A Little History on ‘States Rights’…

There is much talk these days about “states rights”.  (In fairness, there has been much talk of “states rights” since the country was founded.)  It’s a very popular theme from the conservative sector of this country.  Basically, the concept is that the states should remain sovereign with the Federal Government acting as little more than the final arbiter of disputes between the states and handling military needs.  I suppose when the phrase is thrown casually about without much thought it sounds good but in practical application it doesn’t work.  That’s history, not hypothesis.  I know it doesn’t work because We, the People started off with that very form of government…and it didn’t work.

Essentially, the colonies declared independence and formed a new government under the Articles of Confederation.  The states remained sovereign.  Congress could settle disputes between states, make treaties and alliances, maintain a military (in theory) and coin money backed by the full faith and credit of…well, faith but that was it.  They had no real authority over the states.  Even in the ‘settle disputes’ part, they could rule but not enforce.

Have you ever seen any of the paintings of George Washington at Valley Forge?  Look closely at the men and you’ll see they lack pretty much everything one needs to support an army.  Do you know why?  States rights!  See, under the Articles of Confederation, Congress could ask states for money but couldn’t compel them to pay.  The states would promise money, men, and resources but then, focused on their own, local concerns withhold some of what they promised.  In short, each state acted in each state’s individual interest.

You can see the problem.  The name “United States of America” was first coined in the Articles of Confederation but we were not so much a “united states” as a loose alliance of independent republics, emphasis on “loose”.  During the revolution, Washington and Hamilton came to understand the need for a central government with authority to tax and to compel states participation because they were on the receiving end of “states rights”.  The loose alliance nearly cost us the war.  Then, it nearly cost us our nascent nation when soldiers who had deferred their pay for the war effort came to collect – and the states still couldn’t be compelled to pony up.

The Articles of Confederation – the first form of the United States – lasted about 10 years before it’s shortcomings became obvious.  Then it was replaced by the Constitution that became the Constitution we all know and love (and hate and fight about) today.  You and I might talk about Federal overreach and find agreement.  Certainly, there are areas of the document that could use some tweaks here and there.

But I’ll tell you this; every time I hear the phrase “states rights” I think back on the birth of this once great nation and how “states rights” almost ended us even before we got started.  It doesn’t make any sense to me to revert to a form of government that has already been tried and failed.  So why do I keep hearing about “states rights”?

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