James Madison’s Federalism Flip-Flop
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James Madison’s Federalism Flip-Flop

James Madison’s federalism flip-flop reveals just how powerful the states really are. Just under six weeks before the start of the Philadelphia convention in 1787, James Madison sent a letter to George Washington with his ideas on how a new government should be structured. In what came to be known as the Virginia plan, Madison proposed a form of government far more centralized than what would eventually be adopted by the Convention, and ratified by the people of the several states. In one notable section of his letter, Madison told Washington that a national government should have a veto power over all acts of the state governments. While we might think of this as an aggressive power, Madison thought of it as defensive. He wrote: Without this defensive power, every positive power that can be given on paper will be evaded & defeated. In short, Madison knew then that states had the power to defeat federal programs. The final version of his proposal was included as resolution #6 when Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan on May 29th. Madison, Randolph and others also called for the new government to have power to use the “full fource of the Union” against any state that didn’t comply. This plan was rejected by the Convention – and a national veto never made it into the Constitution. Less than one year later though, Madison was singing a different tune. In Federalist 46, one of a series of essays published to help sell ratification of the Constitution in New York, Madison made the case that the ability to evade and defeat federal measures was a benefit for the states. In what has come to be known as the anti-commandeering doctrine Madison pointed out that if individuals and states merely “refuse to cooperate with officers of the Union,” they have the power to undermine and end federal programs – Constitutional or not. Did Madison simply flip-flop? Did he have a change of heart? Or did he just have a willingness to give up some features he wanted in order to get the document ratified? I honestly don’t know the answer, but will continue looking for clues. Either way, here’s the bottom line: Feature or flaw, states are not required to help enforce federal acts or regulatory programs. Opting out of them is a powerful strategy to bring them to an end.


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