On this day, 222 years ago, a masterful legal framework went into effect:
Beginning on December 7 , five states–Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut–ratified [the Constitution] in quick succession. However, other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789. In June, Virginia ratified the Constitution, followed by New York in July.
At the heart of that compromise was the 10th Amendment:
Among the early “Tenthers” was Thomas Jefferson, who, while considering the constitutionality of a national bank in 1791, quoted the tenth amendment verbatim: “I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that ‘all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people,'” Jefferson said, then declared prophetically: “To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”
Children are taught–in schools now heavily influenced by the Federal Government–that our system of checks and balances among the three branches in D.C. keeps us free. That is a useful partial truth. The Founders wisely realized the day could come when the Feds would attempt to define the limits of their own power–or the lack thereof. No individual citizen can stand alone against such unbridled power. Thus the States were implicitly given a role as the final bulwark against a unitary and uncontrolled national government. It is forever to be regretted this essential State role was sullied in the national conscience by association with slavery. But as I’ve often said, while the Civil War resulted in emancipation for some it also led to Federal ensnarement of all. A century and a half later, we may finally be waking up to the fact that allowing any institution to declare its own powers, or which responsibilities it will honor and which it won’t, is no way to remain a free people.
“Furl that banner, sadly, slowly,
Treat it gently, for ’tis holy;
Till that day–yes, furl it sadly;
Then once more unfurl it gladly–
Conquered banner! keep it still!”