From Federalism and the Founders by Allen Guelzo at National Affairs:

It is no accident, and no denigration of federalism, to remember that liberty’s defense — whether it be liberty for slaves or freedom of speech or even the right to bear arms — has more often come from the national authority than from the states. One need not look far to find states where the dictates of governors (think New York’s Andrew Cuomo) have shown shockingly little regard for the natural or civil rights of Americans, and where horrendous misreadings of those rights at the state level have only found correction in the highest national court (think Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission).

If there is a great threat to civil liberties today — and especially the core liberties captured in the Constitution’s first 10 amendments — it comes from a feckless Congress that has surrendered national authority to what amounts to an invisible fourth branch of government: the bureaucracy. And yet the states have hardly been less eager to create oppressive administrative burdens themselves.

We sometimes imagine that the solutions to all of our problems are to be found in “restoring federalism” — which is usually shorthand for curtailing national authority in favor of state or local authority. This ignores the fact that the propensity to abuse power can be found just as easily at the meetings of a local school board as in the District of Columbia.

The kind of federalism the founders espoused was not a freewheeling endorsement of state sovereignty — they had seen how dreadful the results of that might be — but a federalism that restrained power where they had seen its worst abuses: in the states. As Hamilton would write in Federalist 15, “[w]hy has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” It is such constraint that requires not solely federalism, but a nation.


Federalism is an effort to keep power close to the people affected but regulatory excess is not limited to the federal government. Liberty must be protected at the state level as well as the national.  Power must be balanced with liberty at the state as well as the federal level.