united” is uncapitalized; it’s an adjective. Those delegates cherished not only their independence from England, but also from each other! Recognizing that they should stand together against the might of Britain — that they should be “united States” — they still firmly believed each state should retain extensive separate, sovereign powers.

That’s federalism.

During that same summer, the delegates also took steps to write a charter for permanent union. Finally approved in 1781, it was known as the Articles of Confederation — clearly based on the federal idea of shared power. John Dickinson, its author, called it a “firm league of friendship,” something like today’s NATO alliance, perhaps.

Reacting against Britain’s attempt to centralize power, the newly independent “States of America” created a national government under the Articles that proved too weak. Soon after the Revolutionary War, key leaders determined to come up with a stronger charter. In 1787, state delegations once again converged on Philadelphia. The result, signed on September 17, was our Federal Constitution, establishing “a more perfect union” with a strong, three-branch national government that still preserved strong state authority. In fact, when the first 10 amendments were adopted as our Bill of Rights, the Tenth Amendment proclaimed quite baldly that “the powers not delegated to the United States [government] by the Constitution . . . are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The nation’s founders consciously attempted to divide the indivisible. Dispersal of power, paradoxically, was central to maintaining the cohesiveness of America: “institutional decentralization and ideological uniformity,” as historian John Higham has put it. Accordingly, two other early initiatives ensured that federalism would be central to our concept of government — and enduringly contentious.

Even before independence was declared, the delegates to the Continental Congress dispatched the durable Dr. Franklin to Quebec to recruit a 14th member into the intercolonial coalition. Unimpressed, French Canadians declined. But it was clear from the outset that America was not to be a closed club.

Then, in the same year the Constitution was drafted, Congress passed an Ordinance for the West that provided for admitting new states. Think about it. The federal concept made it possible to imagine sharing power not only with 12 other states, but with unnumbered new partners in the federal structure. Powerful Virginia was willing for its one-thirteenth share of the power to shrink to one-fourteenth, or one-fifteenth, or . . . one-fiftieth. Just as important, Virginians and Yorkers and Pennsylvanians could head west, giving up the privileges and protections of citizenship, because they knew those rights would catch up with them eventually, in the new states of Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, or Washington.

Federalism was the key not only to local power and national cohesion but also to continental expansion.

The innovations of the nation’s founding didn’t settle the Federal Question, of course. In fact, we’ve been arguing about the precise balance and proper implementation ever since. Once we went to war over it.

The Civil War, it has been said, was about both state rights and human rights. Indeed, it was fought to prevent a minority of states from oppressing a minority of peoples — enslaved African Americans — within their respective states. The verdict of the Union victory was that states enjoy a measure of power, but not enough to withdraw from the constitutional system itself.

Yet state power endures. So now we wonder how a Supreme Court without Justice Rehnquist will resolve the continuing questions of central versus state power. And we’ll be asking whether state or national agencies should take the lead in response to natural calamities.

Federalism is still relevant to us.

Indeed, the concept of federalism has become part of the American genius, applied far beyond its original political meaning. The notion of a divisible locus of authority, in order to preserve unity while accommodating to diversity, became a universal organizational pattern. America became a nation of aggregates: fast-food franchises, local congregations, network affiliates, local chapters of national associations, branch campuses, and wholly owned subsidiaries. America perpetually and broadly reenacts one of its most eloquent mottoes: e pluribus unum: out of many, one. e pluribus unume pluribus unum

As a final, tangible illustration, take out a dollar bill. On the reverse side you can see the great seal of the United States. There it is, crowning the eagle’s head: e pluribus unum. Therein lies a tale.

Many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention who signed the final document on September 17, 1787, had been in the same Philadelphia hall 11 years earlier to sign the other great American charter document, the Declaration of Independence.

The Fourth of July 1776, the date when the assembled state delegations unanimously approved the text of the Declaration, marked the new republic’s birth date. With the unanimous vote tallied, the text of the Declaration adopted, a new nation came into being.

One can imagine the gavel pounding over the huzzahs of the delegates: “Gentlemen, GENTLEMEN! Begging your pardon; you will come back to order, sirs, we are not yet adjourned.” The President of the Continental Congress pointed out one more matter of business to keep them in that hot Philadelphia chamber on America’s natal day. A nation must have an emblem. The delegates pondered what to do.

Now it is a cardinal rule of organizations that those who do good work suffer the consequences: completed assignments beget further assignments. And so it was that the three luminaries who had brought in the draft Declaration — the august and aged Dr. Franklin of the host city, the stout and tireless Mr. Adams of radical Massachusetts, and the shy man of letters Mr. Jefferson of the South’s Virginia — were called back to service “to be a committee to bring in a device for a seal of the United States of America.”

As with the late literary chore, the Declaration, Franklin and Adams passed the buck to Jefferson, asking the Virginian to cobble a design from quite different initial ideas each had proposed. Jefferson, brilliant architect of documents and dwellings but not of logos, wisely hired a Swiss scholar named Pierre Eugéne Du Simitière to do the job. Further hands chipped in; gradually, over six years and a succession of committees, the Great Seal — a coat of arms for the new nation — took shape. The result, finally adopted in 1782, with its odd iconic figures blending snooty heraldry, period neoclassicism, and Masonic cultic symbolism will be familiar to anyone who has viewed last year’s film “National Treasure.”

As David Hackett Fischer details in his fascinating new book, Liberty and Freedom, during the Revolutionary era Americans crafted an array of visual symbols of liberty. Most were intended to symbolize the common cause through some kind of “unitary symbol” — a Liberty Tree, a serpent, a classical goddess. But some Americans sought to devise an “emblem of diversity” to reflect America’s regional and ethnic pluralism. To capture that dimension in the Seal, Du Simitière borrowed a well-known phrase from a popular magazine. It was an inspired idea, received “with high enthusiasm.” It highlighted the new nation’s multiethnic landscape but more importantly its strategic architecture.

To the founders, the American republic was a grand experiment of uncertain prospect. To solve the vexing conundrum of how to preserve liberty by keeping power in balance between the extremes of too little (anarchy) and too much (tyranny), they invented a republican government on a federal model. In a republic, those exercising power serve as representatives of a free people freely chosen. Because power corrupts unless carefully circumscribed, republican government builds in accountability. One such check on the abuse of power is the federal principle we have examined: distributing authority between central and constituent units, one “federal” out of many state governments. One out of many, e pluribus unum — a brilliant concept. They pictured it as a 13-pillared “federal edifice.”

Look more closely at the seal. It reminds us more particularly that the United States of America was one nation of 13 states. Thirteen is its iconic number: 13 stars, 13 arrows, 13 leaves on the olive branch. Above all, 13 levels in an unfinished pyramid. Thirteen states at birth, with an open prospect for more to join the federation, but also with an open invitation to struggle over how to define that federal allocation of power. Hence the debate over who should have jumped in when to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The federal question is as new as the latest state lawsuit over unfunded Congressional mandates, as old as the national existence of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It is the fulcrum balancing unity and diversity, separatism and consolidation, particularity and uniformity. But remember its purpose: out of many, one. E Pluribus Unum.

It’s not a bad concept for a university. Many disciplines — one learning task; many people from many backgrounds — one mission-driven university; many faith journeys — one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4). The federal concept, stretched metaphorically to describe our own diverse yet coherent institution, balances the authentic contribution of each member with the fundamental unity of the whole. In an age of fragmentation and self-preoccupation and jealous particularity, that essential integration, that one-out-of-many, vindicates Seattle Pacific’s claim to a common mission and a grace-filled community. Such balance makes possible Seattle Pacific University’s affirmation of a common Christian identity, defined as a commitment both broadly ecumenical and particularly evangelical, both historically orthodox and distinctively Wesleyan.

The federal idea undergirds our national charter. It’s America’s way of doing business. It also animates our university. In each instance it’s an invitation to an argument, and yet a magnet for a common identity.

After all, a whole nation now joins to help those rendered helpless by a deadly hurricane.

Thinking about the Constitution turns out to be surprisingly relevant, doesn’t it?