Constituting America, June 30, 2010
Federalist 46 continues Madison’s arguments that the federal government could never dominate or obliterate the states. He sketches out possible scenarios of federal over-reaching, and explains why the states would prevail in every case. Addressing the worst-case scenario, Madison assures his readers that a tyrannical President with a powerful army could never impose his rule on America, because the entire American population possesses firearms.
Federalist 46 is important today because it is instructive about the right to keep and bear arms as the ultimate safeguard of civic freedom, and because of the growing trend of state resistance to the federal exercise power on intrastate activities, such as the use of medical marijuana, or other health care choices.
Madison begins by reminding readers of first principles. The federal and state governments are both servants of the same master—namely the people. Opponents of the Constitution act as if the federal and state governments were uncontrollable entities who would be at war with each other. To the contrary, both governments are mere agents of the people, who are the supreme controlling power. The people choose to use their federal and state agents for different purposes. So there is no reason to think that the people will allow their two agents to fight with each other, or to interfere with each other.
The people, who are the ultimate deciders, will be much more attached to the state governments, Madison predicts. For one thing, there will be many more state employees than federal employees. Not only the individual employees, but their family, friends, social networks, and so on, will therefore inevitably have more affection for their close-at-hand state employer than the distant, small federal government.
Madison’s prediction is still true. Beginning with New Deal, the federal government began to grow enormously, but state and local governments also grew rapidly. As of 2008-2009, there were about 3.8 million state government employees, plus 11 million local government employees. This compares to 2.8 million federal civilian employees, plus approximately 1.5 million active duty U.S. military. So today, the number of state/local employees outnumbers federal employees by about 4:1. To the extent that employment promotes loyalty, Madison remains generally right that the states have the advantage.
Then there’s practical experience. Madison reminds his readers that even when the Continental Congress was fighting the Revolutionary War, a task of supreme importance to everyone’s freedom, people generally liked their state governments better. Except for a brief period early in the war, the national government was at “no time the idol of popular favor; and that opposition to proposed enlargements of its powers and importance was the side usually taken by the men who wished to build their political consequence on the prepossessions of their fellow-citizens.”
But from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama, many Presidents over the last century have worked assiduously to build an idolatrous cult of personality around themselves. Over the last century, some men—including Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan–have led successful political careers by resisting proposed enlargements of federal power. But many more politicians have built careers by promising that the federal government will do ever-more in taking care of the American people as a de facto parent.
Given the advantages currently possessed the by state governments, Madison continues, the people would only transfer their loyalty to the federal government if the federal government were manifestly better and more capable. And if so, there’s nothing wrong with the people giving their confidence where it is most due. Even then, the states would have little to fear, “because it is only within a certain sphere that the federal power can, in the nature of things, be advantageously administered.”
The nineteen-sixties were a time when Madison’s prediction about a transfer of affections proved prescient. At the time, the federal government was indeed far more competent and vigorous, and far less corrupt, than many state governments. National trust in the federal government rose to levels never since achieved. One reason for post-sixties decline is that as the federal government has tried to do almost everything, it has become less competent at carrying out its core functions. As Madison knew, only with a certain sphere can federal power be advantageously administered.
Another power advantage of the states is that persons who are elected to serve in the federal government will still retain some disposition towards particular state and local interests. In contrast, hardly any state or local officials will have a bias to favor federal interests over state and local interests.
Absolutely true, to this very day.
Suppose one side or the other goes too far? Again, Madison writes, the advantage lies with the states. If a state is inclined to infringe on the federal sphere, the state actions would presumably be popular with the people of the state, and would immediately be carried into effect by the state government employees. The federal government would have no practical means to overcome the states, except by the use of force, which would always be viewed with reluctance.
Conversely, if the federal government goes too far, the state’s people and government would refuse to cooperate, and could obstruct federal actions. If a large, resistant state were joined by its neighbors, it would be nearly impossible for the federal government to prevail.
This analysis proved accurate for a long time. Whether in a good cause (such as resisting federal implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act) or in a bad cause (resisting the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders from Brown v. Board of Education), state governments with strong popular support have often been able to frustrate locally-unpopular exercises of federal power.
But one major change upset the Madisonian balance. In the 1936 case United States v. Butler, the Supreme Court said that Congress could use its spending powers for purposes that had nothing to do with the enumerated powers which had been granted to Congress (such as the power to raise armies, set up post offices, and so on). Accordingly, Congress quickly started doling out money to state governments.
The result was to make the state governments into de facto wards of their federal sugar daddy. Whenever Congress tugged the purse strings, the states danced.
So Southern state government resistance to school desegregation did not end because of a few instances in which the President sent in federal troops to enforce court orders. As Madison expected use of military force was still a last resort. Formal southern resistance ended when Congress’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 cut off federal education money to segregated schools. A good result, although not all subsequent federal threats of withholding money would be for such benign purposes.
What about a worst-case scenario, in which a federal tyrant attempted to use the federal standing army to impose a national dictatorship? Madison derided the possibility, since the people would never consent to the long-term build-up of a powerful military establishment. Here, Madison was correct for about a century and a half. After the Civil War and World War I, the large federal military was quickly demobilized, and the standing army shrunk to a size appropriate for a mid-level European power, or less.
But the aftermath of World War II did not go as planned. The Soviet Union, rather than becoming a global partner in peace and stability, emerged as an aggressive superpower intent on taking over wherever possible, and seeking the ultimate destruction of the United States. In the resulting Cold War, the United States by necessity grew used to a large, permanent standing army.
Madison continued his hypothetical: the largest possible federal army could not constitute more than one percent of the total population. This is indeed the size of the current federal military, counting active duty plus reserves. But with conscription, the federal army could be much larger than that. In 1945, the U.S. military constituted 6% of the total population. (8 of 132 million.) Today, that would mean a military of about 18 million.
Against this federal army, Madison said, would be essentially the entire able-bodied male population, with their own guns, and organized into militias directed by the state governments. This huge force could never be conquered by the much smaller federal army:
To these [federal soldiers] would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops.
The crucial reason why America was free and Europe was not that Americans had guns and state governments. The combination of the two would be sufficient to demolish any national tyrant:
Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.
Fortunately, we have never had to see whether Madison was right that a federal tyrant with a standing army could be defeated by the people. We do know that in other places (e.g., Israel fighting for independence from Great Britain in 1946-47) armed popular forces have been able to drive out very strong armies. Of course the modern availability of nuclear weapons would give an American tyrant weapons which armed civilians could never defeat. But the use of nuclear weapons against Americans might well cause an outraged U.S. military to depose the tyrant itself.
In any case, we do know that Madison was right then and now about “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.” In the twentieth century, monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot took advantage of victim disarmament in order to murder millions.
Federalist 46 also shows the error of the notion that James Madison, the author of the Second Amendment, imagined that any individual could decide that the federal government was tyrannical, and then resort to violence. To the contrary, Madison envisioned that, in the very unlikely event that forcible resistance were necessary, it would be led by the states. Federalist 46 is an important corrective to persons (including gun prohibitionists who like to conjure up extreme scenarios) who imagine that a strong interpretation of the Second Amendment must lead to the legal authorization of anti-government violence by stray individuals.
Madison has been proven correct in regarding mass national armed resistance to federal tyranny as a very unlikely possibility. He was also right in a much broader sense, in that the American system of federalism, which many powers retained by state governments, and the American gun culture, with its associated spirit of self-reliance and responsibility, have helped form the freedom-loving American national character which has prevented the federal government from degenerating into despotism.
David B. Kopel is Research Director at the Independence Institute, in Colorado, and is Adjunct Professor of Advanced Constitutional Law at Denver University, Sturm College of Law. www.davekopel.org