While James Madison wrote the most specific and complete set of instructions on how to stop the federal government without going to the federal government, he was far from the only founder to talk about states as a check on federal power.

A little-known Founder from Massachusetts made the case, just like James Madison did, that the states were the strongest check on federal power should they work together to oppose it. The following text, excerpted from the Memoir of Theophilus Parsons, chief justice of the Supreme judicial court of Massachusetts, covers his views in more detail.


The honorable gentleman from Boston has stated at large most of the checks the people have against usurpation and the abuse of power under the proposed Constitution ; but from the abundance of his matter he has, in my opinion, omitted two or three, which I shall mention.

The oath the several legislative, executive, and judicial officers of the several States take to support the Federal Constitution, is as effectual a security against the usurpation of the general government, as it is against the encroachment of the State governments.

For an increase of the powers by usurpation is as clearly a violation of the Federal Constitution, as a diminution of these powers by private, encroachment ; and that oath obliges the officers of the several States as vigorously to oppose the one as the other. But there is another check, founded in the nature of the Union, superior to all parchment checks that can be invented.

If there should be a usurpation, it will not be upon the farmer and merchant, employed and attentive only to their several occupations ; it will be upon thirteen Legislatures, completely organized, possessed of the confidence of the people, and having the means, as well as inclination, successfully to oppose it. Under these circumstances, none but madmen would attempt a usurpation.

But, Sir, the people themselves have it in their power effectually to resist usurpation, without being driven to an appeal to arms.

An act of usurpation is not obligatory, it is not law ; and any man may be justified in his resistance. Let him be considered as a criminal by the general government, yet only his own fellow-citizens can convict him. They are his jury ; and if they pronounce him innocent, not all the powers of Congress can hurt him. And innocent they certainly will pronounce him, if the supposed law he resisted was an act of usurpation.

Michael Boldin

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