Is the federal government sovereign, with authority over state governments? Or, are individual state governments sovereign, with authority over the federal government? It’s a simple question; it’s the answer that’s a problem.
The federal government exists because representatives of the states created it. This fact should provide a clue. The federal government was designed by representatives from the states in a document called the Constitution of the United States. The federal government became a reality when the Constitution was ratified by the ninth state, New Hampshire, on June 21, 1788. This infant government, created by the states, began operation March 4, 1789. From that day until this, people have been arguing over whether the federal government or the states possess the supreme authority.
It is quite clear that the people who designed the federal government intended it to be limited in its power. Article I, Section 8 sets forth 17 enumerated powers of the federal government. The first clause empowers the new government to “lay and collect taxes,” to provide for the “defense and general welfare” of the United States. Here’s where the argument gets nasty.
One group of people argues that the phrase “general welfare” means whatever Congress wants it to mean with no limitations. Another group of people argues that if this is what the designers intended, why on earth would they have bothered to enumerate the remaining 16 specific powers? It’s a reasonable question that the first group prefers to ignore rather than answer.
To be sure that the federal government’s authority stayed limited, the primary architect of the Constitution, James Madison, introduced the Bill of Rights in the very first Congress in 1789. These first 10 Amendments further clarify the authority and limitations of the federal government. The 10th Amendment, in particular, limits the federal government to those powers enumerated in the Constitution and explicitly reserves all other powers to the states and to the people.
Among the powers granted to the federal government is what is known as the “Enclave Clause,” which happens to be the 17th enumerated power. This clause provides authority for the federal government to exercise supreme authority over an area “10 miles square” ceded by the states to be the capital of the new government, and over any lands purchased from the states with the approval of the state legislature for “… the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful buildings.”
This is where it really gets sticky. Clearly, the designers intended for the federal government to purchase “with the approval of the legislature” any land to be owned by the federal government within any state. The Constitution empowers the federal government, however, to exercise sovereign authority over its territories, and the authority to add states that are carved out of the territories.
It is reasonable to conclude that when a state is carved out of a territory, it becomes a state subject to the powers and limitations of all the other states within the jurisdiction of the Constitution, and no longer subject to the federal authority suffered by the people when the land area was a territory.
This is pretty much the way it went when Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845. What was called “public land” was shifted to the state of Texas. Today, only 1.9 percent of Texas is owned by the federal government.
In Utah, however, the federal government required, as a condition of statehood, to “disclaim all right to title” of public land, and the feds retained nearly 60 percent of all the land in the state. In Nevada, the feds retained 85 percent of the land.
How can it be legal for the federal government to own land in a state that it did not purchase with the consent of the state legislature? How can it be legal for the federal government to exercise sovereignty over land within a sovereign state? Why were the 11 Western states and Alaska treated differently upon admission to the Union than were the other 26 states that joined the Union – when all states were supposed to be admitted on an “equal footing”?
There is only one logical conclusion: The federal government should not own the land it now claims within any state unless it is purchased with the approval of the state legislature for the purposes set forth in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17.
There is a growing effort in Western states to force the federal government to honor its constitutional limitation on land ownership and return to the states that which is rightfully theirs.