During my vacation I read The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. Ellis tells the story of the writing and passage of the US Constitution, orchestrated, he asserts, by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison (the quartet).
Before the adoption of the Constitution, the thirteen states were essentially independent countries who had won their independence but failed to found a new country. The “United States” were always referred to in the plural. The genius of the quartet, says Ellis, was the compromise they crafted in the Constitution in the debate over federal vs. state power. States were understandably reluctant to relinquish their sovereignty, but the quartet knew that the new nation, to survive, had to have federal power – to levy taxes, provide for common defense, and regulate commerce among the states. The Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government. The Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the Constitution, passed simultaneously — enumerates the rights retained by the states and the people, limitations on federal power. The tenth amendment provides: “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.” The contours of this compromise are still being debated in courts across the land. “States rights” were fighting words in the civil war, and today are the battle cry of states seeking to curb the federal government’s regulation of health care, water quality, voting rights, and abortion.
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