Misunderstanding State and Nation in the Constitution

Following up on the most recent posts by Greg and Ben, let me highlight a book by my Texas Law colleague, Calvin Johnson, Righteous Anger at the Wicked States. Calvin’s book underscores Ben’s point that the federalists, including Madison at the convention and during ratification, were very much nationalists — just as the Anti-Federalists claimed.

The concessions to the states were grudging and reluctant and, as Herbert Storing argued, did not actually represent the states qua states. The Anti-Federalists understood this well, pointed it out repeatedly, and it was the main reason they opposed the Constitution.

Why did it come to pass that most Americans, including most professors who study the founding, think that something like dual sovereignty best captures the Federalist view and the logic of the Constitution? Nicole Mellow and I argue that this is the result of the long term victory of the heirs of the Anti-Federalists in writing the narrative of the founding by exploiting the mollifying rhetoric in early iterations of the federalist position while intentionally ignoring the later sophistical federalist positions as well as their own Anti-Federal ratification arguments.

One thought on “Misunderstanding State and Nation in the Constitution

  1. Respectfully, this is a pretty big oversimplification. To begin with, Madison at the convention was indeed a “nationalist,” but not of the same kind as Hamilton. He wanted a stronger central government to supervise the states and obviate their “vices,” but that does not mean he envisioned an energetic government with a large public sector. Alan Gibson does a good job of explaining the distinction: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/664730

    Second, the Constitution does not create a coherent political framework regarding the federalism question, as many political theorists (regardless of their political persuasions) seem to believe. The document was a series of compromises among folks who believed the U.S. should have a stronger central government but disagreed about how much so. The “nationalists” lost on several key federalism-related matters (had they won, the document would have been far more coherent), as Madison himself dispiritingly conceded after the convention was over. One could argue (as I know you do) that the nationalists won on the most significant issues, but that is very much up for debate.

    Third, to really understand the status of federalism in the American constitutional regime (both historically and today), one simply has to adopt a comparative global perspective. When one does this, one finds that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the U.S. has had and continues to have one of the most robust federal systems in the world (for better or worse). This is especially true on fiscal matters, which is significant since the focus of the Anti-Federalists’ concerns was that the national government would dominate in this arena. But compared to subnational governments in the world’s other federal democracies, the American states raise an unusually high percentage of their revenue from their own sources and exhibit tremendous variation in their tax systems. See Jonathan Rodden’s work for more: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4150172?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Leave a Reply