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Lacroix, Alison L.: The Ideological Origins of American Federalism.

LACROIX, Alison L. The Ideological Origins of American Federalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. 320 pp. Cloth, $35.00; Paper, $22.50--Writing a definitive account of the development of American federalism is a daunting task. First, one must know the political and constitutional history of the British Empire from 1609 to 1776 to understand how the colonists and the British Parliament developed such divergent views of Parliament's authority. Then, one must master the voluminous pamphlet literature between 1764-76 which sought to articulate and defend the colonists' position that certain powers of government, such as taxation and regulating internal affairs, could only be legitimately exercised by their local, representative governments. Such mastery includes understanding the modern and classical political theorists--Cicero, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Grotius, Prufendorf--that the colonists and their adversaries appealed to. Next, one must be able to judge to what extent the division of power between the states and the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation corresponded to the division of power between the Crown (with or without Parliament) and the colonial legislatures proposed by the colonists before the Revolution. Lastly, one must judge the degree to which the Constitution's federalist system was a fulfillment, betrayal, or evolution of the colonial position.

This book is an impressive contribution towards such an account and is sure to be a standard in studies of American federalism and this period of American history. LaCroix's main thesis is that the federalism of 1787 did not suddenly burst forth full-grown from the Constitutional Convention, nor was it just the institutionalizing of an ad hoc system of divided government that developed in the course of Great Britain's haphazard rule of the colonies; rather the colonists worked out an account of why multiple, independent layers in government is superior to the British idea that there must be a single, "supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority ... in which the rights of sovereignty reside" lest the polity be divided against itself: imperium in imperio. This normative federalist theory was then instantiated in the Constitution, which made the innovative, if contested, move of designating the federal judiciary as the umpire between the states and the national government.

Chapter one quickly runs through the "prehistory" of American federalism in pre-Revolutionary Anglo-American constitutional debates about political sovereignty, continental European political philosophy, experiments with federation in the British colonies, and the place of Scotland and Ireland in the British Empire. Chapter two covers the Anglo-American debate over Grenville's attempts to tax the colonists in the Sugar and Stamp Acts and Parliament's assertion of its sovereignty in the Declaratory Act. The third chapter begins with Governor Hutchinson's ill-fated debate with the Massachusetts colonial assembly in 1773 over "whether Parliament possessed exclusive legislative authority over the colonies" and ends with the initial American responses to the Intolerable Acts of 1774, in which Parliament, for the first time, "intended to enforce the full sweep of its lawmaking authority over the colonies." The fourth chapter discusses three plans published in 1774 (Cartwright, Galloway, and Jefferson), which, stemming from the assumption that the colonists no longer trusted Parliament to respect their rights, proposed reorganizations of the British Empire which would formally divide power between the colonial and metropolitan government based upon subject matter. This chapter concludes with an all too brief discussion of the Articles of Confederation, leaving much of the first decade of American independence in darkness.

The final two chapters are important snapshots of the Constitutional Convention and the Early Republic, but lose the synoptic scope of the earlier chapters. Chapter 5 focuses on the rejection of Madison's proposal to unify the states by granting the national government a veto over state legislation it judged unconstitutional, a veto similar to the negative enjoyed by the Privy Council over colonial legislation. Instead, the Framers decided that the federal courts would mediate between the state and national government, "ensuring the supremacy of the general government in its particular areas of competence while minimizing the size of the shadow that national oversight cast onto the states." However, the Constitution left blank the federal court's structure, jurisdiction, and relation to the state courts, and LaCroix treats the filling in of this blank in the Judicial Acts of 1789 and 1801 as laying the keystone of American federalism. Yet LaCroix's complete silence about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves (1798-99) and her description of the 1802 Judicial Act, which repealed that of 1801, as a pulling back from "the federal idea that British North Americans had developed in the imperial crisis" make for an ambiguous ending. In her conclusion, LaCroix notes that the United States is founded on a compromise between the Scottish dichotomy between a federal and an incorporating union, but leaves largely unexplained the political theory that made that compromise possible and desirable.

The section on the colonial period is easily the best part of the book and a work of impressive scholarship. It artfully blends together a history of 1764-76 with coverage of the main colonial and metropolitan voices and important secondary literature. I found LaCroix's explanation of the influence of the debate over the Scottish Union of 1707 on the American position particularly interesting. However, these chapters, and the book as a whole, suffer from LaCroix's tendency to hover above difficult questions of historical interpretation (with the notable exception of her treatment of the 1801 Judicial Act) and to not engage seriously with the political theory behind federalism. For example, LaCroix presents three different interpretations of the consistency of the colonists' position, but does not give her own judgment. She discusses many times the colonial insistence that government power is properly divided by subject matter, without explaining exactly why the colonists made the divisions they did. Or, from the other direction, how is the Blackstonian thesis about sovereignty compatible with Enlightenment ideas of natural rights and contractual government? Ultimately, LaCroix's narrow focus on the mere fact of the colonists' willingness to articulate and defend the idea of multilayered government is disappointing to both the historian and the political philosopher, if understandable given the amount of material to cover and the relative brevity of her book.--Brandon Zimmerman, Washington, D. C.
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Author:Zimmerman, Brandon
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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