A Principle of The Traditional American Philosophy


6. Decentralized Government

". . . true barriers [bulwarks] of our liberty in this country are our State governments . . ." (Thomas Jefferson, 1811 letter to Destutt de Tracy)

The Principle

1. The traditional American philosophy teaches that decentralization of governmental power, to the maximum practicable extent, is essential to the security of Man's God-given, unalienable rights.

Man's Unalienable Rights and "States Rights" Doubly Protected

2. It asserts that these rights are most securely protected by a federated system of government--consisting of a central government (a Republic) and State governments (each a Republic). Under this system, the whole quantity of governmental power is not only limited by written Constitution, Federal and State, but also decentralized so that the vast majority of powers are kept on the State and local levels. The correct definition of a Republic is: a constitutionally limited government of the representative type, created by a written Constitution--adopted by the people and changeable (from its original meaning) by them only by amendment--with its powers divided between three separate branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. The American system is "a compound Republic"--a federation, or combination, of central and State Republics--under which: "The different governments will control each other . . . ," while within each Republic there are two safeguarding features: (a) a division of powers, as well as (b) a system of checks and balances between separate departments: "Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people." (The Federalist, number 51, by Madison.)

Greater Quantity of Power Retained by Each State

3. By far the greater quantity and variety of power was retained by the government of each State when the United States Constitution was framed and adopted in 1787-1788. Only a comparatively small part of each State's power was delegated by its people to the new central, or Federal, government--chiefly the powers concerning "war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce" (per The Federalist, number 45 by Madison). This delegated-power government--the central Republic--was granted few and limited powers; while each State's government is a full-power Republic under the State Constitution, subject to its restrictions, also to that grant, and to the few restrictions specified expressly in the United States Constitution as applying to the governments of the States.

"Home Rule" the Basic, Controlling Principle

4. This federated system of decentralized power is a chief characteristic of the American governmental arrangements. This is in keeping with the controlling intent of those who framed and adopted each of its Amendments. The main aim was to preserve maximum "Home Rule" by the States, to keep the greatest feasible quantity of power as close as possible to the source--the people--where they can best watch it alertly so as to check and prevent its abuse or misuse, as well as to prevent its unsound, or unnecessary, expansion, to the peril or perhaps doom of their liberties.

Economic Liberty and Decentralized Government

5. Such decentralized government is favorable, indeed essential, to America's traditional philosophy and system of economic liberty--the inseparable and indispensable economic aspect of the indivisible whole of Individual Liberty-Responsibility. This includes the system of individual, private, competitive enterprise (called Individual Enterprise--the term used by President Jefferson in his 1801 Annual Message to Congress). This system features a free-market economy--free from Government-over-Man controls, although subject to just regulation as authorized by the Constitution's pertinent provisions) under just laws expressive of "just powers" (to use the term of the Declaration of Independence) designed to protect the equal rights of all Individuals and thus to safeguard sound competition--which gives full play to individual initiative inspired by the incentive of economic liberty of The Individual and is a main characteristic of the traditional American philosophy. This right is not a goal or end, in and of itself, but a necessary means, and it is an essential and main support of Man's unalienable rights. It involves freedom of choice by both producer-seller and consumer-buyer, subject always to the potently persuasive influence of community opinion and standards in the sound environment of an ethical society which emphasizes the duty factor of Individual Liberty-Responsibility, including due respect for the equal rights of others. This means that the central government is limited strictly to the consistent role of mere regulation (not control) to those ends--regulation as limited by the Constitution. This excludes any control by the central government directly or indirectly of the whole or any part of the national economy, which includes all of the people's economic activities.

The free-market economy is controlled by the people as a whole through their acting as buyers and sellers--a multitude of Individuals generally acting individually as both buyer and seller of things or services a number of times each day in the ordinary course of life's daily activities, involving transactions great or small--through their exercise of freedom of choice daily, even hourly; for example, the free-market economy is both a result and instrument of the exercise of this freedom of Individuals--not a mechanistic, independently operating "Thing" which oppressively controls human beings.

Sample Warnings by The Founders

6. The American people and their leaders in 1776-1787 were determined that the central government should never be allowed to possess power to act, or be permitted to act, as a "consolidated" government with sovereign, unlimited power over all of the people and things in the country. Vigilant friends of Individual Liberty, including for example leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, warned repeatedly and emphatically against the danger of ever permitting such a government to exist in America.

Samuel Adams' Opinion

7. Samuel Adams, firebrand patriot-leader always in the lead for both American Independence and Man's Liberty against Government-over-Man, expressed fear in this regard in 1789 (letter to Richard Henry Lee) in keeping with his never varying sentiments. He said that he feared misinterpretation of the Constitution would bring about fully centralized (consolidated) power in the Federal government at the expense of the States and "sink both in despotism."

Hamilton's Opinion

8. In the New York Ratifying Convention in 1788, Hamilton warned sharply that the States' powers reserved under the Constitution must be safeguarded for the sake of Individual Liberty and that Congress would never fail to safeguard them: ". . . unless they become madmen."

Hamilton and Madison in "The Federalist"

9. This sound line of thought was stressed by Hamilton and Madison, in their joint report in The Federalist (for example, numbers 17 and 28 by Hamilton, and 45 and 46 by Madison), recording the intent of the 1787 Framing Convention as expressed in the Constitution. The foregoing sentiments of these leaders were shared by their fellow leaders and the American people in general of that day--as reflecting truly American principles--and by Jefferson second to none.

Jefferson's Opinion

10. In his First Inaugural Address as President, Jefferson stated that the State governments are "the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies"--that is, tendencies which conflict with the American form of government: a Republic. He stated in a letter to Destutt de Tracy (1811): "But the true barriers [bulwarks] of our liberty in this country are our State governments . . ." With regard to the people's freedom from Government-over-Man controls by the Federal government, in keeping with the Constitution's limits on that government's power, Jefferson stated in his Annual Message to Congress, in 1801: "Agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise." In the above-mentioned 1811 letter, Jefferson also discussed the prospective use of the Militia of the States--all acting together--to resist the forces of any Federal usurpers acting in violation of the Constitution to oppress or dominate the people or government of any State.

Some Peaceable Remedies of the People Against an Offending Federal Government

11. Some of the peaceable remedies of the people of any State against what they consider to be anti-Constitution, or otherwise offensive, conduct by the Federal government--by any of its Branches, or by all of them combined--as contemplated by the Convention which framed the Constitution, were specified in The Federalist number 46 by Madison, with silent acquiescence of his co-author Hamilton, as follows:

"On the other hand, should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular states, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people, their repugnance and perhaps refusal to co-operate with the officers of the union, the frowns of the executive magistracy [officials] of the state, the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose in any state difficulties not to be despised; would form in a large state very serious impediments, and where the sentiments of several adjoining states happened to be in union, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter."

The most extremely "unwarrantable measure" is an unconstitutional measure. Madison here expressed the understanding also of those who framed the Constitution and of their fellow leaders in the State Ratifying Conventions as well as of the people in general--all extremely jealous of their hard-won liberties and determined to act vigorously against any danger to them from the greatly feared, central government if it should ever threaten to over-step the limits imposed on its powers under the constitution, as amended. Protests by State legislatures against what they would consider to be abuses of power or usurpations, potential or actual, by the central government were of course included as a main element in what Madison referred to her as "legislative devices . . . impediments . . . obstructions." Actual examples occurring afterward are the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.of 1798 and the Hartford Convention Resolutions of 1815 (discussed in Principle 3, Pars. 5-6). Some additional remedies of the people, of a peaceable nature, are political action--use of the ballot in elections--and amendment of the Constitution by the people (Art. V); while impeachment by Congress of any officials guilty of acting as defaulting public trustees is provided for (Art. I, Sec. 2,3).

State's Self-defense by Force, in Last Resort, per "The Federalist"

12. With regard to use by the States of force--use of their Militia forces (all able-bodied males capable of bearing arms)--in self-defense against any Federal usurpers seeking to oppress or dominate one or more States by force in violation of the Constitution's limits on Federal power, Hamilton and Madison discussed at length and in detail in The Federalist (numbers 28 by Hamilton and 46 by Madison) the assumption and expectation of The Framers that all States would marshall their forces and act jointly to crush the usurpers' forces. This understanding of The Framers was shared by the members of the State Ratifying Conventions and the leaders and people in general of that day--all fearless foes of any and all enemies of Free Man in America. They believed that all true Americans must be ready to fight and die for Liberty, especially against tyrannical Federal officials who, as usurpers, violate not only the Constitution but also their oath of office: to support the Constitution only. It was also contemplated that any non-military force used by the Federal usurpers would be countered by the States' use of their own non-military forces: Sheriff's posses (posses comitatus) and any civilian police forces. (See also Par. 12 of Principle 5.)

The Civil over The Military

13. The traditional American philosophy requires, as a fundamental of the system of checks and balances, that The Civil must always be in complete control of The Military. The Founders and their fellow Americans were painfully aware of the lesson of history that large standing armies are, in peacetime, potentially dangerous to the people's liberties. In 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rightsof Rights, for example, made this clear in these words: ". . . that standing armies in time of peace should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power." Another, related element in the system of checks and balances is the requirement of the Constitution (Article VI) that all Federal officials--both civil and military--take an oath to support the Constitution [only]; with the result that all military officers, thus controlled fundamentally and supremely by the Constitution, must be obedient to the civil authority--chief of all the President--but only as to orders which are not violative of the Constitution. The Military are, therefore, obligated by the Constitution not only to refuse to obey any orders of Federal usurpers--automatically made by the Constitution itself null and void from the start--but to support the Constitution only, at all times and under all circumstances, as the sovereign people's fundamental law. State officials, civil and military, are likewise so required to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States--meaning, in part, to resist Federal usurpers by all necessary means: by force in last resort.

The Conclusion

14. The truly American formula, in accordance with the traditional philosophy, for sound and enduring self-government by means of constitutionally limited government with adequate protection assured for Individual Liberty, is this: Limited and Decentralized for Liberty.

Quotes from The American Ideal of 1776 supporting this Principle.