The Rebirth of States' Rights

When John Randolph of Roanoke looked at the America of 1806, into Thomas Jefferson’s second and disastrous term as President, he could have been describing today: “Everything and everybody seem to be jumbled out of place, except a few men steeped in supine indifference, whilst meddling fools and designing knaves are governing the country.”

He was opposed, in Washington’s words, to “foreign entanglements,” and to an America that seemed to want to thrust herself onto the world as the answer to human fault and failure: “I scorn this idea of a mission for America.”  He also opposed unchecked Western expansion: “No government, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, can be fit to govern me or those I represent.”

But the most important of Randolph’s ideas, and the one that resonates most today, is the cause of states’ rights.  He was in many ways an Antifederalist, despite serving in the U.S. Congress for three decades, for he saw in the growth and centralization of the government a threat to the power of the states, the only power that could check the progression toward the tyranny that is inherent in government.  In the great debate on what was called “internal improvements”—the reading of the Commerce Clause to mean that the government could build and control such things as the roads and canals—Randolph was outraged:


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