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It’s no secret that government overreach has reached epic proportions in the United States. The question is, what do we do about it? The solution really comes down to two words – 'home rule'. Ironically these words were coined by Franklin Delanor Roosevelt who, as governor of New York, gave one of the finest explanations of the scope and limits of the National Government that anyone has ever given. This is ironic because a few years later as president of the United States he would violate his home rule doctrine in favor of his “New Deal” initiatives. But more about that later.
On March 2, 1930, in a national radio address, Roosevelt was asked to define the scope and limits of federal power, clarifying where state authority ends, and national authority begins. He said:
“As a matter of fact and law the governing rights of the States are all of those which have not been surrendered to the National Government by the Constitution or its amendments.”
He admitted that Congress had been permitted to legislate in areas where they may or may not have had a legitimate right, such as Prohibition, but that there were other areas which they were strictly forbidden, “. . .such as the conduct of public utilities, of banks, of insurance, of business, of agriculture, of education, of social welfare, and of a dozen other important features. . .” that he said, “. . .Washington must not be encouraged to interfere.”
He then referenced the national Constitution as the legal precedent for this logic by stating that:
“The proper relations between the Government of the United States and the governments of the separate States therefore depend entirely, in their legal aspects, on what powers have been voluntarily ceded to the Central Government by the States themselves. What these powers of government are is contained in our national Constitution, either by direct language, by judicial interpretation thereof during many years, or by implication so plain as to have been recognized by the people generally.”
He explained the concept of vertical separation of powers, or 'home rule' as he called it. This is the necessary balance of power between all levels of government in our federal system which protects the minority and keeps most of the governmental power close to the people. He continued:
“The whole success of our democracy has not been that it is a democracy herein the will of a bare majority of the total inhabitants is imposed upon the minority, but because it has been a dividing of governments into units called States, the rights and interests of the minority has been respected and have always been given a voice in the control of our affairs. This is the principle on which the little State of Rhode Island is given just as large a voice in our national Senate as the great State of New York."
In other words, our federal system works well not because the majority always get their way, but because we have different parts of government in smaller areas called States, counties and cities. This way, even the smaller groups of people, or minorities, have a say in how things are run. He then emphasized the underlying principle:
“. . . that every citizen was entitled to live his own life in his own way so long as his conduct did not injure any of his fellow men. This was to be a new land of promise where a man could worship God in the way he saw fit; where he could rise by industry, by thrift, by intelligence, to the highest places in the Commonwealth, secure from tyranny, secure from injustice—a free agent—the maker or the destroyer of his own destiny. . .
“On this sure foundation of the protection of the weak against the strong; stone by stone, our entire edifice of Government has been erected. As the individual is protected from possible oppression by his neighbors, so the smallest political unit, the town, is, in theory at least, allowed to manage its own affairs, secure from undue interference by the larger unit of the county which, in turn, is protected from mischievous meddling by the State.
“This is what we call the doctrine of 'Home Rule,' and the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution is to carry this great principle into the relations between the National Government and the Governments of the States.”
Next, Roosevelt explained what must happen to destroy state sovereignty and bring about central control of nearly all local affairs under one government.
“Now, to bring about government by oligarchy, masquerading as democracy, it is foundationally essential that practically all authority and control be centralized in our National Government. The individual sovereignty of our States must first be destroyed, except in mere minor matters of legislation.
“Thus,” he said, “it will be seen that this home rule is a most important thing, the most vital thing, if we are to continue along the course on which we have so far progressed with such unprecedented success.”
Governor Roosevelt then proceeded to list the few and defined powers surrendered by the States in the Constitution.
“Now, what are the powers delegated to the United States by the Constitution? First of all, the National Government is entrusted with the duty of protecting any and all States from the danger of invasion or conquest by foreign powers by sea or land, and in return the States surrender the right to engage in any private wars on their own. This involves, of course, the creation of the Army and the Navy and the right to enroll citizens of any State in time of need. Next is given the treaty-making power and the sole right of all intercourse with foreign states; the issuing of money and its protection from counterfeiting. The regulation of weights and measures so as to be uniform; the entire control and regulation of commerce with foreign nations and among the several States; the protection of patents and copyrights; the erection of minor Federal tribunals throughout the country and the establishment of post offices are specifically enumerated. The power to collect taxes, duties, and imposts to pay the debts for the common defense and general welfare of the country is also given to the United States Congress as the law-making body of the Nation.”
You may recognize this summary of powers granted to Congress as coming from Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution. It might seem perplexing that, despite a clear understanding of the limits of the National Government, Roosevelt openly disregarded his 'home rule' doctrine in favor of his 'New Deal' initiatives when he was elected President of the United States. Many of these initiatives were in the very areas where he previously said “. . .Washington must not be encouraged to interfere.” Areas “. . .such as the conduct of public utilities, of banks, of insurance, of business, of agriculture, of education, of social welfare. . .”. Here are just a few of the programs he was responsible for creating in these categories:
While it's clear that the extreme challenges of the Depression required significant actions, Roosevelt's 'New Deal' policies had a far-reaching effect on the United States, notably reducing the authority of individual states and the whole concept of 'home rule'.
But why would he do this? Let's look at another example of a similar shift in one of the framers of the Constitution. As expected, the new Constitution faced criticism when it was released to the public. To help alleviate this criticism and encourage the states to ratify it, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton wrote anonymous letters that were published in newspapers. The purpose of these letters was to clarify points of controversy in the public eye concerning the proposed Constitution. In a particular letter penned by Alexander Hamilton, now known as Federalist 15, Hamilton explains why Roosevelt, and other politicians often violate the very principles they once advocated for. His rationale was as follows:
“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. . . . there is, in the nature of sovereign power, an impatience of control, which disposes those who are invested with the exercise of it, to look with an evil eye upon all external attempts to restrain or direct its operations.... This tendency is not difficult to be accounted for. It has its origin in the love of power. Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged.”
The reason behind Roosevelt's change in approach can be traced to the desire for power. It's a common human tendency to seek more power. This inclination often leads to government overreach. Interestingly, Hamilton demonstrated this phenomenon a few years later while serving as the Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington. He began advocating that Congress could use tax money or borrow funds for various causes, even those not specifically listed in the Constitution. He even went as far as suggesting that Congress should use tax dollars for local or specific welfare, rather than just general welfare.
While not formally recognized, Hamilton's perspective found favor among government officials in all three branches shortly after the Constitution's adoption. This viewpoint was met with resistance from Jefferson and Madison, who emphasized the original purpose of 'general welfare' concerning the national government. They believed it should serve the entire nation rather than catering to particular interest groups or regions.
The debate between the Hamiltonian view and the Jefferson-Madison view persisted for over a century without an official Supreme Court ruling. Despite Hamilton's definition lacking formal recognition, subsequent rulings and court decisions continued to align with his perspective, leading to a centralization of power at the national level, despite the Tenth Amendment.
Interestingly, it was during FDR’s administration that the Hamiltonian view of taxing power was officially endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1936 Butler case. This single decision was enough to effectively undermine the entire concept of limited government, or ‘home rule’ as FDR called it.
While these two examples offer many valuable lessons, a primary takeaway is that people have a strong tendency to centralize power. Thomas Jefferson clearly warned against this inclination when he said:
“In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
This is the very reason why understanding the Constitution is so important. If we are to bind our elected officials “by the chains of the Constitution”, we must know what it says. Education is the first step.
The next step is to understand where real change happens. If you want to control the weeds in your garden, get to the root of the problem. Pruning the branches of the national government yields little benefit, as they tend to regrow. Since government represents the minds of the people, effective change can only happen in our local communities and states. Work in your local communities to change the way people think about government – both local and national. Teach them the proper role of government and why they should be involved.
Here are just a few ways you can encourage involvement or become more involved yourself.
Remember, you don't need to undertake all of these activities simultaneously. In fact, you can be more effective by selecting one or two areas and dedicating yourself to mastering them. Change frequently occurs incrementally and demands ongoing commitment. Engaging in the political process, staying informed, and participating actively in discussions and actions are all integral elements of holding the government accountable and addressing concerns about overreach. It's crucial never to underestimate the impact a single person can have. The real question is, will you be that person?