Equal Protection, the US Consitition, and the George Washington Connection

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Whenever laws aren't explicitly stipulated in the American Constitution (and when it comes to constitutional law, nothing is explicit), each state takes advantage of the wiggle room to create and maintain its own legal code. Although this gives states a lot of leeway in areas, precautions are taken to ensure that the laws most directly affecting people have a certain level of standardization. Enter the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The EPC requires that states do not apply laws to different groups of people in a discriminatory matter - that is, without meeting certain conditions first. Laws pertaining specifically to African-Americans or, in certain cases, matters of citizenship must meet rigorous standards in order to be upheld. Laws that distinguish between men and women fall under the second tier of scrutiny, and most other specific social groups fall under the third, or least strict tier.

So while a state has the right to try things differently from its neighbors, the second it oversteps its bounds in treating people differently - or is proven to be complicit with a private organization that does - the federal government gets to swoop in and wield its influence directly. Equal protection is a classic example of the uneasy compromise between state and federal power in the US. Although this division has never been more contentious than during the Civil War, its relevance has increased steadily in recent years as states take (and in some cases, re-take) their stances on gay marriage.

Ultimately, this power struggle can be traced back to federalism, one of the fundamental Constitution concepts which the American founding fathers used to help unite a young nation. Even though the word "federalism" usually makes us think of stuff like The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, dueling, and that milk commercial where the guy yells "Aaron Burr!" through a mouthful of cake, the idea was already in place back when the United States was neither united nor states; after all, what could be more important to thirteen rebellious colonies than NOT giving all their power to a centralized government?

Ironically, one of the US's earliest supporters of a stronger central government was rabble-rousing George Washington himself (whose being president at the time surely had no influence on the decision). Washington feared that states' insistence on having a loose confederation would eventually tear the budding nation apart, so in order to make national government seem more palatable, Washington supported Hamilton's plan to nationalize state debts. By buying the government a little allegiance, Washington also strategically freed the states of their foreign obligations. And after warring with and separating from one of the most powerful nations on earth, how many states were in a financial position to say no?

Shmoop is an online study guide for English Literature, US History and Civics topics like American Constitution and Equal Protection.

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