Divided Sovereignty

Signing of the Constitution. By: Louis S. Glanzman.

John Adams had strong opinions about federalism. He believed that the government should be structured similarly to the British Empire, given the British Empire’s extraordinary success.

At the time of the signing of the Constitution, Adams firmly believed that the Constitution had secured a national government, as opposed to a government dividing its sovereignty into states and a federal government. Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 191.

Adams stated that he “learned from both history and experience” that sovereignty was indivisible. Id. quoting John Adams to William Tudor, June 28, 1789, in Adams Papers Microfilm, Reel 115. Looking to Britain, Adams concluded that to have sovereignty rest in both a federal government and state governments was a “contradiction in terms.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 191 quoting John Adams to William Tudor, June 28, 1789, in Adams Papers Microfilm, Reel 115.

These beliefs put Adams a step behind the other Founders and thus a step behind the emerging American republic. While Adams was hoping to establish a monarchical republic, as explained further in The Monarchical Republic, the Americans had a different idea: have a balanced government between the federal government and the various state governments.

This all begs many questions: What would the United States be like if Adams’ system of government was adopted? If there was one national government, even divided into subdivisions, with one sovereignty, would there be inefficiencies abound? How responsive would such a government be to the needs of the people? How would different states’ needs be captured in one government, even with subdivisions?

Answers to these questions would be purely speculative, but in looking to the structure of the government as it stands now, it is clear that having two governmental spheres, one federal and one state, has served to benefit the people. While a federal government is concerned with national interests, regardless of region, the state governments are best placed to respond to the wishes of the people to address local issues and state-wide issues, or even regional issues.

Regardless, Adams’ beliefs regarding the sovereignty of the American government perhaps best capture the divide between Federalists and Republicans in the years of the early Republic. While Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other Federalist-minded individuals were concerned with establishing a European-like behemoth government, the Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that a minimal federal government was best suited for the country.

Perhaps it is best to reflect fondly on Adams’ beliefs, knowing that he had the best intentions for the United States, even if those intentions ultimately would have put America on a path toward a government fit for a global, colonial empire. America was bound for a different government, however: one that would better fit its people and society.

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