Re-examining states’ rights | Ott Observations


When I attended the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton,” it stirred in me an interest in digging deeper into the origin of our country and the issues our founders faced.

I’ve read the Federalist Papers, a series of essays supporting the adoption of our Constitution. I’ve read biographies about Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, as well as historians’ examinations of the deep conflicts between our founders about the country we were creating after the American Revolution.

Thirteen loosely aligned colonies won the Revolutionary War, but coordination of the war effort was a nightmare with each state hoarding its resources or wanting them to be expended only for soldiers from their colony. Each colony had an established government and many were reluctant to concede power to a national government.  Southern colonies especially were wary of a national government that could force the abolition of slavery – an obvious contradiction to the ideals on which our nation was founded.

It wasn’t until 1788 that our Constitution was ratified, and only after painstakingly defining federal vs. state power in every imaginable situation. 

This took a series of compromises that today’s Congress most probably couldn’t begin to match.  Everyone got something they wanted but no one got everything they wanted.  The result was a flawed definition of government that cost over 600,000 American lives 75 years later in the Civil War to address the most obvious flaw – slavery.  

Our Constitution has also proved over 200 years to be the best definition of government man ever created, even with its flaws.

My conservative friends tell me they think our government is too big, too interfering and too expensive.  I agree. Where we disagree is that I think state government over time has lost most of its usefulness and represents a largely unnecessary layer of government.  It’s been long enough now to recognize state rights were to a significant extent a compromise to get the Constitution accepted, not the result of a reasoned analysis for such an extensive layer of government.

Our state of Illinois has three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – just like our federal government. It also has 24 departments.  

Here are some questions to consider: Why should veterans in Illinois be treated better or worse than veterans in other states? Yet we have a state Veteran Affairs department. Why should you be able to gamble in Illinois but not in other states? Why should the regulations and certification of medical professionals be any different in Illinois? What human rights are uniquely supported by this Illinois department that aren’t universal in the U.S.? Why should you be able to smoke pot freely in some states and get locked up in other states? What unique family and children services do we provide in Illinois that shouldn’t be a universal human right in our country? What unique way do we support farmers that shouldn’t be a standard for farmers throughout America?

The fact is there is very little that goes on in Illinois that shouldn’t be a universal standard across our country.  Yet in our polarized political environment and corresponding culture wars, our states are asserting power in ways we haven’t seen since the Civil War and the subsequent Jim Crow segregation years. 

A signature allows you to vote in some states. You can vote by mail in others, and in some you need a photo ID even if you don’t own a car. You can learn about American history and all its warts in some states, and in others you’ll get fired for talking about anything that might make kids uncomfortable.

A Supreme Court opinion about abortion that was leaked is now an announced decision.  The majority argues that decisions about women’s privacy and reproductive health rights should be left to state governments, since they are not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution. Never mind that the Ninth Amendment in the Bill of Rights says, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny other rights retained by the people.” 

How does it make any sense that a woman would not be able to get an abortion in any circumstances in Missouri, yet could drive across the JB Bridge and get one in Illinois? I think it’s a cop out … you either have this right as an American or you don’t.

Imagine if there weren’t states anymore. What would you miss? One thing would be elimination of the costs of a whole layer of government – and the contradictions. 

When I travel to Mexico to visit family, they don’t ask if I’m a Missourian or an Illinoisan. They know I’m an American and think we all have the same rules and the same rights. I think it is past due time to start thinking the same way. 

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