Joseph Story on “Complete Decentralization”

Justice Joseph Story


In Justice Joseph Story’s classic 1883 work, “Commentaries on the U.S. Constitution”, he writes of the concept we now refer to as federalism (he called it “complete decentralization”). In his description, however, he notes how the Founding generation carried this concept of the proper relationship between the federal and state governments to incorporate the relationship between the states and their counties, the counties and their towns, and so forth – and that the concept went back to the earliest days in England (or in other words to the Anglo-Saxons). Story writes:

In another work the present editor has had occasion to say, that, “in the examination of American constitutional law we shall not fail to notice the care taken and the means adopted to bring the agencies by which power is to be exercised as near as possible to the subjects upon which the power is to operate. In contradistinction to those governments where power is concentrated in one man, or in one or more bodies of men, whose supervision and active control extend to all the objects of government within the territorial limits of the State, the American system is one of complete decentralization, the primary and vital idea of which is, that local affairs shall be managed by local authorities, and only general affairs by the central authority. It was under the control of this idea that a national Constitution was formed, under which the States, while yielding to the national government complete and exclusive jurisdiction over external affairs, conferred upon it such powers only, in regard to matters of internal regulation, as seemed to be essential to national union, strength, and harmony, and without which the purpose in organizing the national authority might have been defeated. It is this, also, that impels the several States, as if by common arrangement, to subdivide their territory into counties, towns, road and school districts, and to confer upon each the powers of local legislation, and also to incorporate cities, boroughs, and villages wherever a dense population requires- different regulations from those which are needful for the rural districts. This system is one which almost seems a part of the very nature of the race to which we belong. A similar subdivision of the realm for the purposes of municipal government has existed in England from the earliest ages. (Crabbe’s History of English Law, ch. 2; 1 Bl. Comm. 114; Hallam’s Middle Ages, ch. 8, pt. 1; 2 Kent, 278; Vaughan’s Eevolutions in English History, b. 2, ch. 8.) And in America the first settlers, as if instinctively, adopted it in their frame of government, and no other has ever supplanted it, or even found advocates.” (Cooley, Const. Lim. 189.)

Or even found advocates … until our day, that is.

The famed Justice Joseph Story, America’s Founding Fathers, and even the early Anglo Saxons knew that the farther a governing body was from the people, the greater the tendency toward tyranny, and thus, the greater the need to strictly limit those powers to only a few proper objects – and even so, to insure that those few delegated powers were well defined, divided, and checked. It was only to be on the most local levels where the vast majority of government powers were to reside, because only there could the people keep a close eye on their Unalienable, God-given rights and were most likely to be successful in nipping government corruption in the bud. You see, the people, by Divine design, were supposed to be the Masters over the state, the government only Our servant. Government power was thus to be bottom heavy, and never, no never, top heavy.

Somehow that doesn’t sound like the government we reside under today, and to which so many so unwisely clamor.

In our next Liberty Letter Justice Joseph Story will let American Founder, Thomas Jefferson, explain even more precisely how this inspired model of government was supposed to work.

Source: “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States,” by Joseph Story, 1833, pgs. 190-192.

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