The role of the states
Published Tue, Jun 5 2007 3:39 PM
A couple of weeks ago, Jeannine left the following comment on one of my posts:
I never understood why individual states need to have their individual laws... Either we are one nation or we are not!
My answer to her was that it's because we are a Federal Republic and not a Democracy. There's actually more to it than that though. A logical extension of her question could be "Why do individual cities need to have their own individual laws?".
We need laws to govern human behavior. Laws by themselves don't actually govern behavior, but their enforcement does. We have local laws because different communities have different standards of what is and what isn't acceptable behavior.
But why state laws? The answer to this question goes back to the founding of our nation, and even to the founding of European style civilization on our continent. When Europeans first settled here, they formed colonies. Each of the colonies had it's own form of government based upon the colonial charter. These governments were still under the authority of the nation that granted the charters.
With the Declaration of Independence, the thirteen colonies that belonged to Great Britain broke their ties with the "mother country" and declared themselves to be "Free and Independent States". The term "State" as used in that document referred to a sovereign nation with "full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."
Put quite simply, the individual states were originally individual countries. In other words, a state like Virginia was on equal footing with a state like France, or Germany, or Russia, or even Great Britain.
After the revolutionary war, the thirteen individual nations joined together in a loose confederacy. Each of these nations retained its national sovereignty. It was the weaknesses of this confederacy which prompted the constitutional convention that ultimately resulted in the single nation now known as the United States of America.
When the Constitution of the United States was ratified by each of the states, the states gave up their sovereignty to the new nation. The states lost their powers to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, and to establish Commerce with other nations or states, giving these powers up to the federal government. In return, the Constitution guaranteed that the federal government would provide to each of the states a Republican form of government, and would protect each of them against Invasion, and under certain circumstances, domestic violence.
Another thing the Constitution did was to promise each state "equal Suffrage in the Senate". The Senate was intended to represent the states, as the states were originally sovereign nations, rather than the people. The federal government was not intended to govern the people of the several states. Rather it was intended to govern the several states and to represent them before the world.
This is why, originally, Senators were elected not by the people of the states they represented, but by the state legislatures. Senators were intended to represent the states. This is also why the electors of the President and Vice President were not originally elected by the people of the states, but "in such a Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct."
With the "progressive" movement, this structure began to change, first with the passage of the 12th amendment, then with the 14th amendment. Probably the single biggest change to this structure was the 17th amendment. These amendments had the effect of changing who elects Senators and Presidential Electors. They began a long slide away from the notion of state rights and toward a larger and more intrusive federal government.
As it stands now, the state governments still govern their people, but the federal government has taken more and more of that power away from them over the decades. States have their own laws and constitutions because they were always intended to govern the people. Federal power and the federal government was never intended to be as strong as it is today.
Yes, we're a single nation. Even so, with the ever increasing trend toward more centralized government, and a more socialist form of government, the Constitution's Article 4 promise to the states is coming ever closer to being broken. We are a Federal Republic. How long we remain one remains to be seen.
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