One of the oddest modern political notions is that confederations are weak, sloppy polities, and the strong central government, towards which this Second American Republic has moved steadily since the American Civil War, is a natural and better instrument of modern government.
Most of us know how our Constitution was carefully crafted into a federation with checks and balances, sovereign states within a sovereign national government, and so forth. It should not detract from great appreciation of this mechanism, or from respect from its wise inventors, to review its misconceptions and failures with the hindsight of two centuries.
Some of these shortcomings are obvious. Slaves and Native Americans were three quarters of a person. The methods of electing, re-electing, and replacing Presidents and Vice Presidents were fine tuned many times. The Constitution (how quickly even scholars forget!) did not provide for the free exercise of religion, national disestablishmentarianism, trial by jury, free speech - most of the natural rights the Founding Fathers intended for us. These rights were added in the first ten additions to the Constitution - the Bill of Rights.
These men in Philadelphia were wise and good, but hardly infallible. They created the first, and perhaps the best, national democracy, but they were also dead wrong on two points. John Locke and several political thinkers of his era presumed that good government needed checks and balances, and separation of powers. Consequently, although they clearly intended Congress to be the primary body of federal power, they also created an independent executive branch and an independent judiciary.
Since 1787, many other nations have become free, prosperous, democracies, and yet - with the single exception of France - none of these has a strong presidency. (Indeed, in the case of France one might argue that it lacks a strong national legislature). England, Japan, Italy, Israel, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, and the other dozen or so solid and secure democracies have had a parliamentary system in which executive and legislative power were united into one, and in which judicial power was very weak. What we think essential, other democracies around the world have found troublesome and unnecessary. Big countries, tiny countries, old cultures, and newer cultures than ours, have gotten along fine without a real President or Supreme Court.
An even greater error, however, was the vital importance of a strong federal government. Curiously, the Federalist Papers describe the great dangers of confederation (then the American national government) by citing two wretched countries - Switzerland and Holland. Both nations have a better record of promoting peace than any in the world. The International Court of Justice is in the Hague; the Geneva Convention, of course, was constructed in Geneva. The Swiss stayed out of two world wars, with no violation of its territorial integrity; the Dutch stayed out of the First World War, while Belgium, Italy, Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia and other nations that could have stayed out, did not.
The notion that somehow confederacies are militarily weak is ridiculous. Ancient Rome, at its height, was a hodgepodge of Italian states, Senatorial provinces, Imperial provinces, and "Friends and Allies of the Roman People". Rome's greatest foe, Parthia, was an even looser confederation. When all power began to reside in one city with one group, Roman military prowess began to decline.
In modern times, it was an American Confederacy that won the Revolutionary War against the greatest power in the world. Another American Confederacy would fight the American Civil War with great tenacity, skill, and courage against a larger, richer, bigger Union which had command of the sea, and which was led by generals like Grant and Sherman (who would rate among the best in modern history).
While most of us realize that confederations were very effective military forces in our history, there are greater examples in modern times. The Great War was fought in much the same way (although the Yanks came much later). Without the Aussies and the Canadians, Royal British forces would have been much weaker. The imperial umbrella worked.
The greatest fighting power in the Great War, however, was clearly Imperial Germany. Our image of a monocled, heel-clicking Junker Field Marshall may make one think of a highly unified nation behind the uniform. But that is not reality. Imperial Germany was much like Imperial Rome - a collection of highly independent states. Prussia, as the largest state, wielded much power, but the independence of states like Bavaria is demonstrated by the speed with which it formed a separate, Soviet Republic soon after peace.
In the Beatles song "A Day in the Life", one line sings about the Second World War "The English Army had just won the war." Aside from what the Royal Navy and the RAF might feel about that statement, the means of survival and victory for the West in the Second World War came from two great confederacies.
First, the self-governing dominions of Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand declared war on Germany in 1939, and these were each separate votes of different legislative bodies. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland itself is composed of two significant nations - England and Scotland - but Scottish MPs had long sat in Parliament at London. The contribution of those four other democracies, however, was very much a confederation under the general reign of the British Monarchy. The British could not have stayed in the war without these other nations' help. Those four democracies gave it because they considered themselves part of a greater political whole, although no Supremacy Clause or Grand Parliament connected them.
Second, the Anglo-American war effort was a looser confederation, and an informal one. Thus the RAF bombed Germany at night, and the American Eighth Air Corps bombed Germany during the day. On D-Day, the Americans stormed two beaches, the British stormed two beaches, and the Canadians stormed the fifth beach.
Perhaps most interesting, however, was the judgment our Founding Fathers made about the United Provinces of the Netherlands and the Swiss Confederation: that both were examples of the weakness and helplessness of confederations. The Dutch won their independence, just like Americans, through a confederation - the United Provinces. The Dutch also managed to stay out of the First World War.
Switzerland stayed out of both world wars, and did so largely because of the Swiss National Guard, which was prepared on very short notice to mobilize a large percentage of the men of Switzerland into preformed military units. When the Nazis warned the Swiss that if they did not acquiesce to German demands to move troops through Switzerland, they would send a one million man army into Switzerland, the Swiss response was telling: "We have only half a million men in our entire National Guard, but I assure you that each man will fire twice." Switzerland is also unique because its people speak four separate languages.
Confederacies, then, have proven to be excellent engines of military power - resilient, tenacious, modern, and effective. Why? The more independence one has, the more the battle is one's chosen own, the greater the level of motivation. In some cases, this reaches extreme levels. Most officers in the Confederate States of America were elected by their troops. The best fighting units in most wars are groups of men from the same town, same village, same county. They are risking their lives for very personal reasons.
The second great argument against confederacies is that trade barriers and nonstandard money result, with dire economic consequences. Typical in history books is the example of how a citizen of New York would need different money in Virginia before the new federation. This is, quite simply, bunk.
Most script, most currency in the United States until the Civil War, was not issued by government - federal or state - at all. It was issued by private banks. These dollar, five dollar, and ten dollar banknotes represented gold held on deposit and redeemable by the owner of the banknotes. How much was a "dollar"? Well, the term "dollar" refers to a physical unit of measurement of gold, and nothing more. So banknotes could vary in value depending upon the solvency and trustworthiness of the private bank, but this was the financial system used for seventy years after the Constitution was adopted. And, of course, people could and did buy and sell using specie - gold coins, in particular.
The federal government did issue currency as well, but it was redeemable in gold or silver as well. Moreover, Americans could and did do after the Revolutionary War what Europeans did after the Second World War: use a stable foreign currency. The British Pound was rock solid and it had a standard fixed value. Ironically, although the British Pound was a mainstay in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Scotland issued its own money (and does so today), without any perceptible effect on the financial activities of the confederation of England, Scotland, and Wales that we usually just call Britain.
The United States of America under the Articles of Confederation could have issued uniform money, if it had so wished. Again, the example of the Swiss and their Swiss Franc, perhaps the most stable currency in the world, belies any notion that confederations cannot solve currency problems. In short, the notion that American citizens under the Articles of Confederation could not conduct business (which was often barter anyway) without a standard currency, is not a question of even conjecture. They could, they did, and they continued to do so for decades after 1789.
Trade barriers are a different matter. Internal Tariffs do inhibit economic activity, and it was largely because of internal trade restrictions that we fought our Revolutionary War. But within a confederation these barriers tend to shrink because of mutual self-interest. Thus, long before Imperial Germany became a nation, the Germans had a free trade confederation in northern Germany. The French under the highly centralized Bourbons, by contrast, had many internal Tariffs.
Free trade, then, is a question of the wisdom and vision of constituent members, not a question of too little power invested in a central government. Today the Federal Government imposes restrictions of all sorts on economic activity, not in the form of an interstate tax, but in the form of onerous regulations, land use laws, etc. These are no less effective in discouraging trade and commerce than the paltry trade barriers that early states had erected - and which would doubtless in time have evolved into our equivalent of the Common Market.
Another articulated need for federation over confederation is in the area of roads, postal systems, and other areas of truly national concern. Although the Articles of Confederation did allow national laws to address these concerns, the process of making the laws was considered far to difficult.
Again, history indicates otherwise. The Northwest Ordinances were perhaps the best legislation ever passed by an American government. They abolished slavery. They provided for a rational system of measuring and marking land boundaries. They provided civil rights to territorial inhabitants. They set aside land to support public schools. They mandated - for the first time in human history - a sure process by which territories could become full and equal partners with the rest of a mother nation. And each of several states gave up conflicting claims of land, with consequent loss of people and taxes, so that new states could be formed. This magnificent and essential legislation was passed by Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
Postal services? Letters traveled long before a Post Office. Wells Fargo and Western Union were private concerns, just like UPS and Federal Express are today. The convenience of a national postal service is nice (which is one reason that it probably would have also been developed under the Articles of Confederation), but it is easily replaced by private companies.
What about those major public improvements that benefit all, but require much money and even the compensated taking of private property? The Erie Canal, the first such major improvement in our history, was built by the State of New York, not the United States. Who built the Brooklyn Bridge? The Golden Gate Bridge? State government, local government, and consortiums of private groups have done most of these projects.
Confederations have also proven to be quite durable states. Switzerland and the Netherlands, again, are examples of states that began as confederations and continued as very stable polities. But Americans need look no farther than across our northern border to understand how having the right to secede can actually prevent secession.
The ten provinces of Canada are part of that nation by choice, not force. Labrador was not part of the Dominion of Canada in the early part of this century. Its right to secede and, its Prime Minister suggested, apply for admission as a state of the United States, was unquestioned in 1990. And, of course, the right of Quebec to form an independent nation has been recognized and occasionally threatened by the Canadiens for decades. So while the people of Canada in this province or that grouse and threaten, it is hot air: a simple majority in any of the ten provinces can withdraw from the nation, and none have chosen that course.
This should not surprise us. None of the states of the United States under the Articles of Confederation withdrew or seriously threatened withdrawal from the nation. The six states of Australia are coequal in power to federal government; none have seriously contemplated exercising that power. In short, confederations are held together by the mutual self-interest of the member states, cantons, stadts, or provinces. With compelling regularity, this self-interest has proven a much more powerful glue than coercion from a central government.
If security, sound financial systems, public works, and cohesion can be achieved quite easily with confederations, then what about civil rights and individual liberty? Because of the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, most of us have a skewed viewpoint on this issue. If the United States had tweaked and improved its Confederation, instead of creating the Constitution of our Second Republic, wouldn't blacks still be slaves in the South?
Almost certainly not; in fact, the lot of blacks in America would have probably been much better. History books often leave out one critical fact at the time of the adoption of the Constitution: slavery existed in most states, not just states in the South. Gradually, and without any federal intervention, states like Pennsylvania and New York abolished slavery years after the Constitution and Bill of Rights had been adopted. Likewise, the Articles of Confederation abolished slavery in those states later admitted in the Northwest Territory.
By 1800 there was strong international pressure against slavery, and strong pressure within many slave states. Liberia was founded in Africa, after all, at the behest of a Virginian to provide a homeland for freed slaves. Many other Virginians freed their slaves, or provided for manumission in their last wills. As confederate states, those few Southern states strongly committed to slavery - South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana - would have been very weak against the powers of the British Empire, French Empire, and richer Northern states.
Also, in a confederacy no Dred Scott Decision, in which the Federal Government told Northern states that they could not ever make black people truly free, would have been impossible. The election of Abraham Lincoln became a Civil War because up until that point, Southerners or Northern sympathizers had dominated the Executive Branch, and they had used that power to help protect the institution of slavery.
Why a powerful central government should be considered as the more logical protector of civil liberties than more decentralized government is odd. This notion has the same irrationality that the American political system has developed in believing that unelected judges are better defenders of liberty than regularly elected legislators, or that independent regulatory agencies are more trustworthy than elected government executives. The common, weird thread is that the people themselves, in whom sovereign power resides, cannot be trusted.
Relatively autonomous political subdivisions, like state governments, create a structure for insuring liberty. The principals - different state governments - must relate to each other based upon mutual self-interest and rationality. Indeed, the relationship largely mirrors how people relate towards each other in any type of market - economic, social, or cultural.
Although state governments are not precisely marketplaces, these governments do have most of the inherent benefits of markets, particularly when the right of free movement is allowed. This right to emigrate was as priceless to true black emancipation (Mississippi to Chicago) as was the emigration of Irish or Russian Jews to America.
Confederate or loosely federated states also provide the perfect instrument for true diversity. Mormons were persecuted and attacked until they found an inhospitable place in which their right to be left alone would be protected by constituting a majority of the electorate. President Harrison briefly explored the option of making Oklahoma a "Negro State", in which a majority of the population would be emancipated slaves, and the black majority in Washington, D.C. has effectively created a similar polity. Homosexuals have created a similar haven in San Francisco.
Decentralization of power into geographical areas (best by sovereign states) also allows some public expression of values antipathetical to majority opinion of the nation. Thus, a measure of polygamy resides in Utah and Rocky Mountain states in spite of general approbation, because it had once been part of Mormon culture. Native American culture is celebrated in Oklahoma and New Mexico in ways that would be impossible in other states.
The whole argument of separating church (or majority moral values) and state is largely meaningless when a group has the power to dominate or strongly influence government in a particular area. Thus, many of the original thirteen states had established state religions with no identifiable harm of the rights of any people, and each dissolved its established religion voluntarily, when a majority no longer supported that policy. Roe v. Wade likewise did not end a national moral posture on the issue of abortion; the procedure was legal in three of the fifty states, which reflected different moral values of the electorate of those states.
Other groups, although not a controlling majority within a particular state, nevertheless have gathered in sufficient numbers to insure protection against any legal (or even social) oppression. Irish, Italians, and Jews in New York State are one example; there are countless others. As a general rule, the larger the state population, the less a politician can afford to offend any group, and the more tolerant the state's laws and actions. This means that Californians, for example, can live in a state much larger, richer, and powerful than most nations, without fear of state oppression.
Even disdain expressed by politicians or community leaders towards particular groups brings repercussions in the form of boycotts, censure, and lost opportunities. The marketplace of states is a much more efficient guardian against discrimination than any federal laws.
The greatest principle of confederations is internal peace. The states, provinces, or cantons within a confederation may hotly disagree on cultural, moral, ideological, or policy issues. They must, however, agree to not war upon each other, and they must generally allow the free flow of people - if not goods, services, and capital. Again, the analogy to the marketplace is salient. Selling goods or services at gunpoint (or selling tea to Bostonians by means of frigates in Boston Harbor) is rule by force.