Why is Rhode Island a state? Why does a tiny spot on the Atlantic coast, wedged in between Massachusetts and Connecticut, have as many votes in the U.S. Senate as the entire state of Texas? The answers to these questions involve history and the Constitution, and one might hope that the attorney general of the United States would understand this. Alas, it seems that Merrick Garland could be due for a refresher course on how America’s federal system of government came into being and how it is supposed to operate. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was happy to provide the lesson this week.
The Republicans who control Arizona’s state senate have been conducting a forensic audit of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, Arizona, to clear up suspicion from supporters of former President Donald Trump that Democrats in the county engaged in shenanigans with the vote count, tipping Arizona’s 11 Electoral College votes to Joe Biden. Garland had huffed in a speech Friday that the Arizona election audit is “based on disinformation,” asserting that suspicions of vote fraud “have been refuted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” Garland said the federal Department of Justice will be keeping a close eye on Arizona, implying a threat to interfere in the state’s affairs that Brnovich denounced.
“My office is not amused by the DOJ’s posturing,” Brnovich wrote in his Monday letter to Garland, “and will not tolerate any effort to undermine or interfere with our State Senate’s audit to reassure Arizonans of the accuracy of our elections. We stand ready to defend federalism and state sovereignty against any partisan attack or federal overreach.”
Just to make clear who answers to whom in such matters, Brnovich reminded Garland:
It is important to remember that the states created the federal government, not the other way around. America’s founders intentionally restrained the federal governments constitutional boundaries to ensure each state could flourish in unique ways. Today, our federal government has largely forgotten the Founders’ intent, but my office has not. [Emphasis added.]
That’s enough to make any self-respecting Southern boy fling his hat in the air and yell, “Yee-haw!” But such a fond attachment to States’ Rights is rather unfashionable (if not indeed nearly forbidden) nowadays, what with Gen. Lee needing a vote from the board of trustees to keep his name on Washington and Lee University. Everyone is now supposed to pretend that the states are mere administrative subdivisions of the American Empire and to believe that any opposition to unlimited federal authority is motivated by racism.
In our era of hypersensitive wokeness and critical race theory — what my friend Evan Sayet has dubbed The Woke Supremacy — the invocation of “state sovereignty” conjures up nightmare visions of Klansmen and cross-burnings in the liberal imagination. Far from being an invention of Cotton Belt secessionists or racist Dixiecrats, however, constitutional protection of state sovereignty is our common heritage as Americans, for which we owe a tip of the hat to tiny Rhode Island.
Do you have any idea just how tiny that state is? There are five counties in Texas (Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis) that each have populations larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Harris County alone has more than four times as many residents (about 4.7 million) as Rhode Island (about 1.1 million). Harris County is also larger in geographical size: 1,777 square miles to Rhode Island’s measly 1,214 square miles. Despite its minuscule size, however, Rhode Island still gets two U.S. senators — including the obnoxious Sheldon Whitehouse — and has four Electoral College votes, which it has cast for Democrats in every presidential election since 1988.
Liberals from time to time whine about the Electoral College as an archaic and reactionary offense against Equality (with a capital “E,” signifying its status as an object of quasi-religious devotion among liberals). The thought of reducing Rhode Island’s influence to its appropriate size (i.e., about 23 percent of Harris County, Texas) is tempting, but as a conservative I feel obliged to defend all things archaic and reactionary as a matter of principle. Besides that, however, America owes a historic debt to Rhode Island, which was founded as a haven of religious liberty, was the first colony to declare its independence, and refused to ratify the Constitution until it was amended by the Bill of Rights.
You probably didn’t know any of that history. As I have previously explained in The American Spectator (“Liberals Ignore the Roots of ‘Our Democracy,’ ” June 8), our education system seems to have abandoned teaching anything about the historic origins of American liberty, rooted in a tradition that can be traced back to Magna Carta. The vast majority of Americans — including most of the so-called educated elite — couldn’t tell you who Roger Williams was, or explain why Williams was so important to our heritage of religious liberty. A thumbnail summary is therefore necessary.
Roger Williams was an English-born Puritan separatist, educated at Cambridge, who in 1630 at age 28 emigrated to Massachusetts, just a decade after the first English settlement at Plymouth. His theological beliefs were considered extreme, even among other Puritans, and caused conflict with the Massachusetts authorities. In 1635, accused of spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions,” Williams was convicted of heresy and sedition and banished from Massachusetts. The exile found refuge in the wilderness south of Boston, near the head of Narragansett Bay, where he befriended the local natives and called his new settlement Providence.
Williams fervently believed in the separation of religious and civil authority, arguing that the use of government power to compel conformity in matters of faith was not merely a tyrannical abuse of authority but a sin against the Almighty. Making this a principle of his new colony, Williams attracted many other dissenters and nonconformists to what would eventually be known as Rhode Island. Among other things, Rhode Island’s distinct tradition made it one of the earliest North American sites for the distillation of whiskey and home to the first synagogue in America.
During the Revolutionary era, Rhode Island was a leader among the colonies, renouncing its allegiance to the British crown two months before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. After the United States had won their independence, however, and it was proposed to amend or alter the original Articles of Confederation, Rhode Island balked and refused to send a delegation to the convention that drafted the Constitution. Only after 12 other states had ratified the Constitution and had added the first 10 amendments subsequently known as the Bill of Rights did Rhode Island assent to join this “more perfect Union,” but not without first stipulating at length their own understanding of what they were agreeing to, including this paragraph:
That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness. That the rights of the states respectively to nominate and appoint all state officers, and every other power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or to the departments of government thereof, remain to the people of the several states, or their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the Constitution which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitution; but such clauses are to be construed as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution. [Emphasis added.]
No more eloquent exposition of the doctrine of state sovereignty could be desired and, lest anyone mistakenly think that this was some fringe, kooky belief held only by Rhode Islanders, it should be noted that no member of Congress at the time objected to Rhode Island’s caveats about the limits of federal authority under the Constitution. In other words, everyone at the time agreed that “every other power, jurisdiction, and right” not specifically delegated to the federal government was reserved “to the people of the several states, or their respective state governments.”
Nothing that has happened in the past 230 years has negated those constitutional limits, which were universally understood at the time of ratification when, as Arizona’s attorney general reminded Merrick Garland, “the states created the federal government, not the other way around.” The late M. E. Bradford, in his 1993 book Original Intentions, made clear that the meaning of the Constitution cannot be fully comprehended without examining state by state the debates that preceded ratification because, had the states not ratified the Constitution, the federal government as we know it would not exist.
Rhode Island, being the smallest of the original 13 states, had reason to fear that more populous states would exploit their greater influence in the federal government to enact legislation that might infringe upon the rights that Rhode Islanders held most dear. The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty and the 10th Amendment’s protection of state sovereignty were thus inextricably connected. “Congress shall make no law” — the First Amendment denies to the federal government any role in religious matters, and the 10th Amendment functions as the exclamation point on the rest of the Bill of Rights.
What does all this history have to do with Arizona’s audit of the election results? Well, as Brnovich pointed out in his Monday letter to Garland, “the constraints of the 10th Amendment and the election provisions in Articles I and II” of the Constitution reserve entirely to the states the supervision of elections. There is nothing in the Arizona audit that violates anyone’s civil rights under the Constitution, but the federal government’s interference in elections does violate the Constitution.
Furthermore, religious liberty is as vital in the 21st century as it was 230 years ago when stubborn little Rhode Island finally decided to ratify the Constitution. The danger to religious freedom now, however, is not that some theocratic regime might impose a national religion on Americans, but rather that believers of every faith could be forced to bend the knee to the idolatrous quasi-religious cult of the Church of Wokeness. If you use the wrong pronouns or refuse to join the (increasingly compulsory) LGBTQ “Pride” celebrations, you could lose your job or otherwise be subjected to punishment for being insufficiently woke. Democrats are determined to ram through the so-called Equality Act, which would inflict criminal penalties on anyone who doesn’t cooperate with the LGBTQ agenda. The Equality Act is full of provisions that infringe upon religious freedom and, among other things, could be used to require Catholic hospitals to dispense birth control and perform abortions. The only thing standing in the way of this Democratic Party monstrosity is the Senate filibuster, another one of those archaic and reactionary things that conservatives are obliged to defend.
None of our basic rights would be safe if (as Democrats also wish) elections were federalized, with Washington dictating to the states, for example, how absentee ballots are to be handled or whether voters could be required to show ID in order to vote. (You must show ID to buy a pack of cigarettes or buy a bottle of wine, but voting? No, according to Democrats, it’s “voter suppression” and you’re a racist if you want people to show ID before voting.) As Brnovich reminded Garland, the Constitution clearly assigns to the states the authority to prescribe the particulars of elections, and any infringement on that authority would be unconstitutional.
Did I mention that Maricopa County, Arizona, is home to nearly 4.5 million people, more than four times larger than the population of Rhode Island? Our Constitution was written to protect the rights of even the tiniest states against bullying from the federal government, and we ought to value this protection, even if it means that Rhode Island inflicts the obnoxious Sen. Whitehouse upon us. At least we can change channels whenever that liberal blowhard appears on TV, but escaping the power of a federal government without constitutional restraint would not be nearly so easy, and the 10th Amendment’s exclamation point on the Bill of Rights is there for a very good reason.
Attorney General Garland’s huffy warnings about “disinformation” in regard to the Arizona election audit were a clear attempt to intimidate state officials. Whatever you may believe about the 2020 election — and about half of Americans are suspicious about the result — nothing about it changes the fact that the states and people still retain “every other power, jurisdiction, and right” not specifically delegated to the federal government. The real “disinformation” is coming from those who, like Garland, want you to forget about the sovereignty of the states, which still matters as much today as it did when tiny Rhode Island became the last of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution.