Tenth Amendment Center

Federal Overreach and American Foreign Policy Go Hand-In-Hand

Apologists for the state often argue that criticism of the federal government must not encroach on national defense and foreign affairs. This is particularly true of Republicans, but Democrats are increasingly arguing in favor of a unitary presidency; especially as the Democrats and the GOP practically become one indistinguishable party.

The bipartisan consensus claims the president has historically been empowered to dictate America’s foreign policy with little oversight from Congress or the courts. Thus, the federal government, chiefly the president, must be left to tend to its affairs: foreign policy, fighting wars, and general operations beyond America’s shores.

But, how well does the federal government manage America’s foreign affairs?

Some news headlines from the last few weeks:

The federal government is continuing its decades long foreign interventions, with little oversight from Congress or the American people.

Congress has been practically absent from any discussion on many of these policy decisions. Over the years, the legislative body has gradually ceded power to the executive and judicial branches. Correspondingly, political and military power has moved further from the states and the people, and into the pockets of the federal government, specifically the executive branch.

The founding generation envisioned that members of Congress would represent the interests of the people. The other branches of government, along with elections, would check the Congress. But, if senators and representatives are both callous to the effects of their absence in decision making, and uninterested in reasserting their constitutional prerogative, we need to ask the question – what can be done?

Properly answering that question must involve an understanding of the warnings that came with the creation of the federal government.


Patrick Henry of Virginia understood that the proposed Constitution was a danger to the independence of the states. In general, he opposed the Constitution because it would allow the federal government to centralize power and denude the states of their sovereignty:

A number of characters, of the greatest eminence in this country, object to this government for its consolidating tendency. This is not imaginary. It is a formidable reality. If consolidation proves to be as mischievous to this country as it has been to other countries, what will the poor inhabitants of this country do? … It will destroy the state governments, and swallow the liberties of the people, without giving previous notice.

He was correct, of course.

Patrick Henry knew that the combination of a government’s tendency to centralize power and the natural defect of man’s character (i.e. the lust for power) will lead to a loss of liberty for the individual and sovereignty for the states. Henry shared his concern that few men have the character of, in his opinion, George Washington. Most will gladly take the power of the presidency and lean it further toward dictatorship:

We gave a dictatorial power to hands that used it gloriously (i.e. George Washington); and which were rendered more glorious by surrendering it up. Where is there a breed of such dictators? Shall we find a set of American Presidents of such a breed? Will the American President come and lay prostrate at the feet of Congress his laurels? I fear there are few men who can be trusted on that head.

Henry knew that the energetic presidency outlined in the Constitution would not defer to Congress (i.e. lay prostrate at the feet of Congress). Even good men will naturally give in to temptations of power of public pressure. “Virtue will slumber,” he says.

This brings us to the question of war, defense, and foreign policy.

War and Nullification

How can anyone expect a person or government to be imbued with incredible amounts of power and not, over time, deform toward dictatorship? Patrick Henry wanted to know how people could remain free when so much power would be ceded to the federal government.

Henry’s concern on matters of war leaned on his assumption that when the federal government can tax and control the army, the people’s self-determination is necessarily imperiled.

Congress, by the power of taxation, by that of raising an army, and by their control over the militia, have the sword in one hand, and the purse in the other. Shall we be safe without either? Congress have an unlimited power over both: they are entirely given up by us. Let him candidly tell me, where and when did freedom exist, when the sword and purse were given up from the people? Unless a miracle in human affairs interposed, no nation ever retained its liberty after the loss of the sword and purse. Can you prove, by any argumentative deduction, that it is possible to be safe without retaining one of these? If you give them up, you are gone.

Henry explained that by empowering the federal government to tax and raise armies, the states would have fewer defenses against the centralization of power. The American people would eventually become pawns in the machinations of the politicians and technocrats.

With these two key tools for the preservation of liberty exclusively in the hands of the federal government, how are we going to fight back against the politicians, the bureaucrats, the technocrats, the lobbyists, the foreign governments, and above all, man’s moral deficiencies and want for power?

The key is and always has been nullification.

Nullification is how politicians are reigned in – or ignored; how unconstitutional federal law can be quickly and effectively be changed; how we can preserve the benefits of union without resorting to violence.

Patrick Henry understood that the federal government is likely to strip the states of their power and look to the Constitution for justification. Or as he put it:

“If you attempt to force it down men’s throats, and call it union, dreadful consequences must follow.”