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On the eve of the American Revolution, most American thinkers had embraced the idea of all rights (and, therefore, sovereignty) being inherited.[1] Americans, as brothers and descendents of Englishmen, were entitled to the rights inherited from the English through the development of Anglo-Saxon common law and through the several political battles, such as those witnessed most blatantly with King John signing the Magna Carta in 1215, the development of Parliament in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the ascendancy of Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Parliament not only embodied the will of the people, but it also served as the ultimate authority and the sovereign, at least in conjunction with the Crown. Americans, prior to the fall of 1774, saw themselves in this tradition, inheriting the rights of the common law and of Englishmen. The legal scholar and future signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrolton, put it succinctly:

How came many unconstitutional powers to be exercised by the crown, and suffered by parliament? for instance, the dispensing power—the answer is obvious; it required the wisdom of ages, and accumulated efforts of patriotism, to bring the constitution its is present point of perfection; a thorough reformation could not be effected at once; upon the whole fabrick is stately, and magnificent, yet a perfect symmetry, and correspondence of parts is wanting; in some places, the pile appears to be deficient in strength, in others the rude and unpolished taste of our Gothic ancestors is discoverable.[2]

His words of 1773 as “First Citizen” reflected a predominant strain of thought among the patriots prior to the fall of 1774.

With the fight against the Quebec Act of 1774 and the calling of the First Continental Congress, American patriots began quickly to think of their sovereignty as residing internally rather than residing externally with Parliament. Real sovereignty, though, now resided with the individual states, as realized in the Declaration of Independence, declaring “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” and in Article II of the Article of Confederation which promises that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”[3] As the great historian, Forrest McDonald, has written, “Patriots of all stripes accepted the primacy of the states as a fact of political life, but they were far from unanimously happy about it.”[4] Throughout the Revolutionary War, those who advocated the sovereignty of the states bitterly fought with those who wanted some form of nationalist consolidation. The Articles were a mixed blessing, as under them Congress effectively won a war against the powerful British empire, and it introduced and passed arguably the most republican law in the history of the world, the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787. But, under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress failed to pay off its war debts, and it failed to stop a farming and tax rebellion in western Massachusetts. Further, men such as Alexander Hamilton argued, state officials held too much power and loved power for its own sake and not for the sake of the republic.[5]

A compromise seemed to be reached between the two forces in the spring of 1787 with the call for a constitutional convention to revise the Articles. Even the means by which decisions could be made proved a compromise, for though the nationalists dominated the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, each state represented at the convention received only one vote.[6] Additionally, though the Constitution’s preamble spoke in the language of “the people,” the ratification process demanded that each state form a constitutional convention—separate from the state legislature which could initially vote for and later just as easily repeal its support—to ratify the Constitution itself. In other words, “the people” voting for or against the U.S. Constitution did not do so as a national aggregate of Americans, but rather as citizens of a particular state.[7] Finally, as McDonald has pointed out, when the languages speaks of the United States, it does so in the plural.[8]

The submission of the Constitution to the states for ratification precipitated one of the fiercest and most intelligent public debates in the history of the United States. Americans, by and large, understood the stakes, and they debated and followed the arguments regarding every nuance of the Constitution with an intensity rarely seen in civilized society. Many of the debates—but, by no means, all—considered the meaning of federalism and republicanism and the relationship of one to the other. Madison offered a rather mechanistic view of a republic, but it also reveals the desire of a federal power rather than local state powers:

We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour. It is essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.[9]

The message would not have been lost on the reading public. “A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states. And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, federal did not mean the same thing as national, for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state.[10] In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.”[11]

The nature and purpose of government, though, proved even more important to the Federalists than debates over federal or state power.”Justice is the end of government,” Madison stated bluntly in Federalist 51. “It is the end of civil society.”[12] The pursuit of justice, therefore, trumped all over considerations. Justice could be pursued neither by local tyrannical nobles nor by a weak government. In discussing the need for a strong executive branch in Federalist 70, Hamilton explained: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”[13] Arguments for energy applied to more than the executive branch.

Energy in government, is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government, is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.[14]

Only when a government has the means to promote justice can society thrive and order and security reign.[15]

Though never the cohesive force the Federalists proved to be, the Anti-Federalists feared what they considered to be the objective of the Constitution: a consolidated, national government. Such a desire, the Federal Farmer argued, mostly likely came from “those who expect employments under the new constitution; as to those weak and ardent men who always expected to be gainers by revolutions, and whose lot it generally is to get out of one difficulty into another.”[16] These men play on the fears of the people, promoting the notion that the current government is fully in a crisis. The result, the Federal Farmer claimed, is predictable. “Instead of being thirteen republics under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government,” he wrote. “This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past.”[17] Another anti-Federalist, Brutus, claimed the constitution would render the states obsolete through the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8.[18] Though the Federalists might write in placating tones regarding the status of states prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the tone would necessarily change once the Constitution was implemented. “It will be found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” Brutus wrote. This will follow the law of nature, as “every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.”[19]

The Federalists gained control of the executive branch in the first election under the U.S. Constitution, and George Washington, the most important of the patriots and, perhaps, the greatest American ever, set the tone for the first twelve years under the new government. As early as 1783, Washington had stated his views clearly:

If after all, a spirit of disunion or a temper of obstinacy and perverseness, should manifest itself in any of the States, if such an ungracious disposition should attempt to frustrate all the happy effects that might be expected to flow from the Union, if there should be a refusal to comply with the requisition for Funds to discharge the annual interest of the public debts, and if that refusal should revive again all those jealousies and produce all those evils, which are now happily removed, Congress, who have in all their Transaction shewn a great degree of magnanimity and justice, will stand justified in the sight of God and man, and the State alone which puts itself in opposition to the aggregate Wisdom of the Continent, and follows such mistaken and pernicious Councils, will be responsible for all the consequences.[20]

The former general of the Continental Army and the president of the Constitutional Convention now held the reigns, and he promoted the idea of the Nation wherever possible. Indeed, it is the rare speech in which Washington avoids the term “nation.”

Between 1801 and 1860, American nationalists and anti-nationalist exchanged and shared power. One could rarely draw the lines clearly, or even identify clear principles, between the nationalists and the anti-nationalists. On some issues, nationalists could favor the rights of the states, and on other issues, the anti-nationalists could recommend the use of federal power. Rather than the government officials driving events, events often drove the government’s response and actions. The key events demonstrating the conflict of sovereignty after the early Federalist administrations were: the War of 1812; the Missouri Compromise; the South Carolina Nullification Crisis; the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Pro-nationalist fever ran especially high after the War of 1812. The so-called victor, President Madison, used the new “Era of Good Feelings,” to promote the creation of a second Bank of the United States, claiming it to be “the general will of the people.”[21] Henry Clay promoted the “American System,” to bolster tariffs and fund massive internal improvements, and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun backed him up.

Let it not be forgotten, let it be forever kept in mind, that the extent of the republic exposes us to the greatest of calamities–disunion. We are great, and rapidly–I was about to say fearfully–growing. This is our pride and danger, our weakness and our strength. . . . We are under the most imperious obligations to counteract every tendency to disunion. . . . Whatever impedes the intercourse of the extremes with this, the centre of the republic, weakens the union. . . . Let us, then, bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space. [22]

Even the great agrarian Thomas Jefferson, in a post-war fervor, stated that “We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturalist.”[23]

Two events shattered the nationalist “Era of Good Feelings,” the Panic of 1819 and Missouri’s desire to be admitted as a slave state to the Union.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

The Federalist Papers by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison
States’ Rights and the Union by Forrest McDonald
The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches by Bruce Frohnen
George Washington: A Collection by W.B. Allen ed.


1. The following section benefits immensely from Forrest McDonald’s masterful States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000).
2. Peter S. Onuf, ed., Maryland and the Empire, 1773: The Antilon-First Citizen Letters (Baltimore, Mary.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 206-207.
3. The Declaration and the Articles of Confederation are reprinted in George W. Carey and James McClellan, eds., The Federalist by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2001), pg. 498 and pg. 500 respectively.
4. McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, 11.
5. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, no. 1, pg. 2 (all references to and citations from the Federalist Papers are from the Carey and McClellan edition, published by Liberty Fund).
6. McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, 15-16.
7. McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, 20-21.
8. McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, 22.
9. James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 39, pg. 194.
10. James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 39, pg. 196.
11. James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 39, pg. 197.
12. James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 51, pg. 271.
13. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, no. 70, pg. 362-63.
14. James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 37, pg. 181.
15. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, no. 31, pg. 151; and Federalist Papers, no. 16, pg. 78.
16. Letters from a Federal Farmer, Letter 1, 8 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 144.
17. Letters from a Federal Farmer, Letter 1, 8 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 145.
18. Essays of Brutus, Essay I, 10 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 377.
19. Essays of Brutus, Essay I, 10 October 1787, in Bruce Frohnen, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999), pg. 378.
20. George Washington, “Circular to the States,” June 14, 1783, in W.B. Allen, ed., George Washington: A Collection (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1988), 245.
21. Quoted in Tindall and Shi, America: A Narrative History, 5th ed., pg. 411.
22. Quoted in Dangerfield, Awakening, 18.
23. Quoted in Dangerfield, Awakening, 14.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I hope you might continue this study. I would like to read your thoughts on the legitimacy or ill-legitimacy of the Southern secessionist movement. Do you consider the ‘new’ Constitution of 1787 a victory for the consolidators or the state’s rights advocates?

  2. “The Articles were a mixed blessing, as under them Congress effectively won a war against the powerful British empire, and it introduced and passed arguably the most republican law in the history of the world, the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787.”

    I would argue that the War for Independence was won IN SPITE OF the Articles of Confederation (and with considerable difficulty). An excellent discussion of the Articles’ shortcomings vis-à-vis winning the War, and the efforts of General Washington, his staff, the regular army (as opposed to the mythical “yeoman citizen soldier”), and Washington’s strongest supporters in Congress (such as President Henry Laurens) to procure victory both militarily and politically, can be read in Martin, James Kirby., and Mark Edward Lender. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, 3rd Ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

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