The purpose of this dissertation is to examine ‘confederal’ forms of governance, where sovereign states unite in a fashion that legally supports them as masters of their own constitutional domain of powers, and in particular to evaluate the operation of the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) and the Constitution of the Confederate States (1862-1865).
Confederalism is an institutional configuration that is alien to most economically advanced democracies in the world today. More common is the highly centralised unitary-state style federalism found in Australia, India and to a lesser extent the US. Perhaps only Switzerland retains some semblance of decentralization with its canton system, a system that is nevertheless more centralised than the Old Swiss Confederation that existed between 1291 and 1798.
Part of the reason for this diminished interest in confederalism is that The Federalist has informed the views of political scientists in the present day when it comes to the evaluating the utility of confederations; yet many of the basic assumptions put forward by the authors (especially Alexander Hamilton) against decentralised forms of governance should be considered in combination with the responses contained in the ‘Anti-Federalist Papers’ (authored by the likes of George Clinton, Patrick Henry and possibly Robert Yates). From the anti-Federalists we can see that, contrary to the polemic of The Federalist, confederal models are worth learning from and implementing in a variety of situations.
Historically, confederalism - despite admitted challenges - nevertheless allowed the 13 original colonies of the US to defeat Britain in the American Revolutionary War. The Articles under which the colonies united would have prevented a national government from infringing upon the authority of the states, while still providing for mutual defense against foreign enemies. Congress under the Articles was effectively dependent on the goodwill of the states due to the system of quota payments whereby Congress asked for funds and the states then provided the requested funds. As stated in section 8, the machinery of state – rather than national – governance was to be used to raise taxes.
And the Confederate Constitution, had it been allowed to operate, would probably have rectified some of the problems with centralised interpretations of the US Constitution. In the Confederate Constitution the ‘general welfare’ clause that has been a prime source of mischief in federal government power in the United States was eliminated (as well, it limited the commerce clause). The Southern constitution also constrained the federal government's ability to interfere with international trade by laying tariffs on imports. And in certain situations, it required that Congress raise a two-thirds majority to pass spending bills. Thus the Confederate Constitution, while superficially identical to the US Constitution, contains several important differences that make it a useful case study for scholars interested in investigating the veracity of claims made about confederacies.