1902 Encyclopedia > Federal Government

Federal Government




FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. A federal union of sovereign states for mutual aid, and the promotion of inter-ests common to all, is a procedure so consistent with self-interest that examples of it can be adduced from very early times. Had a federal union of Hellenic states been effected at the close of the Persian war, results would have been achieved which were vainly aimed at subsequently,—as by Athens herself, after the capture of Olynthus by Philip of Macedon. The effort to effect a union of states for the common good then failed; but at length, in the century following the death of Alexander, the Aetolian and Achaean confederacies were formed, and a spirit of unity was inspired which, if less tardily manifested, might have long perpetuated Hellenic freedom. For the first time a federa-tive spirit contended effectively with the isolation which had so long animated the policy of the ancient world.

Aristotle collected the constitutions of 150 governments of the time of Alexander, including many cities bounded by their own walls, and, like the mediaeval republics of Italy, standing for centuries almost within sight of each other without a thought of union except by conquest of the weaker by the stronger. The Panhellenic festivals long served to perpetuate a fraternal pride in the community of Hellenic blood, but they begot no results of sustained political unity. But when Macedonian ambition raised up a military empire on their own frontier stronger and far more dangerous than that of Persia, the statesmen of Greece learned the necessity of confederation for the safety of their autonomous governments. Of the unions which followed, the two most celebrated were the Aetolian league and the confederacy of Achaeans. The constitution of the Aetolian league, though democratic, included an aristocratic or privileged class. It was a league of districts rather than of cities, with chiefs of the hill tribes and leading citizens attending the annual assemblies at Thermus, and might not inaptly be compared to the Swiss confederacy of city and forest cantons. The Spartans alone compared with the Aetolians in their prolonged maintenance of the power of independent action and self-government.

The Achaean league differed from that of the Aetolians in being one of cities. Grote speaks of it as never attain-ing to anything better than a feeble and puny life. But it gave good evidence of the benefits of federation. From remote times twelve towns had acknowledged confederate rights and obligations; in 275 B.C. other cities joined; and the importance of the confederacy continued to increase till 251 B.C, when Aratus became strategus, and brought his native Sicyon into the union. Upwards of seventy cities, while still controlling their own local affairs, were by this means associated under one federal government. The federal capital was at Aegium, and each city sent deputies annually thither till 194 B.C, when Philopcemen introduced the system of meeting by rotation in the principal cities, a procedure originating in jealousy, and the inevitable source of weakness.

Among the later European confederations the Swiss republic attracts most attention. As now constituted it consists of twenty-two sovereign states or cantons. The government is vested in two legislative chambers, a senate or council of state, and a national council, constituting unitedly the federal assembly. The executive council of seven members elects the president and vice-president for a term of three years. Before the French Revolution the German empire was a complex confederation, with the states divided into electoral colleges, consisting—(1) of the ecclesiastical electors and of the secular electors, including the king of Bohemia; (2) of the spiritual and temporal princes of the empire next in rank to the electors; and (3) of the free imperial cities. The emperor was elected, by the first college alone. This imposing confederation came to an end by the conquests of Napoleon ; and the Confederation of the Rhine was established in 1806 with the French emperor as protector. But its principles were violated by its so-called protector, and in 1815 the Germanic confederation was established by the Congress of Vienna, which in its turn has been displaced by the present German empire. This, in its new organization, has conferred on Germany the long-coveted unity and co-herence the lack of which had been a source of weakness. The constitution dates, in its latest form, from the treaties entered into at Versailles in 1871. A federation was then organized with the king of Prussia as president, under the hereditary title of emperor of Germany. Delegates of the various confederated Governments form the Bundesrath; the Reichstag, or popular assembly, is directly chosen by the people; and the two assemblies constitute the federal parliament. This body has power to legislate for the whole empire in reference to all matters connected with the army, navy, postal service, customs, coinage, &c, all political laws affecting citizens, and all general questions of commerce, navigation, passports, &c. The emperor represents the confederacy in all international relations, with the chancellor as first minister of the empire, and has power, with consent of the Bundesrath, to declare war in name of the empire.





The United States of America more nearly resembles the Swiss confederacy, though retaining marks of its English origin. The original thirteen States were colonies wholly independent of each other. By the Articles of Confedera-tion and Perpetual Union between the United States of America, drawn up by Congress in 1777, the States bound themselves in a league of common defence; a common citizenship was recognized for the whole union; but each State reserved its sovereignty along with every power not expressly delegated to Congress, and the jealousy in regard to State's rights has never been entirely laid aside. The theory of the confederacy is that of a federal republic formed by the voluntary union of sovereign States. The powers of the central government are determined by a written constitution, and are intrusted to three distinct authorities—executive, legislative, and judicial. The president, elected for a term of four years by electors chosen for that purpose by each State, is the representative head of the republic. The vice-president, ex officio president of the senate, assumes the presidency in case of resignation or death. Legislative power is vested in the Senate, com-posed of two members elected by each state for a term of six years; and in the Congress, consisting of representatives in numbers proportionate to the population of each State, holding their seats^ for two years. The supreme judicial authority, which forms the final court of appeal on all constitutional as well as legal questions, consists of a chief justice and eight judges, appointed for life by the president, subject to confirmation by the senate.

The essential principle involved in confederation is that it is a union of sovereign states. With a view to the com-mon interests of all, they agree to abrogate certain functions of sovereignty in their separate capacity, in order that these shall be jointly exercised for the common good by the body which they concurrently vest with such sovereign functions; but all other sovereign rights are reserved. This differs essentially from the incorporation of two or more states into a united commonwealth, as in the union of England and Scotland. The new empire of Germany illustrates the former, the new kingdom of Italy the latter. In view of the sovereign rights reserved by the several members of a federal union of states, each may be presumed to have the right to withdraw from the confederation. State rights, including that of secession, were strongly asserted during the civil wars between the northern and southern States of America; but the result has naturally been to subordinate the will of individual States to the higher interests of the confederacy as a whole. The written constitution of the United States is subject to amendment at any time, by consent of two-thirds of both representative bodies ; or by a convention specially called by the legislatures of two-thirds of the several States for the purpose.

The extension of responsible constitutional government by Great Britain to her chief colonies, under a governor or viceregal representative of the crown, has been followed in British North America by the union of the Canadian, maritime, and Pacific provinces under a federal govern-ment,—with a senate, the members of which are nominated by the crown, and a house of commons elected by the different provinces according to their relative population. The governor-general is appointed by the crown for a term of seven years, and represents the sovereign in all matters of federal government. The lieutenant-governors of the provinces are nominated by him ; and all local legislation is carried on by the provincial parliaments. The remarkable confederation of the Dominion of Canada which has thus originated presents the unique feature of a federal union of provinces practically exercising sovereign rights in relation to all local self-government, and sustaining a constitutional autonomy, while cherishing the colonial relationship to Great Britain. History has no parallel to this novel fact of a free people, the occupants of vast regions stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, enjoying all constitutional rights, electing their own parliaments, organizing an armed militia, controlling customs, emigration, and all else that pertains to independent self-government, while they continue to cherish the tie which binds them to the mother country, and to render a loyal homage to the representative of the crown. The harmonious relations resulting from this application of the system of federal government to the British American provinces has suggested the extension of the same principle to the colonies of South Africa, and may be regarded as the basis of a colonial system by means of which the vast colonial dependencies of Great Britain may perpetuate their relations with the mother country, while enjoying all the blessings of its well-regulated freedom, or may be trained to emulate its example as independent states. (D. W.)







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