Daniel Shays is living proof that one man can make a difference, provided that man is a veteran of warfare, has easy access to weaponry, and lives in a decentralized state.
Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87 Massachusetts is by now little more than a sidebar in the formation of America. After all, the rebellion failed, and as we all know, history is written by the winners. But Shays’ influence extends far beyond the Berkshire Hills where his rebellion began. The brief backstory: Shays was a war vet and a farmer. Like most men with that twin designation, he had very little money, and the newly established government had little pity for his situation.
John S. has two main arguments against checks and balances: 1. They are outdated and no longer consistent with the Founding Fathers’ intentions and 2. They are overrated. The first is easier to respond to than the second since John’s second argument is more based on his personal preferences rather than any sort of logic or historical pattern. Nonetheless, I will respond to both.
Understanding the Meaning of Checks and Balances:
Checks and balances, according to his own cited definition, is a “principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power.” In other words, checks and balances specifically deals with the interaction among multiple branches of government. The presidential veto and the Senate’s power of impeachment are two typical examples of checks and balances. Checks and balances were designed in order to moderate the excesses of democracy and prevent factions (groups of people united under the same interest adverse to the liberties of other individuals) from exercising influence under a concentration of power.
I like the Bill of Rights. So, while the Second Amendment is pretty terrible, I don’t have a particularly strong distaste for any other of the first ten amendments.
With that said, the Tenth Amendment has no point. It reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
It is a truth reflected already by the rest of the Constitution. The Constitution gives each of the three branches of the national government expressly delegated powers: Why the need to repeatedly emphasize that this is the case? The Supreme Court even claimed in United States v. Sprague that the Tenth Amendment has added “nothing to the [Constitution] as originally ratified.” What is the Tenth Amendment amending? Imagine an amendment to a marriage license that states that the husband and wife are married. Sure, I’m sympathetic to the idea that the national government’s powers need to be limited, but the reality is that the Tenth Amendment does little to assure that this is a reality. It recognizes that federalism exists without giving any teeth to it.
Look, we all know the basics here: Articles of Confederation bad, Constitution awesome. No one’s denying this. But there is one thing that the Articles of Confederation provide that the Constitution never could: perspective.
Without the Articles of Confederation, would we have any idea how great the Constitution is? Or would we just assume that founding governments was pretty simple? The Articles, then, act as the ugly friend that makes a girl look better, the draft bust that makes you appreciate when your team gets it right, the bad trailer that lowers expectations for the good movie.
I mean, the Constitution’s “We the people…” preamble is okay. It’s nice; not thrilling, but nice. Compared to the Articles’ “To all to whom…” opening, it’s practically prosaic. Have you read the start of this thing? The opening paragraph is a really long and confusing way of saying, “Hello.” To go from “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” to “To all to whom…” is embarrassing. “We the people…” at least has some dignity to it.
Furthermore, the Articles located some potential missteps—like “one state, one vote”—that the Constitution was able to avoid. In essence, it was a rough draft—a very rough draft—for one of the great documents of all-time. And if the principles it espoused were later resurrected during the Civil War, who cares? That’s the price of perspective.