The Pitfalls of a Strong Federal Government

A question that I asked myself today was: What would I consider myself- an Arizonan, or an American? Surely, a lot of people would think “Why not both?”, and thats a reasonable question. What I mean is, where do my loyalties lie? What am I in relation to the country as a whole?

This took me down a rabbit-hole that led me to a final question.

How can we define the American “state”? In general, the term “state” is synonymous with the term “nation”, which is how many Americans viewed their states during the early years of our republic. In elementary school, we were essentially taught that the American Civil War was fought over slavery, which is of course true, but it denies us the opportunity to discuss the larger debate at the time. I am of course referring to the huge debate of state’s rights during the mid-19th century. Now before we go any further, it is important to note the positive things our Federal government brings to us (an abolition of slavery, our modern banking system, and most notably, it forces the country as a whole to modernize (in terms of progressivism) faster than it would if the states were sovereign). As we move forward, we will be looking into the Confederacy’s rationale for the conflict.

It is a shame, to say the least, that the Civil War was fought on such inhumane grounds as it was. The sheer fact that it was fought over slavery mars the merit of the center point of the debate over slavery. In essence, it can be boiled down to a question of whether or not the citizens of another faraway state, such as Vermont, have any innate right to help determine how a citizen in Arizona should be allowed to live. It’s kind of odd to think about, isn’t it? We go through our lives all the time without realizing that a large amount of our local legislature and politics are dictated by the decisions of non-Arizonans. Perhaps another way of looking at it is to imagine the US as the European Union, with Vermont being represented by, say, Lithuania, and Arizona being represented by Catalonia in eastern Spain. Who are the Lithuanians to have a say in what the Catalonians do? This, to be fair, is a much more extreme example than Arizona and Vermont, but it still illustrates the point that anti-federalists such as the authors of Brutus and Cato were trying to make.

Cato III, in my humble opinion, was the best look into a huge problem in our nation, identity. On page 15 of Federalists and Antifederalists, Cato quotes Montesquieu’s argument that “It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory”, because the larger a territory becomes, the more variation in culture there is, and, in Montesquieu’s view, the higher the chances that ambitious men would seize power and exercise that power on the defenseless. “In large republics,” Montesquieu continues, “the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views” (Ibid). This is a very central reason as to why it has become so difficult to advance in our societal discourse; because there are simply so many opinions that it makes it extremely difficult for anything to be done without compromising between a ridiculous number of people (many of them from faraway lands, who would not understand Arizona as her own citizens do).

Today, we really only see this argument in the hot debates of our time, like abortion or gun regulation. However, think about just how alike our states have become since the Civil War. In most cases, whatever you are allowed to do in Arizona, is also allowed in Virginia or Vermont, and vice-versa. Are we really in our own states, or just inside a country with boundary lines that, since their drawing, have become essentially effete?

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2 Responses to The Pitfalls of a Strong Federal Government

  1. ennausa says:

    The subject of your post is very interesting and I think you are not the only person to think about this question. Indeed, knowing and defining one’s own identity is not an easy process and it takes time. When you say “to be American” I imagine it means in terms of citizenship ?! Shklar gives a very precise definition of her own vision of American citizenship. She explains that a US citizen must vote and earn in order to be a citizen. Voting means being involved in the political life of on’s country and in this sense you can feel like an American in your example. But is earning an essential characteristic of a citizen? She refers to slaves who were not considered as citizens because they did not have the right to vote or the opportunity to earn. This question in terms of citizenship can also arise at the level of a State. The example of Vermont and Arizona seemed a bit unclear but the example of the European Union allowed me to understand your reasoning. Nevertheless, Vermont is part of the same country as Arizona, while Lithuania and Spain are two different countries. I do not think it is possible to compare the European Union ,which includes different countries, but also with completely different economic systems, to the United States. Laws and policies within the same country must apply to everyone in the same way, in my opinion, to avoid the risk of conflicts within the country itself. I agree with you about the view of anti-federalist people who think that having “small counrties” can be easier in order to take decisions that suit the majority of people. It is also easier for people who identify with the country and maybe to be more involved in the country’s interests. At the end of your article, you talk about abortion or gun control. Would it not be easier to have the same regulations across the country? You say it yourself, what is allowed in one place is also permitted in another. With a small government and small country it will be easier to agree about one specific topic than in a big country with a lot of people at the head of the government. So, as states are part of the same country, I think each one considers himself primarily as an American, and then as a member of the State in which he is. Finally, this sense of belonging may vary depending on where you are going. When you go abroad, you will feel more American, whereas when you move within the United States, belonging to a particular state will be put forward. It is therefore possible, in my opinion, to be Arizonan and American but this sense of belonging will also depend on each person.

  2. manuelgama21 says:

    Hello Garrett! You definitely bring up some issues about the relationship between states and federal government. The American Civil War clearly taught us what can happen when the union between states is weak and full of conflict.
    I agree with the point you make that large nations, other countries like Indonesia, Russia or Brazil serve as example too, bring a problem of how is possible that a federal government can accurately support and understand the necessities and problems of every region of the country.
    In my opinion, I think that civic republicanism is the only possible solution to that problem. If a resident from Arizona or Vermont puts the interest of his state before the one of the republic, results will not be good. The necessity to understand and empathize with all the people living inside the borders of the nation becomes a civic duty.

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