Neither wholly federal nor wholly national
Our genuinely American form of government surpasses all other types. The evidence of this is indelibly etched in our history. A great analysis of it can be found in the writings of James Madison.
In Federalist # 39, Madison goes through a very detailed explanation of the form of government proposed in our Constitution. Remember, the Constitutional Convention proposed an entirely new document rather than just amending the original Articles of Confederation. So, although components of the Articles were used, there was a lot of wrangling over every word and meaning of this new document. I will go over some of JM’s main points and try to convey his message. However, there is no substitute for doing your own homework. It’s worth reading Mr. Madison’s words in order to gain a better perspective of the genius of our system.
James Madison had to calm the fears of many who thought the Convention was steering away from the idea of a confederation of states. Although most understood and agreed with republicanism, they were not very cool to the idea of nationalism over federalism.
So let’s quickly define the terms national vs. federal so we may better grasp their meanings as they pertain to governing. National government relates to the nation as a whole whereby a central power is exerted. A federal system constitutes government in which power is distributed between the central authority and a number of constituent territorial units (states) in a compact.
Mr. Madison starts out by comparing several governing systems that used the term republic. He makes a good point in that, although places like Holland, Venice and even England defined parts or all of their system as republican, they were far from it. He goes on to point out that it is essential for this system to derive its power from the great body of society. The main thrust here is to accurately define a republic and, above all, to avoid placing power in the hands of a few. There are plenty of current examples. For instance, North Korea is officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although the term republic is in their name, they are so far removed from being a republic or what any freedom-loving American would accept.
So later in Federalist # 39, Madison takes on detractors who were critical of the new Constitution claiming it was abandoning federalism. He gives some precision to his rebuttal and what follows is one of many brilliant political treatises in Madison’s treasure trove.
Madison not only doubles down on the necessity of maintaining, on the whole, what was already authentic republicanism throughout the states, but he also expresses how the power being vested to the federal government will be delegated by the people. He then gives a complete rundown describing the proposed complex system as neither wholly federal nor wholly national in nature. It is a mixture of both, and depending on which branch, what act or what power is being exercised, will it be national or federal in its form. His last paragraph in this particular paper sums it up concisely.
It is without question one of the best explanations of federalism and nationalism in our system; one built on ideas from generations going back way before our founders. Additionally, during this great time of enlightenment and discourse, the brilliance of our founders offered the people a better solution for organizing society. It is the longest standing constitution in history for a reason and its ratification gave it the stamp of approval by the states and the people of the states.
You can see why there was some question as to what was going on within the Constitutional Convention. Three important characters, however, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, helped with transparent inspection and left us some solid political meat in those fantastic Federalist Papers. Chew on that, America!