Dec. 15 marks the 221st anniversary of our celebrated Bill of Rights, when the basic individual liberties of freedom of speech, religion and trial by jury and from unlawful search and seizure were declared beyond the reach of national government.
Beyond those individual rights, the Bill of Rights included the Tenth Amendment, which reserved to the states those powers not delegated to the federal government or the people. That is because individual rights and states’ rights were interrelated.
That Tenth Amendment, in fact, was the key to the new government. Quite simply, without the states, there could be no extended republic in America. Both theoretically and practically, they were the foundation of republican, federal and limited government in America.
The rights of states fulfilled the long colonial demand for local control. This was the overarching principle of 1776, encompassing “No taxation without representation” and resistance to foreign regulation of the economy.
Federal governments as mere alliances of sovereign and independent states had problems of their own, as experience proved between 1776 and 1787. The convention at Philadelphia in 1787 succeeded in addressing the crises of republican government both economic (some national authority was needed for taxation and external relations) and political (especially the new problem of majority tyranny). But the frame of government it proposed was incomplete.
Nationalists (led by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris) insisted upon one supreme government operating directly upon individuals beyond state authority. Not only was this the very definition of a monarchial government (between ruler and mere subjects), it was also a rejection of 1776. In opposition, the anti-Federalists mounted a successful campaign against a “national” government for America, culminating with the Great Compromise of July 16, 1787, with representation in the Senate to be based upon states equally.
The defense of states’ rights as a critical element of federalism and limited government persisted into the state ratification debates of 1787-1788. By amendments, hundreds of them, demands were made for greater protection of individual rights and, yes, the rights of states.
It’s about time that the anti-Federalists receive due credit for our Bill of Rights and for assuring that our Constitution was a fulfillment rather than a rejection of 1776.