George Washington’s federalism

Authored by Andrew Bibb

On February 7, 1788, as state ratifying conventions were debating the proposed United States Constitution, George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman, and veteran of the American War for Independence, giving his thoughts on the proposed national government. Washington had served as the president of the convention that drafted the Constitution the year prior and, while he perceived the document was “tinctured with some real (though not radical) defects,” he believed failure to adopt it as the law of the land would throw the nation into “an unqualified state of Anarchy, with all its deplorable consequences.”

Washington felt the entire experiment in American self-government depended on “two great points (the pivots on which the whole machine must move).” These two pivots constituted his simple “Creed.”

One pivot, the separation and distribution of powers among the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, had already been adequately addressed in the Constitution. It ensured that the new national government “can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form; so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.”

Washington’s other pivot would have to wait until the passage of the Tenth Amendment in 1791 to find explicit articulation in the Constitution. However, its principles were already baked into the structure of the proposed government. Washington asserted that the government under the Constitution “is not invested with more Powers than are indispensably necessary to perform [the] functions of a good Government; and, consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of Power delegated to it.”

19th century Illustration of Washington’s Inauguration.

The difference between Washington’s conception of federalism and much of which is found in modern debates on the subject is subtle but critical. Washington did not view the matter in terms of how “strong” or “weak” either the national or state governments should be. To do so would be to address how each government should operate before determining why it existed in the first place. Washington, a consummate strategist, knew that this way of thinking was backward and doomed to failure.

Instead, Washington advocated a purpose-based approach to defining the authorities, powers, and limitations of government. The powers delegated by the people to the national government should correspond with the ends it is instituted to achieve, as outlined in the Preamble to the Constitution. For example, to charge the national government with providing for the common defense and then fail to empower it to that end would be nonsensical and disastrous. At the same time, empowering the national government beyond what is necessary to achieve the ends outlined in the Preamble invites the tyranny and authoritarianism that the Anti-Federalists were so concerned about.

The Preamble, then, is the key to understanding the Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Washington never dreamed that the national government would achieve everything that citizens expected of their government, only that whatever functions of government fell outside the purview of the Constitution were the responsibility of the state and local, rather than national, governments or of the people themselves. State and local governments were also coordinately responsible for achieving the Preamble’s six great ends in addition to their other functions.

Washington’s federalism provides a middle way for today’s policymakers and citizens who are concerned about federal overreach into state and local matters but also recognize the need for strong government within its proper bounds. It provides an alternative to the contentious narratives on offer in today’s fractured political climate.

Washington teaches us that preserving American liberty requires the principled, energetic, and efficient functioning of national, state, and local governments within their proper spheres of responsibility. The electorate must understand those boundaries and ensure government at all levels respects and adheres to them.

Andrew Bibb is a military strategist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government.

Authored by:Andrew Bibb


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