“How to Preserve the Local Self-Government of the States”

Image: Elihu Root, Harris & Ewing (1905-1945) Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing photograph collection, LC-DIG-hec-15214.
Why was it necessary for states to conform their legislation to national standards, according to Root? How had conditions changed from prior eras to make it necessary for states to now conform to national standards?
Compare Root’s argument that “the intervention of the national government in many of the matters which it has recently undertaken would have been wholly unnecessary if the states themselves had been alive to their duty toward the general body of the country” with President Calvin Coolidge’s argument that “without doubt, the reason for increasing demands on the federal government is that the states have not discharged their full duties”. In what ways did Root and Coolidge diverge in their reactions to and recommendations following from the failure of states to fulfill their duties?

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Elihu Root (1845–1937) served as U.S. secretary of war and was a Republican senator from New York. He was serving as Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state (Address at the Dedication Ceremony of the New State Capital Building at Harrisburg, Pennslvania, Theodore Roosevelt, October 4, 1906) at the time he delivered this address to the Philadelphia Society. Root offered an explanation for the growth of federal authority that was grounded in a view that states had in many areas failed to govern effectively. Root argued that power would continue to flow to the federal government as long as states failed to realize “their own duties to the country at large” and enact legislation “with reference to the effect upon all its sister states.” He identified a number of policy areas that called for effective government regulation and argued that if states did not act responsibly and in line with expectations of the country as a whole, then the federal government would need to act.

Secretary of State Elihu Root

Source: Elihu Root, “How to Preserve the Local Self-Government of the States: A Brief Study of National Tendencies” (New York: Brentano’s, 1907), 3, 10–15, https:// books .google .com /books ?id = PiFAAAAAYAAJ & pg = PA1 & lpg = PA1 & dq = elihu + root + How + to + Preserve + the + Local + Government + of + the + States & source=

... What is to be the future of the states of the Union under our dual system of constitutional government?... 

... It is plainly to be seen that the people of the country are coming to the conclusion that in certain important respects the local laws of the separate states, which were adequate for the due and just regulation and control of the business which was transacted and the activity which began and ended within the limits of the several states, are inadequate for the due and just control of the business and activities which extend throughout all the states, and that such power of regulation and control is gradually passing into the hands of the national government. Sometimes by an assertion of the interstate commerce power, sometimes by an assertion of the taxing power, the national government is taking up the performance of duties which under the changed conditions1 the separate states are no longer capable of adequately performing. The federal anti-trust law, the anti-rebate law, the railroad rate law, the meat-inspection law, the oleomargarine law, the pure-food law,2 are examples of the purpose of the people of the United States to do through the agency of the national government the things which the separate state governments formerly did adequately but no longer do adequately. The end is not yet. The process that interweaves the life and action of the people in every section of our country with the people in every other section, continues and will continue with increasing force and effect; we are urging forward in a development of business and social life which tends more and more to the obliteration of state lines and the decrease of state power as compared with national power; the relations of the business over which the federal government is assuming control, of interstate transportation with state transportation, of interstate commerce with state commerce, are so intimate and the separation of the two is so impracticable, that the tendency is plainly toward the practical control of the national government over both. New projects of national control are mooted; control of insurance, uniform divorce laws, child-labor laws, and many others affecting matters formerly entirely within the cognizance of the state are proposed.

With these changes and tendencies in what way can the power of the states be preserved?

I submit to your judgment, and I desire to press upon you with all the earnestness I possess, that there is but one way in which the states of the Union can maintain their power and authority under the conditions which are now before us, and that way is by an awakening on the part of the states to a realization of their own duties to the country at large. Under the conditions which now exist, no state can live unto itself alone and regulate its affairs with sole reference to its own treasury, its own convenience, its own special interests. Every state is bound to frame its legislation and its administration with reference not only to its own special affairs, but with reference to the effect upon all its sister states, as every individual is bound to regulate his conduct with some reference to its effect upon his neighbors. The more populous the community and the closer individuals are brought together, the more imperative becomes the necessity which constrains and limits individual conduct. If any state is maintaining laws which afford opportunity and authority for practices condemned by the public sense of the whole country, or laws which, through the operation of our modern system of communications and business, are injurious to the interests of the whole country, that state is violating the conditions upon which alone can its power be preserved. If any state maintains laws which promote and foster the enormous overcapitalization of corporations condemned by the people of the country generally, if any state maintains laws designed to make easy the formation of trusts and the creation of monopolies,3 if any state maintains laws which permit conditions of child labor revolting to the sense of mankind, if any state maintains laws of marriage and divorce so far inconsistent with the general standard of the nation as to violently derange the domestic relations, which the majority of the states desire to preserve, that state is promoting the tendency of the people of the country to seek relief through the national government and to press forward the movement for national control and the extinction of local control. The intervention of the national government in many of the matters which it has recently undertaken would have been wholly unnecessary if the states themselves had been alive to their duty toward the general body of the country. It is useless for the advocates of state rights to inveigh against the supremacy of the constitutional laws of the United States or against the extension of national authority in the fields of necessary control where the states themselves fail in the performance of their duty. The instinct for self-government among the people of the United States is too strong to permit them long to respect anyone’s right to exercise a power which he fails to exercise. The governmental control which they deem just and necessary they will have. It may be that such control would better be exercised in particular instances by the governments of the states, but the people will have the control they need either from the states or from the national government; and if the states fail to furnish it in due measure, sooner or later constructions of the Constitution will be found to vest the power where it will be exercised—in the national government. The true and only way to preserve state authority is to be found in the awakened conscience of the states, their broadened views and higher standard of responsibility to the general public; in effective legislation by the states, in conformity to the general moral sense of the country; and in the vigorous exercise for the general public good of that state authority which is to be preserved.

  1. 1. Root referred to the development of large corporations carrying out interstate commerce and the emergence of individuals with large private fortunes. See "Address at the Dedication Ceremony of the New State Capitol Building at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Theodore Roosevelt, October 4, 1906.
  2. 2. A series of laws passed between 1886 (the Oleomargarine Act, which defined what butter was and put a two-cent tax on margarine) and 1906 (the Pure Food and Drug Act, which regulated foods and drugs involved in interstate commerce).
  3. 3. A monopoly, sometimes called a “combination,” is control by one or more people over a number of firms operating in the same area of the economy. A trust was a way of establishing a monopoly or combination. Shareholders in different corporations transferred their shares to one corporate entity that held them (hence, a “holding company”), in effect creating a monopoly. For this reason, “trust busting” became part of the U.S. government’s effort to ensure free markets in the United States.
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