The conservatives among the nation's founders wanted a strong central government. But these nationalists, in crafting our constitution, realized that widespread opposition to what contemporaries called "consolidation" existed throughout a new republic born in rebellion against an empire.
So they compromised to create as powerful a government as possible within an anti-statist climate.
At the same time, the sway of slavery in the South influenced the new framework and gave slave states disproportionate sway over its functioning.
This extended beyond the clause allowing slaves to count as three-fifths of white people for representation in Congress and presidential electors.
Each state having two senators also reflected the demand of the slave South for security for its peculiar property. During the decades before the Civil War, the South became increasingly sensitive to criticism of slavery, as well as to any augmentation of federal strength.
The Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and James Polk, South and North, adopted states' rights and limited government as its dogma in large measure to reassure the slave South.
Slave-master political leaders feared that the stronger the federal government, the greater the potential threat to slavery — either to limit its expansion or to extinguish it.
Even at the 1787 constitutional convention, South Carolina's slaveholding delegates opposed allowing the new government to legislate for "the general interest of the Union."
During the decades before the Civil War, the slave South became obsessed with states' rights and stepped up its demands to limit Congress's ability to regulate the spread of slavery. When in the 1850s the new Republican Party emerged determined to limit the further spread of slavery, Civil War resulted.
And now today's political arena resounds with furious calls for states' rights and small government.
This obsessive outcry, located primarily (and ironically) in the Republican Party, recalls the posture of the slavery-dominated antebellum democracy. Though it cuts across regions, anti-government passion emanates mostly from border and Southern states, from which come over 60 percent of the Tea Party congressional caucus.
One effect of the contemporary crusade to limit federal power, if not always the intention among ordinary citizens, is to protect the wealth and power of an array of under-taxed financial and corporate interests and under-regulated industrial polluters.
The Republican Party — often supported by Wall Street and insurance-company Democrats — has become the small government defender of plutocracy and of policies that have made the United States one of the most unequal in income and wealth among the world's developed countries. Our inequality results not from free competition but from rigged rules of the game.
The 21st century's nexus of financial and corporate power differs greatly from the pre-Civil War slave power. But they share a corrosive effect on representative government and the well-being of millions.
A common thread of race surfaces in the current economic decline that has eroded the economic security of the great majority, with people of color, African-Americans and Hispanics, hurt the most.