In thinking about what the Declaration of Independence meant for state powers, perhaps the better question is what powers didn’t the states have upon their independence? Consider the very first line and note what is emphasized: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” This is telling. Why use “unanimous” if all the states were considered one entity? Importantly, “united” is not emphasized. This also occurs in the last paragraph of the document with the reference to the “Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled…” “Nation” only appears once in the Declaration, and it refers to England, not America. Rather than “nation,” the reference used twice is “Free and Independent States.” Indeed, during this time and up until the Constitution was ratified, the United States was cast as a plural entity. So, if we were going to war with France, the wording would not be “the United States is going to war”, but “the United States are going to war…”

The Declaration clearly calls for the independence of thirteen new nations, not one—“a baker’s dozen of new nations,” as Willmoore Kendall put it, thirteen free and independent states.  What the Declaration meant for the powers of the states was that the states being free and independent, each state had the powers any nation is entitled to, but since God has given man ethical laws in nature and in His laws revealed in Scripture (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God”), no nation and no state is entitled to powers which violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God, nor are the people of any state justified in consenting to any powers that violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The Declaration leaves the form of civil government chosen by the people or the representatives of the people of each state up to the representatives and the people of that state. Each must choose for itself a form of government and powers of government which are consistent with preserving the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and thereby preserving the people’s freedom. The people of each state are justified in framing their own particular constitution, civil government institutions, and laws so long as they do not violate the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

The Declaration of Independence was both produced by the states and produced the states.  The colonies’ (then states’) representatives in the Continental Congress produced it.  It is a tremendously important but often misinterpreted document.  There was not a government of the thirteen united States. The Continental Congresses did not have the authority to require the states to do anything; the respective states’ legislatures had to decide whether to act on the recommendations of the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress was based upon the equality of all states, not upon the will of the majority of the people who live in all those states. There was no vote of the people of the States and no attempt to determine the majority will of the people who lived in those thirteen states. The Declaration was unanimous because the representatives of the people of each state agreed upon it, not because the majority, or all of the people, of all the states agreed to it.

Colonists started talking about independence in 1774, but no original powers of legislation were granted to the Congresses of 1774 and 1775. The government was temporary only; it was permitted only for a particular and temporary object, and the States could at any time recall any and every power which it had assumed. Nothing in the powers employed by the revolutionary government, as far as can be seen from its acts, is inconsistent with the sovereignty and independence of the States. Regarding external relations, Congress seemed to have exercised every power of a supreme government. They declared war; formed alliances and made treaties; contracted debts and issued bills of credit. These powers were not “exclusive” though. The colonies raised troops, commissioned vessels of war, and conducted military operations. In conducting the war Congress had no “exclusive” power, and the States retained, and asserted, their own sovereign right and power to do that. Congress exercised no power reducing the absolute sovereignty and independence of the States.  Many powers entrusted exclusively to Congress could not be effectively exercised except by the aid of the State governments. The States raised troops required by Congress. Congress was allowed to issue bills of credit, but not make them a legal tender. Nor could it require the States to redeem them, nor raise by its own authority the necessary funds for the purpose. In these and other important functions, the “sovereignty” of the Federal Government was merely nominal; its efficiency was wholly due to the co-operation of the State governments. The relation between the colonies and their Congress did not change once independence was declared. The chief difference was that the relation was now between the States and their Congress.[1]

Although the powers actually assumed and exercised by Congress were very great, they were not always allowed by the States. Thus, the power to lay an embargo was earnestly desired by Congress, but was denied by the States.[2] The Continental Congress was not a central government of the newly independent States.

There was no central government until the Articles of Confederation in 1781—five years after the colonies issued the Declaration. Even under the Articles of Confederation, it was clear that the states were intended to have the vast majority of civil government power. Article II (of the Articles) clearly stated that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

Article III established the United States as a league of states that emphasized the right of each state to govern its own internal affairs. It was “a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…” The purpose of the Confederation was clearly defensive. It was deliberately left for each state to determine for itself how to order its own internal affairs.

Article VI limited the powers of the central government. Centralized power is incompatible with federalism and a confederate form of government. The power must be spread out and limited.

Article VII authorized state control of military ranks. The federal army was to be a very small standing army, supplied by the state militias.

Article VIII. Each state’s taxes were to be determined by the legislature of that state—not by the central government.

Article IX declared what the rights of the central government were. It meant that each state was a sovereign nation that had to be considered in forming any common governmental system for the peoples of the states to live under. The primary powers the central government had under the Articles were to declare war against foreign powers; establish standard weights and measures; mint coins and print currency; and serve as a mediator in all disputes between the states.

The Articles of Confederation was our first national constitution. The newly independent states created it because they recognized their weakness compared to European nations—and wanted to be able to defend themselves against attempts by other nations to conquer them.  They made their first constitution a confederacy because they wanted to continue to rule their own internal affairs, but still be able to join with the other states to defend against foreign aggression—based on religion or any other causes.

Although it was not ratified until March 1781, it was given to Congress in November of 1777, and it was essentially the structure of government that the United States operated under all through the War of Independence. In 1779, the Continental Congress passed a resolution acknowledging the operating status of the Articles prior to its being fully ratified by the states in 1781.[3]

The states declared their independence in order to be and remain independent, self-governing states. Their Declaration of Independence is neither our fundamental governing document nor the controlling authority for American civil government, law, and politics.  It is simply our original states’ declaration of their right to fight for their respective independence from England and of their equal status as free, independent nations. They created the Articles of Confederation to maintain their individual sovereignty, but to provide their united military power. When government under the Articles proved defective, many in the states sought to create a stronger central government; many others feared that the new central government would be too strong. The new governmental system that the colonies established under the Constitution was meant to retain the great majority of governmental power in the respective states, not to centralize power in the new, limited national government, nor to enable future officials in that government to centralize power. Those who advocated ratifying the finished Constitution insisted that the new central government did not and would not be a threat to the powers of the states.

Jennie Jones, Instructor of Government and History, Weatherford College

[1] Abel P. Upshur, The Federal Government: Its True Nature and Character; Being a Review of Judge [Joseph] Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868), Reprinted by St. Thomas Press, Houston, Texas, 1977, p. 64-65

[2] Upshur, p. 66

[3] Dr. George Grant, Ph.D. Lit., King’s Meadow Humanities Curriculum: American Culture, Instructor’s Guide (Franklin, Tennessee: King’s Meadow, 2011). p. 202, 293

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