Every so often, a book comes out that shatters orthodox perspectives concerning the American founding. By challenging standard narratives, including previously undiscovered context, and contrasting the political system of the United States to other examples in the world, Aaron Coleman’s The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765-1800 does just that. Undoubtedly, Coleman definitively establishes that the foundation of the United States was not what it has often thought to have been.
Bringing readers on a journey through constitutional history, Coleman cites masterful experts on the British constitutional system, including Jack Greene and John Brewer, to highlight orthodox political perceptions of the founding era. He invokes the work of Blackstone and Coke, both highly studied by the American founders, to capture the constitutional context and reveal established political precedents of the time. By weaving British context into the American constitutional tapestry, Coleman enunciates the contradictory path of the two constitutional systems.
Coleman also addresses the 170 years of colonial history, which has been often ignored by historians, to defend his case. As he notes, from their humble beginnings onward, the colonies gradually developed distinct societies, all with individual and independent cultural, religious, and governmental structures. These are the circumstances that set the American colonies on a divergent path from that of their English brethren – who in 1688 had established the supremacy of Parliament through the Glorious Revolution of 1688. While Britain claimed the juncture elevated Parliament to that of a superlative legislature over the entire empire, the American Whigs came to a completely different conclusion on the grounds that their colonies were independently established and localized. In this way, the candid embrace of American federalism existed even before the colonies declared independence.
Another appealing aspect of Coleman’s work concerns the actual impact of the Philadelphia Convention and the Constitution of 1787 on the American constitutional system. While some scholars have been inclined to portray the Constitution as a much more nationalistic, centralizing document, Coleman astutely recognizes that the modern Constitution retained the federalist-orientation of the union, its most recognizable and unique plank.
Bolstering Coleman’s position is the innumerable cases in which clauses from the Articles of Confederation were either incorporated verbatim or slightly modified. Though some new powers were delegated to Congress under the new model, to the chagrin of American nationalists – Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and Charles Pinckney – most of the aims of the great centralizers lost out. This was most apparent by the shift from general, plenary legislative authority to John Rutledge’s preference of enumerated powers, and the defeat of Madison’s cherished hope of a federal veto over state law.
These circumstances led Hamilton to conclude that the ideas of the resulting document were “far removed” from his own, and for Madison to complain to Jefferson that the document would not be stable enough to survive for more than a generation. As a result of these findings and others, all of which are masterfully illustrated, Coleman explains why the Constitution of 1787 was “not a fundamental change” to the constitutional framework.
One of the books’ best facets is its priceless ability to accurately depict the causes which have led to the diminishment of state sovereignty and federalism in most modern studies of founding ideals. Coleman does this by quoting progressive scholars such as Akhil Amar and Merrill Jensen, who have expressly admitted the propensity of most academics to view the founding period through nationalist lenses.
However, Coleman dutifully exposes how modern reinterpretations are not wholly to blame for the abandonment of the original hallmarks of the decentralized political system guaranteed by the Federalists. As Coleman points out, the economic platform of Alexander Hamilton represented a true breach of promises of Federalists during the ratification process.
By having all state debts assumed by the central government, instituting a highly objectionable National Bank, and a pitch for a system of protective tariffs and corporate subsidies, the spiritual figurehead of the Federalist Party did much to unravel the threads of federalism even as early as the first presidential administration. Of course, the situation was compounded by the Jay Treaty, an attempt at judicial overreach via Chisholm v. Georgia and the Alien and Sedition Acts, all of which gets proper coverage in the work.
Better than anything else, Coleman reveals the extent to which federalism – not nationalism – was the chief cornerstone of the American political system. “Few realize that debates over the nature of sovereignty and federalism are as old as the founding itself,” Coleman explains. Rather establish a “powerful central government of a grand purpose,” the author correctly asserts that the American states “established a decentralized federal order rooted in the idea of state sovereignty.”
Rather than “one nation, indivisible,” Coleman’s narrative makes it evident that “a league of states, clearly independent and sovereign” was actually the chief conception of the American constitutional settlement. As Coleman notes, federalism was actually the “bedrock” of the American constitutional order.
By bringing federalism and state sovereignty to the forefront of his tale, Coleman does what many scholars have neglected to do for decades. Taking a relatively familiar story but giving it a fresh and truly important re-examination, he has created a book that stands among its alternatives as a diamond in the rough. If there was any great corollary to my own investigation into federalism’s true influence in the American system, if would be Coleman’s.