Thomas Jefferson: The Relations of State and Federal Government

Posted on June 5, 2013. Filed under: Government | Tags: , |

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I was pondering whether the Constitution has failed us, or if we have failed the Constitution.

Last month, I pondered the proper role of government.

While I have been researching the Founding Fathers views of the right to keep and bear arms, I ran across an 1824 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Major John Cartwright. Major Cartwright was an English naval officer and political reformer. He died about two months after this letter was written.

In his letter, Jefferson wrote the following (all emphasis mine):

Virginia, of which myself am a native and resident, was not only the first of the States, but, I believe I may say, the first of the nations of the earth, which assembled its wise men peaceably together to form a fundamental constitution, to commit it to writing, and place it among their archives, where everyone should be free to appeal to its text. But this act was very imperfect. The other States, as they proceeded successively to the same work, made successive improvements; and several of them, still further corrected by experience, have, by conventions, still amended their first forms. My own state has gone on so far with its premiere ebauche [first draft]; but it is now proposing to call a convention for amendment. Among other improvements, I hope they will adopt the subdivision of our counties into wards. The former may be estimated at an average of twenty-four miles square; the latter should be about six miles each, and would answer to the hundreds of your Saxon Alfred. In each of these might be, 1. An elementary school. 2. A company of militia, with its officers. 3. A justice of the peace and constable. 4. Each ward should take care of its own poor. 5. Their own roads. 6. Their own police. 7. Elect within themselves one or more jurors to attend the courts of justice. And 8. Give in at their Folk-house, their votes for all functionaries reserved to their election. Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well administered republic.

With respect to our State and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple integral whole. To the State governments are reserved all legislation and administration, in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners, or the citizens of other States; these functions alone being made federal. The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department. There are one or two exceptions to this partition of power. But, you may ask, if the two departments should claim each the same subject of power, where is the common umpire to decide ultimately between them? In cases of little urgency, the prudence of both parties will keep them aloof from the questionable ground: but if it can neither be avoided nor compromised, a convention of States must be called, to ascribe the doubtful power to that department which they think best. You will perceive by these details, that we have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable. 

Jefferson was the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, a President, and the founder of the Democrat Party. I think he would be shocked by what his party has become today.

From his point of view, the Federal government had a very limited role. It was to deal with other nations first and foremost. It was not to be supreme to the States, leaving domestic decisions up to the individual States, except as dealing with interstate relations; commerce, squabbles, alliances and duties, excises and tariffs. The federal government was not to take care of the poor, in fact, he didn’t seem to feel the State government was to fulfill that role.

However, in the 20th century, the Federal government began to exercise more and more control over the State governments. Why? Because the Twentieth Century saw a major push towards nationalization and an even more powerful national government that began with Abraham Lincoln.

The 16th Amendment gave the Federal government the power to tax. Teddy Roosevelt instituted the National Park system, purchasing land for the Federal government that the Federal government had no business purchasing. FDR instituted the food stamp program and social security. LBJ declared war on poverty and created the Medicare and welfare system. Obama took it one step further and instituted Obamacare.

Agencies such as the EPA, the FCC, the FDA, the IRS and the FBI suddenly sprang up in the 20th century, as the Federal government started to exert more authority under the guise of standardizing State laws. I know the IRS originated under Lincoln, but it became the entity that we know and love in the Twentieth Century.

Of course, Jefferson also saw that there may be some areas where the Federal government may have to step in, and disputes arise between the two governments, but these are mostly covered in the Constitution, the Federal government being given domain over interstate commerce, and it uses such powers to regulate airports, railroads and the interstate freeway system.

We saw in this last election, that agencies of the Federal government flexed their muscles in order to influence the outcome of the election.

That’s a sign of a government that has grown too powerful and too big. It doesn’t matter if the President knew about it or not. It was done on his behalf. While he may not be culpable for it, he should be held responsible, because it is his administration.

The Supreme Court of Charles Hughes in the case of UNITED STATES v. SPRAGUE, 282 U.S. 716 (1931), held:

The Tenth Amendment was intended to confirm the understanding of the people at the time the Constitution was adopted, that powers not granted to the United States were reserved to the states or to the people. It added nothing to the instrument as originally ratified and has no limited and special operation, as is contended, upon the people’s delegation by article 5 of certain functions to the Congress.

So, the Tenth Amendment adds nothing to the Constitution, except that it expressly says that any powers not laid out to the Federal government, nor prohibited to the States, are reserved to the States or to the People. That is a clarification of the extent of Federal power, and the origination of States’ Rights as far as the Constitution is concerned. However, after the American Civil War, this amendment has, for all practical purposes, been suspended as far as the Supreme Court is concerned.

The Federal government is too big. It has too much power.

It is well past time to put the Federal government back in its box and put it back into the role it was designed for, and that is not controlling our lives.

For my life decisions, that power is reserved solely to me, not the government.

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