Two Supreme Coordinate Powers

Gouverneur Morris. Engraving by: J. Rogers.

Coming out of the Philadelphia Convention, many Americans had different perspectives about what had transpired and how effective the Constitution could be as a governing document.

James Madison told Thomas Jefferson in September 1787 that the Constitution “will neither effectually answer its national object,” nor “prevent the local mischiefs which everywhere excite disgusts against the State Governments.” Madison to Jefferson, Sept. 6, 1787, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XII, 103. William Grayson, from Virginia, charged that the Constitution would “prostrate all the state legislatures, and form a general system out of the whole.” William Grayson to James Monroe, May 29, 1787, Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention, III, 30.

On some level, Grayson was right. James Madison, as late as the spring of 1787, “showed little comprehension of a political system in which the national and state governments would coexist as equal partners.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 525. Madison imagined not federalism but “a due supremacy of the national authority” with “the local authorities” existing only “so far as they can be subordinately useful.” Id. quoting Madison to Randolph, Apr. 8 , 1787, Hunt, ed., Writings of Madison, II, 336-40.

Patrick Henry, aware of the potential consolidating of government in one federal government, opened the Virginia Convention stating: “The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing—the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America . . . . States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great, consolidated, national government, of the people of all the states.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 526 quoting Henry (Va.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, III, 44, 22.

William Grayson stated that “I never heard of two supreme co-ordinate powers in one and the same country before. I cannot conceive how it can happen. It surpasses everything that I have read of concerning other governments, or that I can conceive by the utmost exertions of my faculties.” Grayson (Va.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, III, 281. Many Antifederalists, like Samuel Adams, Robert Yates, and James Winthrop agreed with Grayson, noting that it was impossible for a federal government and state governments to coexist. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 528.

James Wilson, a Federalist, had the answer that the Antifederalists wanted to hear: “there must be a power established from which there is no appeal, and which is therefore called absolute, supreme, and uncontrollable,” and that “resides in the people, as the fountain of government,” not with the state governments and not with the federal government. See id. at 530 quoting Wilson and Findley, in McMaster and Stone eds., Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution, 229, 301-317.

Wilson stated: “The people of the United States are now in the possession and exercise of their original rights and while this doctrine is known and operates, we shall have a cure for every disease.” Id. at 302, 341. Through Wilson, the Federalists were able to effectively assuage the Antifederalists’ concerns about the consolidation of government and see through the ratification of the Constitution as it was written.

However, only after the Antifederalists’ persistence in demanding answers as to the rationale for structuring the government in such a way did Americans come to see that they were the holders of power in America. There would be no legislature running rampant in this system, and there would be no consolidation of government into one federal government.

These were the seeds that would grow into Americans’ unshakeable belief that the people hold the power, often encapsulated and restated with the three simple words from the Constitution: “We the people.”

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