The last centrifugal force.

AuthorNagel, Robert F.
PositionConstitutional Stupidities: A Symposium

The Constitution of 1787 was debated against a backdrop of rebellion, defiance, and factionalism. Disintegration seemed almost a law of nature:

... [I]n every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate ... orbs by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common center.(1)

Proponents of the Constitution appealed to this centrifugal principle not only in explaining the need for a stronger national government but also in minimizing the risks of centralization.

Thus the authors of The Federalist argued that there was a greater likelihood that the states would encroach on national authority than that the central government would usurp state authority. Again invoking the laws of physics, they repeatedly urged that human affection is "weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object." While "the strong propensities of the human heart would find powerful auxiliaries in the objects of State regulation," the operations of the national government would be less tangible and therefore "less likely to inspire an habitual sense of obligation ...." Supported by the loyalty of their citizens, states would be "at all times a complete counterpoise, and, not infrequently, dangerous rivals to the power of the Union."

Not only would the natural affinities of the people provide pressure against nationalistic excesses, but state governments themselves would stand ready "to mark the innovation, to sound the alarm to the people...." Indeed, once alerted, the people would be able--through their state governments--to create "plans of resistance," which ultimately would be backed by "trial of force." To modern ears, of course, this reference to armed resistance sounds odd and unserious, but the argument is pursued doggedly. The Federalist contains projections of the likely maximum number of soldiers in a national army (not more than "twenty-five or thirty thousand men") and envisions an encounter between that army and state militias "amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands...."

All this ferocious talk of conflict is easily ignored today; we are more inclined to notice the legal and institutional assurances than the arguments based on the psychology of loyalty and the methods of popular resistance. The more primitive bases for...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT