The 1579 Netherlands Constitution and the Founders’ Vision for Careful Balance of Federal Powers While Protecting the States
In making the case for the ratification of the Constitution, the authors of the Federalist papers (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) routinely looked to history for examples of what to follow, and, almost more importantly, what shouldn’t be followed. The Constitution, of course, was to be an improvement over the previous Articles of Confederation, and document whose flaws in the separation and balance of powers necessitated the drafting of the Constitution itself.
The Articles of Confederation was also built on historic example, and among these was the 1579 constitution of the Netherlands provinces—the subject of Federalist #20, authored by Madison. Created as a result of the “Union of Utrecht”—a treaty created between the seven northern Dutch provinces who had allied with one another to oppose the Habsburg-controlled southern provinces, this constitution laid out the shared power structure between these unified territories.
But Madison recognized that the flaws endemic in the document creating this Dutch confederacy were duplicated by the flaws in the Articles of Confederation. In laying out his criticism of the Netherlands Constitution, he said the following:
“What are the characters which practice has stampt upon it? Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace, and peculiar calamities from war.”
In other words, because of the structural flaws in how this constitution laid out the relationship between the provinces, it left this union weak and vulnerable. Madison went on to say, “It was long ago remarked [that] nothing but the hatred of his countrymen to the House of Austria, kept them from being ruined by the vices of their constitution.”
To be fair, there was a flaw in Madison’s essay (and it was a flaw repeated by others), in that Madison suggested that votes on issues of importance to these provinces had to be unanimous. This was untrue. William Riker, a political scientist and expert on federalism, said this in his 1957 journal article, “Dutch and American Federalism”:
“Nearly all the framers who spoke on the subject seemed certain of one statement about the Netherlands; and in this they were mistaken. Nearly all seemed to believe that the decisions of the general government required unanimity of the seven provinces-an even more stringent requirement than in the Continental Congress. But, misled by inaccurate commentaries, they did not know what this requirement meant or how it worked in practice or what significance it had in Dutch politics.”
Riker noted how favorably many of the founders (other than Madison) looked at the governmental practices within the Netherlands—which should come as no surprise given the breadth of Dutch colonial activity in the continent prior to the American founding. He said:
“[W]hen the records of the Constitutional Convention and the state ratifying conventions are superficially examined, it appears that our heritage from the Netherlands is considerable. The records show that members of the conventions referred to the government of the United Provinces more frequently than to any other modern European government, except that of Great Britain.”
It should be noted that Professor Riker’s views on federalism changed over time as his expertise on the subject grew. In his 1987 book, The Development of American Federalism, he admits the following in the introduction:
“Given my ideological shift [from “New Dealer” to “anti-statist”], I have also changed my evaluation of federalism. Initially I regarded it as an impediment-minor, perhaps—but still an impediment to good government. Now I regard it as a desirable, though still minor, restraint on the leviathan.”
But contemporaneous accounts underscore the relationship between the 1579 constitution and the Articles of Confederation. Pieter Paulus, who later became the first President of the Batavian Republic, wrote:
“It is surprising and to the credit of our ancestors, that these inhabitants of another continent, after a lapse of some two centuries, adopted practically the same measures and arrangements as they did when drafting the Union of Utrecht.”
Yet, here we have Madison’s criticism, a criticism which may have been informed by his fellow-Virginian, William Grayson, a lawyer and soldier who later became a member of the United States Congress. Grayson had deep concerns about the Articles of Confederation, and how similar it was to the 1579 Netherlands constitution, writing to Madison:
“It is no wonder our Government should not work well, being formed on the Dutch model where circumstances are so materially different.”
This becomes reflected in Madison’s concluding remarks for Federalist #20, in which he says:
“The important truth, which it unequivocally pronounces in the present case, is, that a sovereignty over sovereigns, a government over governments, a legislation for communities, as contradistinguished from individuals; as it is a solecism in theory; so in practice, it is subversive of the order and ends of civil polity, by substituting violence in place of law, or the destructive coertion [sic] of the sword, in place of the mild and salutary coertion [sic] of the magistracy.”
The answer then is made manifest in the choices made in the structure of the Constitution as it was ultimately adopted: carefully enumerated powers for the federal government, a balancing of those powers between branches of government, and the retention of all power not surrendered in the hands of the people themselves as well as state governments.
This theme is made manifest throughout the Constitution and, in just one example, one can note the balance and contrast between what is discussed in Article 1, Section 10, and Article IV. In Article I, Section 10, the founders placed very clear limits on the extent of state power—by making it clear, for example, that states cannot coin their own monies, nor could they negotiate treaties on their own. The reason for this is clear: building on the warning echoed by Madison in Federalist 20 (in part because of how he understood the flaws of the 1579 Netherlands Constitution), the drafters knew that while there might be intense internal debate between the states, that once an issue reached America’s shorelines, the nation had to speak with one voice. It would be chaos, for instance, if Massachusetts were negotiating one treaty with Spain, and Maryland were negotiating something different with Spain, or with an enemy of Spain.
In the same way that the federal government is responsible for regulating interstate commerce, these drafters also knew that it would likewise be chaotic if each state were creating its own currencies. So, they limited the power of the states in that regard as well.
But like all the other checks and balances, the trade-off to this is seen in Article IV—while the powers of the states are limited in terms of things like treaties and currency creation, Article IV gives a guarantee of protection to states. The federal government agrees to defend a state against military threats, and at the same time offers assurances in terms of working to make sure that each and every state treats each and every other state fairly. Article IV also makes guarantees as to the admission of new states into the Union, and a guarantee of a “republican” form of government.
With all of that in mind, the framers still felt it necessary to include the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2), which says that the Constitution, and any laws that are created by Congress, are the “supreme law of the land.” So long as Congress creates laws that are based on the powers delegated to the federal government by the people (and the states), should those laws come into conflict with state laws, the federal laws take precedence.
But those laws have to be within those enumerated powers—and this is central to many of the policy and political debates of today. For much of the 20th century, the federal government’s authority was virtually unlimited in terms of legislation, and thus holding sway over competing laws that might be enacted by state legislatures, due to an expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3).
But in a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s, the limitations on federal power were re-asserted. The Supremacy Clause remains, but that “leviathan,” as Professor Riker described it, is checked by the limitations on, and diffusion of, that power within our system of federalism.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.
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