Tenth Amendment Center
February 1, 2012
Americans — and much of the rest of the world — have been deprived of one of the most important means of establishing and maintaining a free society, namely, federalism or states’ rights. It is not just an accident that states’ rights have either been relegated to the memory hole, or denigrated as a tool of racists and other miscreants. The Jeffersonian states’-rights tradition was — and is — the key to understanding why Thomas Jefferson believed that the best government is that which governs least, and that a limited constitutional government was indeed possible.
What Are “States’ Rights”?
The idea of states’ rights is most closely associated with the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and his political heirs. Jefferson himself never entertained the idea that “states have rights,” as some of the less educated critics of the idea have claimed. Of course “states” don’t have rights. The essence of Jefferson’s idea is that if the people are to be the masters rather than the servants of their own government, then they must have some vehicle with which to control that government. That vehicle, in the Jeffersonian tradition, is political communities organized at the state and local level. That is how the people were to monitor, control, discipline, and even abolish, if need be, their own government.
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