How does federalism work to prevent tyranny?

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The radical republicanism enshrined in the Articles of Confederation had proved crucial in helping the American colonists win the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately it demonstrated itself to be wholly inadequate for dealing with the myriad challenges of the post-war era. The new nation needed to pay back the enormous debts it...

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The radical republicanism enshrined in the Articles of Confederation had proved crucial in helping the American colonists win the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately it demonstrated itself to be wholly inadequate for dealing with the myriad challenges of the post-war era. The new nation needed to pay back the enormous debts it had accrued during the war and also needed to develop a coherent foreign policy. But because ultimate sovereignty resided with the states under the Articles of Confederation, the United States was unable to achieve either of these goals. It was widely thought that a system of Federalism was a viable alternative, providing the best of both worlds—a strong central government, but with the states still retaining sufficient power to act as as restraining influence.

The Federalist compromise reached at Philadelphia in 1787 was immediately successful in creating a workable system of government. But in the long run, there were underlying tensions in the new constitutional arrangements, which wouldn't be fully addressed until the Civil War almost a century later. The Bill of Rights was supposed to give the states a key role in checking the power of an over-mighty federal government. In actual fact, however, the federal government often greatly exceeded its powers, challenging the very foundations of republican liberty. This was most starkly illustrated by the Adams Administration's draconian Alien and Sedition Acts, which among other things put people in prison for criticizing the President and other members of the government. For Adams's opponents it seemed that Federalism, far from preventing tyranny, had actually helped to create it.

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Federalism was based on the idea that a concentration of power in a central government would lead to tyranny. This was because political power, when exercised locally, was subject, and therefore more responsive, to the will of the people. For this reason, many Americans in the 1780s were wary of ceding too much power to a central government, preferring to invest state governments with the powers of taxation in particular. Yet many Americans were also convinced that the decentralized government created by the Articles of Confederation was insufficient to meet the needs, especially the fiscal needs, of the nation. Federalism was seen as a compromise. It created a supreme central government which could exercise some exclusive powers, like coining money and waging war. Yet state governments also had some powers, which included taxation, held concurrently with the national, or federal government. Some powers, like licensing and supervising elections, were even held exclusively by the states, which also played a major role in presidential elections through the electoral college. So by reserving some powers to the states, the Framers of the Constitution sought to curb tyranny even as they invested the new national government with unprecedented powers.

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