The Founders named our nation “the United States of America”. To answer the question of “Why Are There States in America?” we first should know what the meaning of the word “state” is in this context. Most countries are “one state, one nation”. But this is much different from a few countries with federal systems like the United States of America. The United States is a country of one nation. But it has 50 States. What does this mean?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides many similar definitions for the word state. Probably the most basic one is that a state is a politically organized body of people usually occupying a definite territory. One of the most interesting aspects about history tackled in the science and social studies curriculum of the American education system is the birth of the nation itself – the United States of America. Why was the nation structured in such a way, like no other countries in the world?
In order to appreciate the formation of the United States of America the way it is today, one needs to understand the critical historical events leading up to the formation of the States and their consolidation. The basic American History curriculum taught in American schools tells us that “it is important to start with an understanding of the colonial period of American history, from around the end of the 15th century.” This is when various European countries sent out expeditions to foreign lands in order to “keep up” with their Continental rivals in terms of power, influence and riches. The Spanish, English, Dutch, French, Swedish and Portuguese started arriving in the Americas.
One of the earliest and most well-known colonizers were the Spanish, who first came in expeditions led by the great explorer, Christopher Columbus in the 1490s. However, by the 17th century, British colonization had become more widespread and dominant. (British colonization also refers to English colonization, which was prior to the Acts of Union in 1707 that transformed the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain.)
As we have seen, Jamestown was the first successful British colony established in Virginia in 1607. There were many other colonies established, such as Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island; the Middle Colonies composed of what is known today as New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania; as well as North and South Carolina and Georgia to the South. These colonies formed what was called the Thirteen Colonies – established by 1733. These colonies were interestingly characterized by a diversity in aspects such as religion, having been established by various settlers with different Christian beliefs and also of economy, several having been awarded by the Crown to enterprising business consortiums – Jamestown being one.
From the events in England in 1688-89, known as the “Glorious Revolution”, until the French and Indian (also known as the Seven-Years War) War in the mid-1750s, the British government virtually ignored the North American colonies.
“In 1688, an almost bloodless coup d’état replaced the Catholic authoritarian, James II with the Protestant William III and Mary II. William’s successful invasion of England with a Dutch fleet and army led to his ascending of the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England in conjunction with the documentation of a Bill of Rights in 1689.”
Both monarchs, incidently, were grandchildren of King Charles I, whose power struggles with Parliament resulted in the English Civil War (1642-48) in which Charles was defeated. He was tried for treason and beheaded in 1649.
“His son, James II, converted to Catholicism in 1669 and his policies of religious tolerance after 1685 met with increasing opposition by members of leading political circles, who were troubled by the king’s Catholicism and his close ties with [Catholic] France. The crisis facing the king came to a head in 1688, with the birth of the King’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart, on June 10. This changed the existing line of succession by displacing the heir presumptive, his daughter Mary, a Protestant and the wife of William of Orange, with young James, now as heir apparent.
The establishment of a Roman Catholic dynasty in the kingdom now seemed likely. Some of the most influential leaders of the Tories united with members of the opposition Whigs and set out to resolve the crisis by inviting William of Orange to England, which the stadtholder, who feared an Anglo-French alliance, had indicated as a condition for a military intervention.
After consolidating political and financial support, William crossed the North Sea and English Channel with a large invasion fleet in November 1688, landing at Torbay. After only two minor clashes between the two opposing armies in England, and anti-Catholic riotsin several towns, James’s regime collapsed, largely because of a lack of resolve shown by the king. However, this was followed by the protracted Williamite War in Ireland and Dundee’s Rising in Scotland.
Following a defeat of his forces at the Battle of Reading on December 9, James II and his wife fled England; James, however, returned to London for a two-week period that culminated in his final departure for France on December 23. By threatening to withdraw his troops, William III, in February 1689, convinced a newly chosen “Convention Parliament” to make him and his wife joint monarchs.
[James II’s son, upon the death of his father in 1701, claimed the thrones of England and Scotland but never attempted to achieve them. He died in exile in 1766.]
In England’s distant American colonies, the revolution led to the collapse of the Dominion of New England and the overthrow of the Province of Maryland‘s government. The laissez-faire period between 1689 and the beginning of the Seven Years’ War saw the “English” colonists become “American” colonists and set the stage for the fight for independence.
The French and Indian War, or the North American theater of the global war between Great Britain and France in the mid-18th Century, served to strengthen British colonization upon the defeat of their main rivals. On the other hand, it also served to strengthen the bond among [and between] the Thirteen Colonies, precipitating their political organization and integration. One of the biggest grievances of the colonists against Britain was the imposition of taxes, which particularly started with the Stamp Act of 1765 [under recently crowned George III] to recoup the costs of British victory during the Seven Years’ War.
All these factors led to one of the most important and seminal events in American history known as the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was an act of defiance by the colonists against what they felt was the excessive imposition of taxes by the British parliament. While the taxed tea was returned to Britain by other colonies, in Boston, Massachusetts, a shipload of taxed tea was not disembarked but the Royal Governor refused to return the shipment as well. Protesters responded by dumping the tea into the harbor, thereby ruining it.
This pivotal event in American history is what fortified the Thirteen Colonies to resist British rule and formalize their grievances and convene the First Continental Congress. With little progress achieved with their grievances, the colonists proceeded to convene the Second Continental Congress, declared war and fought the British in the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783, and proclaiming their independence as the United States of America on July 4, 1776 in the Declaration of Independence. The citizens of the original Thirteen Colonies are considered the essential players in the formation of the United States of America [known collectively as the “Founders”] through their participation in the creation of the federal Constitution.
What constituted a State in the eyes of the first citizens? There are four, to wit; a permanent population, a defined territory, government or a political authority, and a capacity to enter into relations with the other States.
Putting this into the context of any state – a state has a permanent population. There are people in each of the states who have established a permanent residency therein. They are called citizens of that state. The first element is therefore present.
The second element of a state is a defined territory. What the law means when it says defined territory is a piece of land located on the surface of the earth that can be identified from other parts by metes and bounds or by reference to something else. Were one to look at any early map of the USA, there is a line defining where the area of each of the States begins and ends.
The third element is the government or political authority. The United States is a federal government where, although the central government has the greatest power, which has been granted to it by the People, what powers are not specifically granted by the Constitution are reserved to the States. Thus, each State has its own government, and its own executive, legislative and judicial branches and its own governmental responsibilities.
The fourth element is the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. Through reciprocal agreements, each State can and has exercised this capacity.
After knowing the elements of a state, the answer to the question “Why Are There States in America?” is closer. According to the common, but erroneous, textbook explanation, “The USA is a huge country in terms of land area and population. When it opted to adapt the federal form of governance, what it did is establish a devolution of power from the central government to the local government.”
Note here the problem with the public-school concept of federalism. In reality, whatever power the federal government had was granted by the People– where all sovereign power ultimately resides – and all other powers were reserved to the States. There was no “devolution” of power from the federal government to the States. The People of the several States actually created the federal government as it exists today.
So, according to the nation’s educators, “One central government, having one judiciary, legislative and executive body will not be able to handle a big country like the USA. It is simply impossible to do so without having to risk civil war and anarchy.”
Semi-distinct cultural regions of the United States also define America. These include New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, the Southern United States, the Midwestern United States and the Western United States—an area that can be further subdivided, on the basis of the local culture into the Pacific States and the Mountain States.
The western coast of the continental United States consisting of California, Oregon, and the State of Washington is also sometimes referred to as the Left Coast, indicating its left-leaning political orientation and tendency towards social liberalism
The Southern United States are informally called “the Bible-Belt” due to socially conservative evangelical Protestantism, which is a significant part of the region’s culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is generally higher there than the nation’s average. This region is usually contrasted with the mainline Protestantism and Catholicism of the northeastern United States, the religiously diverse Midwest and Great Lakes, the Mormon Corridor in Utah and southern Idaho, and the relatively secular western United States. The percentage of non-religiously active people is the highest in the northeastern state of Vermont at 34%, compared to the Bible-Belt state of Alabama, where it is 6%.
Strong cultural differences have a long history in the U.S. with the southern slave society in the antebellum period serving as a prime example. As we know, not only social, but also economic tensions between the Northern and Southern states were so severe that they eventually caused the South to declare itself an independent nation, the Confederate States of America; thus initiating the American Civil War [in fact, America’s Second Civil War – the first being between British colonists in America and the British Crown between 1775-1783].
“Historian David Hackett Fisher theorizes that the United States is made up today of four distinct regional cultures. His focus is on the Folkways of four groups of settlers from the British Isles that emigrated from distinct regions of Britain, Scotland and Ireland to the British American colonies during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Fischer’s thesis is that the culture and folkways of each of these groups persisted, albeit with some modification over time, providing the basis for the four modern regional cultures of the United States.
According to Fischer, the foundation of American culture was formed from these four mas migrations from four different regions of the British Isles by four distinct socio-religious groups. New England’s earliest settlement period occurred between 1620 and 1640 when Puritans, mostly from East Anglia in England, settled there, forming the New England regional culture. The next mass migration was of southern English cavaliers and their working class English domestic servants to the Chesapeake Bay region between 1640 and 1675. This facilitated the development of the Southern American culture.
[In addition, although New York City traces its origin to its 1624 founding in Lower Manhattan as a trading post by colonists of the Dutch Republic and was named New Amsterdam in 1626, the city and its surroundings came under English control in 1664 and were renamed New York after King Charles II of England granted the lands to his brother, the Duke of York.]
Then (between 1675 and 1725), thousands of English and Welsh Quakers, led by William Penn, settled in the Delaware Valley followed by large numbers of German Lutherans. This settlement resulted in the formation of what is today considered the “General American” culture, although, according to Fischer, it is really just a regional American culture, even if it does today encompass most of the U.S. from the Mid-Atlantic States to the Pacific Coast.
Finally, Scotch-Irish, English and Scottish settlers from the borderlands of Britain and Ireland migrated to Appalachia between 1717 and 1775. They formed the regional culture of the Upland South, which has since spread west to such areas as West Texas and parts of the U.S. Southwest.
Fischer suggests that the U.S. today is not a country with one General American culture and three or more regional sub-cultures. He asserts that the country is composed of just regional cultures, and that understanding that helps one to understand many things about modern American life.
Fischer also makes the point that the development of these regional cultures derived not only from where exactly the settlers first came, but when they came. Fischer asserts that during different periods of time, a population of people will have very distinct beliefs, fears, hopes and prejudices gathered from their experiences in their native lands, and that various groups of settlers brought these kinds of feelings to the New World where they more or less froze in time in America, even if they eventually changed in their place of origin.
Continuing the work of Fischer, Colin Woodward, in his book American Nations, claims an existence of eleven rival regional cultures in North America, based on the cultural characteristics of the original settlers of these regions. According to Woodward, these regions are: Yankeedom (not the Bronx), New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, New France, El Norte, The Left Coast, The Far West and First Nation (Alaska and Hawaii).
According to Woodard, these regions cross and disregard formal state or even country borders. For example, he compares the Mexican border with the Berlin wall, saying that “El Norte in some ways resembles Germany during the Cold War: two peoples with a common culture separated by a large wall.”
In fact, the concept of states was more complicated than the abysmally ignorant national high school curriculum explanation of the creation or the subsequent evolution of geographic America described by historians. It was not about geography at all – it was about overwhelming concerns for control of a central government by the States and, ultimately, the People – a people who had had a long and regretful experience with monarchy – British people steeped in the promises and traditions of Western Civilization and fresh from the fights of the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Northern Europe. This was now their country and they would build it to best reflect and realize their dreams – the American dreams that would become a beacon to the world.
But, no matter how one breaks down the various geographic sections of the United States, the salient point is that the people who migrated here during the four great migrations before the Founding, all came from northern Europe, the decendants of primarily Celtic tribes who had created The Western Tradition, popularized by historian Eugen Weber whose work presents a tapestry of political and social events woven with many strands — religion, industry, agriculture, demography, government, economics and art that shaped the development of Western thought, culture, and tradition and informed the Founders as they created the United States of America through the Constitution.
It began with the concept of federalism. Federalism is one of the most unique, important and innovative concepts in the Constitution, although the word never appears there. The States existed first, and they struggled to create a national government. The Constitution is hardwired with the tensions of that struggle and Americans still debate the proper role of the federal government. As a result of these tensions, the Founders invented American Federalism and provided us with a “user’s guide” – the Constitution.
Under no circumstances would the Founders agree today to change the fundamental concepts they enshrined in the Great Document from the bloody lessons they learned at the hands of the Crown in its use and abuse of centralized power nor would they endorse cultural changes that would abandon the fundamental tenants of the Western Tradition.
Federalism is the sharing of power between national and State governments. Federalism became the formal system of government when the Articles of Confederation were scrapped and the Constitution was adopted and ratified in 1788. The genius of Federalism is that it reserves the power to the States to handle local issues, like title to real and personal property, marriage, divorce, education, driving and other licenses, firearms and alcohol use.
The national or federal government handles national issues that are beyond the capacity of the States to equitably manage because of their own unique rules and regulations – but to which they are entitled to an interest because of their own sovereignty – issues like intellectual property, interstate and foreign trade, a common currency, foreign affairs, war and peace and a post office.
“The Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation introduced a great deal of interstate conflict, something that delegates, through the drafting of the Constitution, tried their best to solve. However, under the Articles, when the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution in 1787, it needed the ratification from nine states before it could go into effect. This was not easy. And the push for ratification brought on a seemingly endless barrage of documents, articles, and pamphlets both supporting and opposing it.
There were two primary sides to the Great Debate: The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists wanted to ratify the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists did not. One of the major issues these two parties debated concerned the inclusion of a “Bill of Rights” to be guaranteed [inalienably and in perpetuity] to the People. The Federalists felt that this addition wasn’t necessary, because they believed that the Constitution as it stood only limited the government, not the People. The Anti- Federalists claimed the Constitution gave the central government too much power, and without a Bill of Rights the People would be at risk of oppression. [Of course, in the 21st Century, the People are, in fact, oppressed – intentionally and unintentionally – by the central government – even with the Bill of Rights.]
Led by Alexander Hamilton, albeit secretly at first, the Federalists were the first political party of the United States. They supported the Constitution, and attempted to convince the States to ratify the document. Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, anonymously published a series of essays known as the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym “Publius” [that laid out their arguments in magnificent detail].
Both Hamilton and Madison argued that the Constitution didn’t need a Bill of Rights, that it would create a “parchment barrier” that limited the rights of the People, as opposed to protecting them. However, they eventually made the concession and announced a willingness to take up the matter of the series of amendments which would become the Bill of Rights. Without this compromise, the Constitution may never have been ratified by the People of the Thirteen States. Surprisingly enough, it was Federalist James Madison who eventually presented the Bill of Rights to Congress despite his former stance on the issue.
In the ratification debate, the Anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution. They complained that the new system threatened liberties [now acting by being free of the despotism of the British Crown], and failed to protect individual rights. The Anti-Federalists weren’t exactly a united group, but instead involved many elements. One faction opposed the Constitution because they thought stronger government threatened the sovereignty of the States. Others argued that a new centralized government would have all the characteristics of the despotism of Great Britain they had fought so hard from which to remove themselves. And still others feared that the new government threatened their personal liberties. [All these fears proved only too real in the quarter-millennium that followed].
During the push for ratification, many of the articles in opposition were written under pseudonyms, such as “Brutus,” “ Centinel“, and “Federal Farmer,” but some famous revolutionary figures such as Patrick Henrycame out publicly against the Constitution. Although the Anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in the prevention of the adoption of the Constitution, their efforts were responsible for the creation and implementation of the Bill of Rights.
In Rhode Island, resistance against the Constitution was so strong that civil war almost broke out on July 4, 1788, when anti-federalist members of the Country Party led by Judge William West marched into Providence with over 1,000 armed protesters.
Although not all of the States underwent the extreme of the Rhode Island case, many of them had a bit of difficulty deciding which side they were on. This uncertainty played a major role in the ratification convention in Massachusetts. Finally, after long debate, a compromise (the “Massachusetts Compromise”) was reached. Massachusetts would ratify the Constitution, and in the ratifying document, strongly suggests that the Constitution be amended with a bill of rights.
Four of the next five states to ratify, including New Hampshire, Virginia and New York, included similar language in their ratification instruments. As a result, after the Constitution was enacted, Congress sent a set of twelve amendments to the States. Ten of these amendments were immediately ratified into the Bill of Rights.
The first of the two rejected amendments has since been adopted. It was proposed by Rep. James Madison of Virginia, the man largely responsible for the Bill of Rights. It stated that Congress should not be allowed to give itself pay raised without constituents being able to register disapproval. No time limit was set on the ratification so it was finally enacted in 1992, when Michigan ratified it as the 27th Amendment.
The only amendment of the 12 that has not been ratified is the one that would have required each congressional district not to exceed a population of 50,000 citizens. Today that would require thousands of members of the House of Representatives.
In their attempt to balance order with liberty, the Founders identified several reasons for creating a federalist government: to avoid tyranny; to allow more participation in politics and to use the States as “laboratories” for new ideas and programs.
As James Madison pointed out in The Federalist, No. 10, if “factious leaders kindle a flame within their particular states,” national leaders can check the spread of the “conflagration through the other states.” So, federalism prevents a person that takes control of a State from easily taking control of the federal governments as well.
Electing both State and national officials also increases the input of citizens into their government. And if a State adopts a disastrous new policy, at least it would not be a catastrophe for every American. On the other hand, if a State’s new programs work well, other States can adopt their ideas and adjust them to their own needs. [It is when the federal government mandates regulations for the several States where it is not Constitutionally appropriate – school busing, abortion, etc. – that chaos arises.]
Next time: Constitutional powers.