Only Power Delegated to Federal Government
Over 3 decades after ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to William Johnson where he mentions the only state power that got delegated away to the federal government: That gold and silver will be the only lawful tender inside of the borders of the United States of America (emphasis added):
It may be impracticable to lay down any general formula of words which shall decide at once, and with precision in every case, this limit of jurisdiction. but there are two Canons which will guide us safely in most of the cases.
1. the capital and leading object of the Constitution was to leave with the states all authorities which respected their own citizens only, and to transfer to the US. those which respected citizens of foreign or other states: to make us several as to ourselves, but one as to all others. in the latter case then constructions should lean to the general jurisdiction; if the words will bear it; and in favor of the states in the former; if possible to be so construed and indeed, between citizen and citizen of the same state, and under their own laws, I know but a single case in which a jurisdiction is given to the general government. that is where any thing but gold or silver is made a lawful tender or the obligation of contracts is any otherwise impaired. the separate legislatures had so often abused that power, that the citizens themselves chose to trust it to the General, rather than to their own special authorities.
It’s the one power that states gave up to the federal government when they ratified the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson is talking about a court case, Cohens v. Virginia (1821), where the federal government thought it had some kind of a power to intervene in state justice (to potentially “overrule” a decision of a Virginia state court).
The Cohen brothers tried to sell D.C. lottery tickets in Virginia, which was against state law, so they got hit with a fine. Regarding whether the federal government can overturn state court rulings, Jefferson continues:
2. on every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was past. let us try Cohen’s case by these Canons only, referring always however, for full argument, to the essays before cited.
And Jefferson adds two more points revealing that states actually kept their sovereignty when they ratified the U.S. Constitution:
1. it was between a citizen and his own state; and under a law of his state. it was a domestic case therefore; and not a foreign one.
2. can it be believed that under the jealousies prevailing against the powers of the General government, at the adoption of the constitution, the states meant to surrender the authority of preserving order enforcing moral duties, and restraining vice within their own territory? & this is the present case, that of Cohen being under the antient and general law against gaming? can any good be effected by taking from the states the moral rule of their citizens, and subordinating it to the general authority, or to one of their corporations, which may justify forcing the meaning of words, hurting after possible constructions, and hanging inference on inference, from heaven to earth, like Jacob’s ladder?
Jefferson concludes by warning against federal government growth:
I wish therefore to see maintained that wholsome distribution of powers established by the constitution for the limitation of both: & never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold as at market.
A reason to be against a big federal government, is that it can get corrupted more easily by powerful interests (“secretly be bought and sold as at market”), even the interests of foreign nationals.
Because the only power that American states gave up is the power over printing out their own money, the states are authorized to keep the federal government in check if it ever oversteps its boundaries. The people and the states created the federal government, and they can alter or abolish it if needed.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides for a peaceful and legal means for the states to force the federal government to change course or to force it to down-size.