LaCroix on The Original Meaning of Federalism

How the noisy debate over states' rights distorts history and the intent of federalism
Alison L. LaCroix
The Washington Post - Political Bookworm Blog
March 25, 2010

Federalism today is front-page news. The passage of the health care reform bill immediately spawned lawsuits by states attorneys general suing to halt its implementation. The financial stimulus package prompted several governors to vow that they would reject federal funds. Congressional anti-drug regulation has been met in a number of states with the legalization of medical marijuana.

In short, the cry of states’ rights has returned to political debate. And each of these controversies brings the obligatory references to such historical touchstones as the New Deal, the Civil War, and even South Carolina’s 1832 effort to nullify federal law.

But states’ rights does not begin to capture the real essence of federalism, and references to historical moments as mere data points obscure the degree to which early understandings of federalism can help to inform current debates.

One of the most intriguing – and maddening – aspects of the idea of federalism is its apparent neutrality, its ability to stand in for whatever particular view one has about the proper structure of governmental authority in the United States. Even within the pages of the Supreme Court’s cases, one can find federalist decisions that strike down state monopolies on ferryboat traffic in New York Harbor as well as new federalist decisions that protect the states’ traditional spheres of authority over matters as diverse as domestic violence and medical licensing.

In some sense, then, Thomas Jefferson had it right when, in his 1801 inaugural address, he insisted that “we are all republicans, we are all federalists.” Even today, we are all federalists – but we don’t all have the same idea of what federalism means.

Alison LaCroix