Jeffersonian Federalism and the Origins of State Rights

by Kevin R. C. Gutzman

Thomas Jefferson’s name is most commonly associated in American popular culture with what we now call “democracy,” which Jefferson’s friend and collaborator James Madison called “republicanism”: government by elected officials. Abundant evidence supports that Jefferson placed a high priority on this principle.

Jeffersonian Federalism

Thomas Jefferson in 1791 at 49. By Charles Willson Peale. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

It was not the only one. Even more important was freedom of conscience, the great American contribution to world freedom. Closely related to republicanism and freedom of conscience, in Jefferson’s mind and practice, was a third: federalism.

This idea commonly goes by the name “states’ rights” these days. Its opponents have conflated it with power in state governments, and some of those opponents have been so influential that many of federalism’s friends are prone to see it that way too. As Jefferson and the like- minded understood it, however, it meant limitation on federal power. Insofar as the US government did not have power, they believed, that power remained in the states as distinct, preexisting political communities. Whether those communities gave particular powers to the state governments was up to them.

Jeffersonian Federalism

Their promise that the federal government would rest on this principle was a key component of the Federalists’ success in persuading the states to ratify the Constitution in 1787–1790. In fact, it was the key component. Not just outliers, but leading Federalists in at least eight states made it the bottom line in their argument that the Constitution was not a threat to the revolutionary legacy. To join the new union under the new Constitution would not amount to surrender of the insistence on local self-government— “no taxation without representation,” and since representation of the colonies in Parliament was impossible, taxation only by their provincial assemblies— that underlay the colonists’ contention that Parliament was trying to deprive them of their political inheritance as Englishmen. New York’s Alexander Hamilton and Virginian James Madison said so in The Federalist. Governor Edmund Randolph said so, repeatedly, in the Virginia Ratification Convention. A delegate from Jefferson’s Albemarle County and close Madison collaborator, George Nicholas, echoed Randolph.4 William Cushing of Massachusetts said the same, as did South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Pennsylvania’s James Wilson outlined this argument in the most widely disseminated Federalist case for the Constitution, his famous State House Yard Speech.

Thomas Jefferson believed them. In fact, since he held that the Constitution’s meaning was to be found in its friends’ explanation of it during the ratification campaign, the fact that these and other prominent Federalists sold it this way— while no significant Federalist said they were wrong— closed the question for him. Like it or not, the Constitution gave the federal government only the enumerated powers.

Jeffersonian Federalism

Jeffersonian Federalism has often been missunderstood.  By Rembrandt Peale. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

This is not to say that Jeffersonian federalism was a be-all, end-all principle for Jefferson.

On the one hand, he sometimes insisted on the common identity of an American people. That is certainly the most plausible reading of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, for example. Predictably, he spoke as an American in his roles as secretary of state and Federalism president. On the other hand, he held that to arrive at the optimal political organization, Virginians must “divide and subdivide”: their counties were not the smallest political unit he wanted, but instead he hoped to see them adopt the idea of “ward republics.” There, even common citizens might conduct their everyday civic affairs in company with their immediate neighbors. There, an average man could be the “political animal” to which Aristotle referred.

Yet, it was the states that were the chief resource of Jeffersonian federalism. It was upon them that he relied for protection against overweening central authority, first British and then American. It was in Virginia that he endeavored to realize his chief revolutionary reforms. It was perforce in state- level politics that he would endeavor to sell his fellow citizens on the idea of ward republics.


KEVIN R. C. GUTZMAN, JD, PhD, is author of James Madison and the Making of America. He is Professor and Chairman in the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University and a faculty member at LibertyClassroom.com. He is the author of several books, including best-sellers, has published in all the leading history journals, and writes and speaks frequently for popular audiences. He lives in Connecticut.

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