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Impearls: The origins of federalism

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Earthdate 2002-12-21

The origins of federalism

Eugene Volokh and Stuart Banner do back to back postings on the 2002-12-20 Volokh Conspiracy regarding the fundamental nature of federalism in the American constitutional system.

Stuart Banner's posting, entitled “The Origins of Federalism,” considers the question of “Why does the United States have a federal structure?”  Banner answers the question he poses thusly:

Not because federalism is conducive to good government, not because the Framers thought it would be wise to have a country made up of sovereign states, and not because of racism.  We have federalism today because in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the English government began establishing colonies in North America, England set up a bunch of separate colonies rather than one big colony.  Distances were so great and technology so simple circa 1600 that North America would have been very hard to govern as a single colony.  By the time of independence it was too late to change.  Canada and Australia have a federal structure today for the same reason.  New Zealand does not, because it was small enough and colonized late enough to be run as a single colony.

Now, I have no idea whether on balance federalism is good or bad.  All I'm saying is that if it's good, we lucked into it, and if it's bad, we're stuck with a system intended for circumstances quite different from our own.

I agree with much of Stuart's reasoning, but I must note his explanation is insufficient to explain the existence much less prevalence of federalism among the British colonial successor states.  After all, the former Spanish empire is presently divided into a number of separate nations — not states or provinces of nations — for exactly the reason Banner points to above (separate colonial administrations), but without a whole lot of federalism, much less republicanism or democracy, resulting (at least until recently, and mostly under U.S. influence).

Thus, beyond a multiplicity of subject administrations created by the colonial power, there must be features in specifically British history, character, and culture that resulted not only in federalism in the subsequent development of the ex-colonial societies, but republicanism and democracy itself.

It was (Frenchman) Alexis de Tocqueville who, writing from the vantage point of a foreigner, observing America during the first half of the 19th century (he visited the U.S. during the 1830s), most perceptively saw and wrote about the kernels of the origins of the American system.

Because of his especially perspicacious view of American society and democracy during the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville's great work Democracy in America is so highly regarded here in the United States, in fact, that it is often considered to belong among America's “Crown Jewels.”  America's “Crown Jewels,” unlike the crown jewels of monarchies as they have existed round the world, consists of a small set of documents:  the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers; that's about it — except for Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

(This three-part article consists of three postings, the present, now coming to an end; next a moderately-lengthy quotation by Alexis de Tocqueville — presenting his analysis of the origins of Amerian republicanism, democracy, and federalism — which immediately follows this post; and lastly a follow-up post with acknowledgments and links.)

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