About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
The Revolutionary War consisted of more than military battles. With approximately 20 percent of the colonists loyal to the king and just over 30 percent Patriots, the greatest percentage were undecided, called fence sitters. A most serious battle was a PR campaign for the hearts and minds of those fence sitters. In the end the Patriots won the PR campaign. We still remember the persuasive stories, tracts and quotes. It was a cherished tale that the bullets fired at the British Red Coats were melted down from a statue of King George III, torn down July 1776. Equally popular were Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and quotes like Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.”
There were other memorable quotes: “We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin spoke those words at the Continental Congress in 1776 on the occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly, he was warning those who signed that they must stand together or the British would hang them as traitors. However, he was also commenting on an issue-based battle.
The debate about states’ rights versus the power of the federal government began with the Revolution. Franklin was supporting the necessity of the 13 Colonies to form a strong union. Not everyone agreed. Many willing Patriots were also states’ rights advocates.
The debate played a major role in writing both the Articles of the Confederation, ratified in 1781, and the Constitution, ratified in 1788. Some historians contend that the Continental Congress of 1787 resulting in the Constitution was prompted in large part because the Articles of Confederation failed in creating a strong federal government. In fact, they argue, it created a federal government too weak to enforce its own laws.
Patriots could be anti-Federalists. For example Patrick Henry, certainly prominent and persuasive in the American Revolution, supported the Articles of Confederation and did not support the creation of the Constitution. His reason was his support of states’ rights and fear of an over-strong federal government.
The conflict between the rights of the states and the powers of the federal government played a major role in writing and ratifying the Constitution. Federalists argued for a strong federal government. Anti-Federalists, known as Democratic-Republicans, were opposed. Some Democratic-Republicans opposed any constitution while others demanded a Bill of Rights that would ensure individual liberties and powers allocated to the states.
The 10th Amendment was one of the many compromises that allowed for ratification. It reads: “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.”
However, the 10th Amendment did not end the debate. A decade later, the Alien and Sedition Act divided public opinion. The Federalists supported it as a way to protect the nation. Anti-Federalists Madison and Jefferson regarded it as an encroachment by the federal government on states’ rights. They wrote the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. Both objected strenuously to the Acts. The Kentucky resolution, written by Jefferson, even suggested nullification. That is, in his 1799 Kentucky resolution, Jefferson suggested the states had the right to nullify as unconstitutional acts passed by federal government.
That suggestion directly contradicted the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, Article VI, 2). Article VI, 2 states that federal laws made pursuant to the Constitution, and treaties made under its authority, constitute the “supreme Law of the Land.” It meant simply that federal law takes precedent even when, especially when, it conflicts with a state law.
The issue surfaced once again during the Andrew Jackson administration. The problem was tariffs. They were resisted in the Southern states. The battle brought the conflict between nullification and supremacy clause into sharp focus.
It was 1832. Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, resigned in protest against the Tariff of 1832. He returned to his home state, and encouraged South Carolina to pass an ordinance of nullification. Calhoun maintained establishing tariffs was a states’ right.
President Jackson maintained Calhoun was posing a threat to national security and unity. He wrote: “… the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.”
After the Civil War, even having lost, Southern states tried to reinstate slavery through state law. Once again, the Supremacy Clause was brought to the fore but also language was added to the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
For all that the debate between states’ rights and federal power has lasted from the first days of the union until today, there was always agreement that in times of emergency, in times when the country was under attack from a foreign country, a national economic calamity or a pandemic, we stand together under the federal flag.
Not even the anti-Federalists opposed a unified and coordinated national effort to beat the British. In the face of the threat, the 13 Colonies did hang together. The Depression, the World Wars, and prior viral threats such as HIV, Ebola and SARS, all were countered by a national coordinated effort.
It is amazing, therefore, that our current president is suggesting states fight alone. It is very odd to listen as POTUS suggests governors should have their own resources and their own battle plans, odder still to listen to his son-in-law maintain the strategic national stockpile is not for use by the states.
Our forefathers knew that in times of national emergencies, we win against an enemy by a national effort. We win when each state is strengthened by union with the others. We act most effectively with a coordinated national effort. We win in a national emergency when we “hang together,” and this is a federal emergency.