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The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765-1800.

The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765-1800. By Aaron N. Coleman. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016. Pp. vii, 259. $95.00.)

Deciphering the true intent of the founders and how that intent applies (or not) to the present is a virtual cottage industry within the historical profession and increasingly in general society. Efforts to define the relationship between the federal government, state governments, and the people under the constitutional structure remain contentious at best, and conclusive answers remain elusive. This new study offers an intriguing reinterpretation of the familiar political landscape of the late eighteenth century for modern audiences.

The book centers on two premises: "First, that federalism and state sovereignty became near synonymous terms during the founding period" and second "that the idea of popular sovereignty at the time of the founding was not tied to the broader notion of a national popular sovereignty" (1). The second premise is conventional wisdom about an era of severely restricted voting rights. The first premise is more intriguing. Rejecting Parliament's authority in favor of the colonial governments is well-trodden historiographical ground; however, Aaron N. Coleman provides a timely reminder in this debate emphasizing the continuity between revolutionary and postrevolutionary political thought. He resurrects the often-neglected Burke Amendment in the Articles of Confederation and persuasively argues that the doctrine of state sovereignty represented by the amendment is an enduring principle linking together the protests of the 1760s with the Constitutional structure of the 1780s (45-46). Coleman argues that Amendment X was more significant in practice during the 1790s than is reflected in the dominant interpretations of the founding period. According to the true intent of the amendment as perceived by Madison, it functioned as the safeguard of state sovereignty similar in purpose to the Burke Amendment (135).

This promise was an inherent part of the ratification debates as the Federalists promised, "the constitution was a nomocratic government of delegated powers... with the enumeration of powers guaranteeing the persistence of liberty and state power" (127-128). The Federalist administrations--especially Hamilton's economic policies--violated this promise and unconstitutionally expropriated power from state governments (148-152, 154-157). The Alien and Sedition Acts represented a continuation of this abusive pattern while the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions represented a corrective based on the understood intent of the Constitution.

Using the peaceful transfer of power in 1800 as a conclusion to the founding era follows the periodization proposed by Jefferson. However, retaining this chronology results in a less persuasive argument for this work as reconciling Jefferson and Madison as defenders of state sovereignty and their actions in federal office after 1800 remains inadequately explained within the four-page conclusion. Although beyond the scope of the presented work, a slightly expanded chronology severely complicates the dichotomy drawn within the work between centralizing Federalists that violated the true intent of the Revolution and Constitution and Jeffersonian efforts to preserve their definition of state sovereignty within the Constitutional order.

University of Maine

Patrick Callaway
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Title Annotation:THE AMERICAS
Author:Callaway, Patrick
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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