For many Republican members of the United States House of Representatives, with their Tea Party ideology, the constitution they would prefer would resemble the Articles of Confederation, ratified by the original 13 states by 1781.
Under that initial governmental pact, the states were primary, as they are for most Republican House members today. The United States was not defined by the Articles as a country or nation but rather a loose union of states, each of which retained its sovereignty and independence. The Continental Congress, made up of one representative appointed by each state, had very little power.
It lacked the power to lay or collect taxes, found that requisitions asked of the states were almost always ignored, and could not even impose uniform tariff policies throughout the nation. Most significantly, the central government lacked the instruments with which to effectively confront economic crises that were national in scope, such as the post-war conflict between debtors and creditors. Leaders of states like Rhode Island routinely refused to honor their debts. In the words of George Washington, who would become the first president of the new federal United States in 1789, the 13 states were united only “by a rope of sand.”
To put an end to this chaos, in 1787 the Continental Congress issued a call for the states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles. But they proceeded to construct a charter for a new, more centralized form of government. The new document was completed in 1787, and was officially adopted two years later.
If the Republicans today were given the choice between the Articles and the present-day United States Constitution, many might well chose the former. This might be particularly the case with southern members, who represent Congressional districts in states that tried to leave the federal Union in 1861, and who still smart over the federal government’s imposition of civil rights legislation ending segregation in the 1960s.
Actually, the Articles still live on in a sense, since the states determine federal voting procedures, have their own armies (the National Guard), and their own legal systems which, for example, allows some to abolish the death penalty, others to retain it.
Today’s Republicans distrust the federal government since they identify it with progressive legislation. They prefer a country run in the interest of the “one percent,” with very little emphasis on cultural diversity or on correcting the legacy of slavery and segregation, with few new refugees and immigrants, and a gerrymandered House of Representatives which allows them to control the lower house of Congress.
They also are engaged in vote suppression, by demanding stringent forms of identification and by limiting voting days and hours, to make it harder for people especially the poor and minorities to exercise the franchise. (Of course in the 18th century only rich white men could vote.) And they have shut the federal government down to achieve that kind of country.
By Henry Srebrnik
- Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.