November 6, 2009

The 10th Amendment and You

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.

Seemingly so simple, but these twenty-eight words have been constantly misconstrued, circumvented, or flat out ignored.

So what?  It's just a bunch of old-school rhetoric spewed out by some powdered-wig sporting fundamentalists over two hundred years ago.  Move along; nothing to see here.

Or is it something more than that?  Not to hide my bias (not that I could; why else write a treatise on the 10th?), I find it horribly relevant today.

This amendment, last of the Bill of Rights, can be seen as a conclusion to the Constitution as it was originally written; sort of a catch-all for anything not covered in the rest of the document.  To fully understand its significance, one first must understand the intent of the framers for the Constitution.  Here are a couple of quotes that might help out:

"A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate."
-Thomas Jefferson

"A republic is the best of governments."
-John Adams

"Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a FEDERAL, and not a NATIONAL constitution."
-James Madison

I could go on all day, but a lot of you were probably educated in public school so you have neither the patience nor the ability to read anything written prior to 1995 (for the record, I was also educated in public school; I'm just a snob).  The point is, the founders were pretty united by two ideas:
1.  Rights are innate to man, not granted by the government.
2.  Local politics are the best politics, because the public has more control over them (the basis for a Republic over a Democracy).

The first point, that our rights are innate and not granted by government, is a simple notion with severe ramifications (I'll leave the religious question out of it, for now).  If it is true, then there are things that we, as humans, have a right to; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come to mind.  Any government infringing on these rights (no matter how cool their "Che" pictures look) is violating the very nature of mankind.  If, on the other hand, it is not true; then all rights are arbitrary and may be enforced or repressed at the will of whoever happens to be in power.  I'll take "true" for 304 million, Alec.

The second point, that local politics are the best politics, makes all kinds of sense if you think about it (it actually makes sense even if you don't think about it, but it’s best that you do; instead of just mindlessly following along like a zombie without cool powers and a thirst for brains).  Not only does a person have more relative clout in a local election (one vote in a town of 10,000 voters is 0.01% of the vote, whereas one vote among 131,000,000 voters is only about 0.00000076%), but they have the advantage of having lived around the person running for office.  In essence, it makes it much harder for a politician to "image build."  Kind of like when Jesus said, "a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown" (oh no, the J-word!).  Basically, unless we're talking about Jesus, we would know the person running for office and know that they can't walk on water; regardless of what their PR guys tell you.

So, what does this all have to do with the 10th Amendment?  Well, once we understand that the Constitution was not meant to grant the Federal government power but to limit the scope of the Federal government's power, we can look at it in a proper light.  In a nutshell, it says that whatever isn't laid out in the Constitution is left in the hands of the People and their States.  Think about that for a minute.  It means that whatever rights you think you have and whatever powers you think the government ought to have, barring what's already written down in the Constitution, are supposed to be dealt with at the State or interpersonal level.  The House of Representatives and the Senate are not supposed to be the major law-making bodies in these United States; the State and local legislatures are supposed to be.

Now, for those of us who grew up post horse-and-buggy days, this seems like a foreign concept.  We vote for President, maybe Senators, and call it a day- er, decade.  Whereas I could wax grumpy about people not getting involved locally, I won’t because I can hardly blame them.  These days, most laws are handed down from on high, while the local-yokels are there to try to bend them to suit our needs (or their own needs, if you live in California).  People don’t get involved in local politics because they don’t see the relevance; and I’m not sure that they’re wrong.  At least in practise.

But journey with me now [insert dream-sequence music here] into a magical realm, ruled by the 10th Amendment.  All taxes go to your local government first, and most of them stay in your town.  You and your neighbors decide what the rules are for schooling your children, funding your parks, police, fire, and city services.  You decide where the roads need to be improved, bridges built, and monuments erected (PM me if you need a pic of me in a Superman suit for your town square; I’ve got like a dozen of them and they’re not moving on eBay).  Want universal health care for your city or state?  Go for it!  Next to no government intervention in life and business?  You’re the boss!  But wait, where’s the Federal government?  Don’t worry; they’re busy doing the only things they’re allowed to, like having a military and managing our (limited) international role.

OK, wake up.  We’re not in dreamland anymore.  The good news is, a lot of the above is still possible even under the current paradigm (I hate using that word; let’s pretend I said “zeitgeist”).  The difference is, a lot of your tax money is going to the Federal government first and the local governments a distant second, third, or fiftieth.  It’s not that government isn’t supposed to provide for schooling, welfare, health care, and the like; it’s that the Federal government is not supposed to.  Those sorts of decisions were intended to be made on the State and local levels, where the people with the most at stake have the most control.

How do we fix it?  Repealing the 16th Amendment would be a good start (that’s a whole ‘nother blog for a whole ‘nother time), but it takes something both bigger and simpler than that.  We need to change the way we think about our country and the type of government it has.  Would you call us a Democracy?  I think most Americans would.  There’s an old joke that says, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”  We need to stop looking at our country as a simple majority rule system.  We were set up far better and more elegantly than that.

We are a Republic.  Our rights are our own, and the government is set up to ensure those rights do not get trampled.  We and our neighbors determine our own destiny.  We have all of the strengths of a large nation, but all of the virtues of a small town.  We flex global and act local.  Until we can get back to these concepts, America is doomed to slip from what made it great into the mediocrity epidemic throughout the rest of the world.  The choice, and the burden, are ours.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. If you haven't done so already, I'm confident that you would enjoy reading the first part of Johnson's "A History of the American People."

    May I offer a suggestion for your follow-up post? Perhaps an explanation on how the twisted modern interpretation of the Commerce Clause has eviscerated the 10th Amendment?

  2. "We flex global and act local." I like this very much. I like how you took an amendment people might not ever think of and exposit on it. Again, you've gotta meet Aunt Eileen. She's forever saying, "This is a Republic, not a democracy!"

  3. Rather than simply meet a fellow fan of the Republic (which meeting I am, of course, in favour of), I would have those disinclined to reflect on this subject awaken and take up the cry, "Republic!" There's a reason Aunt Eileen and I both find this important.

  4. I enjoyed reading this, thanks for putting the time into writing such an articulate article.

  5. Great job Skip. I love the way you write. I will enjoy following your blog. We need more young people like you educating the masses. Young people these days just follow the pack....right off the cliff. Your voice is refreshing, intelligent and entertaining. I will share this with my FB crowd.


  6. I couldn’t agree with you more, Skipper, and I’d like to make 3 points that illustrate what you say.

    First of all, this reminds me of a game of Scategories I played several years ago. I had to come up with a state that began with a particular letter and hope that no one came up with the same answer as me. I knew that another word for nation was, in fact, state, so rather than choose one of our 50 states, I cleverly, or so I thought, named a nation. Well despite my pleadings and explanations, my opponents would have none of that. They thought a state was a state and a nation was a nation and never the twain shall meet. I even asked, “Why do you think it’s called the State Department?” It was to no avail. Of course, this is to say that in our 200 years as a nation, we’ve mostly lost the concept of what a federation is. We’re like a co-op. The states are essentially, or are supposed to be, anyway, independent nations, united for certain mutual benefits, such as defense and international relations, but other than following a few rules, initially the 1st 9 amendments, free to do as the people of each state saw fit.

    This brings me to my second point. Why has the concept of independent states been lost on us? In part, I think it’s due to the homogeneity of the states. Of course, greater access to information and greater mobility have made the states more homogeneous. But I would say that the beliefs and ideals of the people living in South Carolina are quite different from those living in Massachusetts, which are quite different from those living in Hawaii. Have you ever wondered why the minimum drinking age in every state is 21? Most people, if they thought about it, would probably assume it’s due to some federal law. But, as Skipper points out, the 10th Amendment prevents a law such as this. What happened was in 1984, a Democratic House and a Republican Senate passed the Uniform Drinking Age Act which was then signed into law by Ronald Reagan. What this act said was, “We can’t make you set a certain drinking age, but if you don’t make 21 the minimum, we’re going to withhold 10% of the money we were going to give you for highways.” So, in essence, they take money from the people of a state and then give some of it back, but if the state doesn’t follow a rule that the federal government can’t make the state follow, they’ll give less back. No Child Left Behind (split Congress, signed by George W. Bush) is another example of this and I’m sure there are many, many more examples. Both major Parties have made a mockery of the 10th Amendment by holding carrots in the form of our money in front of the states’ noses.

    The third point that comes to mind is the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. Not only the people of Louisiana, but also the State of Louisiana, blamed FEMA and George W. Bush for what happened. I never understood this. Why wasn’t the State responsible for the protection of its own citizens (not to mention the individual’s responsibility)? Somehow this concept of states being independent has not only been lost on the citizens, but also on the states themselves!


  7. Paul and Skipper:
    Good stuff!
    And, me too, btw, I never understood why FEMA and W. were blamed for a state responsibility. FEMA is not and never will be a first responder.