Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer

Prior to the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution, our founders had nearly two hundred years of colonial governance from which to draw lessons regarding both the proper, and the improper, management of such territories, and the best way to add new lands to a governmental structure.

Among the threads that run through the Constitution, the assurance of fair and equal treatment of all citizens and the necessity of “due” process as a way to protect those citizens’ rights is repeated in a myriad of ways.

When it came to colonization and settlement, the founders could draw on the history of Great Britain’s management of the colonies (and, in many cases, their mismanagement) to ensure that the deficiencies in British governance could be corrected and their mistakes not repeated.

A central problem was consistency in the development of colonies and the application of British law. Colonial charters, the documentation actually allowing British subjects to establish colonies in North America, could be granted by the King (directly) or by the King’s officers, and they were granted to both corporate entities and groups of individuals.

But these charters could also be revoked, and most colonial charters were, at some point or another, revoked and reinstated by the Crown.

If Americans were going to settle the western portions of the recently-unionized states, they would have to be guaranteed, under the law, that the same kinds of arbitrary actions that plagued British colonial governance would not be continued by an American government.

Not all were even in agreement about such expansion (that became encompassed in the 19th century as the Monroe Doctrine. An Anti-federalist, writing under the name Brutus I in response to the Federalist papers written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton under the pseudonym Publius, voiced deep concern about American empire building.

Jonathan Marshall, writing for Inquiry Magazine in 1980 (and republished in The Journal of Libertarian Studies) wrote:

“[T]he Antifederalist world view was profoundly shaped by their abhorrence of “empire”-that is to say, the rule of a vast territory by a strong, consolidated government. In rejecting the Federalist dream of a glorious American empire, they challenged the notion that the confederated states had to mimic European empires to safeguard their independence. Ultimately, the Antifederalists insisted, empire could be achieved only at the expense of their most cherished and hard-won prize: liberty.”

That skepticism is certainly shared when viewed in the context of another failure of British rule—the abandonment of the principle of “salutary neglect.” Discussed at length by one of the earliest historians of the American Revolution, Dr. David Ramsay (a revolutionary-era politician and physician), the concept is straightforward: the best way for a colony to prosper is for the parent nation to take a “light touch” in terms of direct governance, to let the colonists themselves make decisions and solve problems.

As the American colonies grew more powerful and determined to make decisions on their own, the British crown became more determined to bring them to heel. This only served to frustrate and anger the colonists, and eventually led them to declaring themselves free and independent states.

The Constitution addresses these concerns squarely—most clearly in Article IV, Section 3, more commonly known as the Admissions Clause.

The clause has two parts—the first, granting power to Congress to admit new states. The second, a restriction on that power, saying that Congress cannot create a new state by dividing the territory of an existing state or by joining two states together, without the consent of the legislatures of those states.

Both are essential to the practice of good governance. The people of the United States and potential states, i.e., territories know that there is one body with the power to admit states into the Union. It cannot be done or denied arbitrarily by a President, or the President’s bureaucratic functionary.

The second clause is almost more important than the first since it essentially prevents a state from being punished or the federal government otherwise abusing its powers by tearing apart states or forcing them to join with other states against their will. There has to be agreement from that state’s duly elected legislative representatives.

It is, essentially, another form of Due Process, protecting the rights of these citizens from arbitrary or capricious behavior on the part of the Federal Government.

Interestingly enough, though not outlined in the Constitution, the process for newly-settled lands to become states has largely been codified over time. Public lands are declared U.S. territory. Through a variety of means, the people in that territory vote to declare their intent to become a state, and then Congress passes an “enabling act” legislating that the territory becomes a state.

One aspect of this, for many of the states that entered after the middle of the 19th century, was to declare that all “unappropriated public lands” within those territories to be the property of the United States itself.  This was a way of “clearing title” to those lands for the purpose of encouraging further settlement (clear title, as the property rights scholars Hernando DeSoto and Richard Pipes have both written, is an essential element of strong protection of private property). It is also the reason why, as a percentage of a state’s territory, so much more land is owned by the federal government west of the Mississippi River (which has had huge implications for the balance of power between federal and state governments for the last half-century).

The British government had both successes and failures when it came to their management of the North American colonies. The authors of the Constitution learned from those mistakes and crafted clear language to safeguard against making them again.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.


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