The Dilemma of State Representation

As though he too, were also studying the Constitutional Convention’s debates as my colleague, Greg Weiner, did today, Noah Millman has an interesting article in the New York Times calling for America to break up its biggest states. Given that this is the very same day, July 7th, that the Constitutional Convention took up in earnest the question of state representation, Millman’s article is especially interesting. Millman is trying to find a way to represent the political diversity within the large states that is not currently represented. For instance, in the state of New York, neither New York City, nor the rural areas of upstate New York feel adequately represented. By increasing the number of states and breaking up some of the larger states, Millman suggests that we could better fulfill federalism’s aim to provide a “framework for a multiplicity of communities, with different interests and values, to live together as part of a single country.”

Connecting Millman’s argument to the Constitutional Convention’s debate points in another direction, however. My colleague, Greg Weiner, has soft-pedaled some the aggressive arguments that nearly everyone, including James Madison, and especially Gouverneur Morris, made against the states on this day. Efficient government, Morris argued, required that the national government have clear preeminence over the state governments. Equal state representation in the Senate, the subject of the debate on this day, made that much more unlikely. That is, at least on the basis of the July 7th debate, there is good reason to suggest that the founders were not nearly as concerned about state representation as they are sometimes portrayed as being. And, so far from wanting more state representation as Millman does, Morris and others who spoke on this day wanted less.

These founders, however, would agree with Millman to the extent that he suggests that we shouldn’t treat the states themselves as sacrosanct. As Morris says, what good is the Senate “unless it be to keep the majority of the people from injuring particular States. But particular States ought to be injured for the sake of a majority of the people.” These states, he continues, were “originally nothing more than colonial corporations.”

Millman proposes to break up the larger states in order to facilitate representation of interests like New York City in the Senate. But, if we follow the logic of Morris and others on this day, why have a Senate at all? Doesn’t the House of Representatives already achieve that representation? Or, to be even more radical, why have states? Don’t local jurisdictions already concern themselves with the variety of interests across the nation? Why have a New York City “city-state” if New York City is already essentially governing itself? At the national level, its interests are already represented in the House of Representatives. So, too, seemingly, are the interests of upstate New York. I would also guess that upstate New York would much prefer to govern itself at the municipal and county level than with the interference of New York City at the state level.

Of course, there are good arguments for preserving the sovereignty and integrity of the states. Certain types of legislation are most appropriate at the state level and not either at the national or the local level. And Madison, at least by the time he was writing as Publius in The Federalist Papers, had come to embrace that sovereignty. But we should be careful in simply appealing to the authority of the founders on these questions. At their best, they can help us think through these things for ourselves. But they were themselves being experimental in their constitutional endeavor. As such, if the nature of the states is, to quote Morris again, “detrimental to the whole body,” then it’s hard to see why we should maintain them in their current form.

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