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This Day in History: James Madison on State Power

On this day in 1788, James Madison defends the Constitution in an essay that would be published in newspapers around the country. Remember, the Constitution was just an idea back then. It wasn’t legally binding. Instead, the states had to consider whether to approve or reject the new form of government that had been proposed.

Would the new Constitution protect liberty? Or would it create a government that was too strong and powerful? States and individuals debated the matter at length.

Madison was at the forefront of those who advocated for the Constitution. As such, he became a major contributor to a series of pro-Constitution essays that are today known as the Federalist Papers. Those written arguments present a picture of the country envisioned by our Founders.

The Constitution would not create an overly strong national government, Madison asserted in one such essay on this day so long ago. To the contrary, the states retain the bulk of power in the new Constitution. If anything, he thought the national government would likely be “too obsequious” (too obedient) to the states, rather than “too overbearing” toward them.

“The State governments,” Madison wrote, “may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former.” For instance, the President of the United States cannot be elected “[w]ithout the intervention of the State legislatures.” On the other hand, Madison continued, the states can freely elect their own officers without relying upon the national government at all.

In short, the states are more independent. Madison considered this an important feature of the Constitution that had been proposed. He expected that the independence of state governments would be complemented by—even ensure—a relatively small national government.

“The number of individuals employed under the Constitution of the United States," he explained, “will be much smaller than the number employed under the particular States. . . . [Local officers] must exceed, beyond all proportion, both in number and influence, those of every description who will be employed in the administration of the federal system.” Similarly, the national “collectors of revenue,” he said, “will be principally on the seacoast, and not very numerous.” By contrast, the states’ collectors will “be spread over the face of the country, and will be very numerous.”

Hmmm. Madison clearly did not anticipate the modern-day IRS!

The difference, of course, is that Madison understood the constitutional structure, which authorizes the national government to exercise only that power which has been specifically given to it. Modern Americans have long since forgotten such details. They do not look for a grant of power to the national government; instead, they assume it may do anything that is not specifically prohibited.

Madison’s conclusions in today’s essay can sound a bit foreign to modern-day life.

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined,” Madison wrote. “Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce . . . The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

Hmm. What would he say if he saw our world today?

Enjoyed this post? More constitutional history

stories can be found on my website, HERE.

The complete Federalist Papers have been reprinted in many locations, including here.



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