Alison LaCroix, “The Ideological Origins of Federalism”
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Alison LaCroix, “The Ideological Origins of Federalism”


In a way, there are two
standard views of federalism. One of the things I
was reading said, well, and of course we all know
that federalism in America came out of the British empire. So the colonists had lived
under these multiple levels of government with their
towns and then their colonies and then the authorities
in Great Britain. And that that sort of transmuted
into American federalism with the states and the
national government. And that that was sort
of a seamless transition. So that’s one story, kind
of the history story. And then, at the same
time on the law side, I think there’s a sense that
federalism was invented– really invented– out of the
blue at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia
in the summer of 1787. And the geniuses that we
all love to read about sat down in the room
and invented it. So there’s the standard story
on the one hand of continuity. And on the other hand,
of change and invention. And I thought, there’s
something in between. And my story in my book,
The Ideological Origins of American Federalism–
which is coming out from Harvard University
Press– is it’s sort of both. It’s both that the
ideas were around of having divided government
and ideas that came out of Anglo-American law and
continental European philosophy and political philosophy. But that the exigencies of
the colonial circumstance and then the resistance
to Great Britain made the ideas change
in important ways, beginning really in the
1760s and then continuing to the 1780s and 1790s. In the 1760s and
1770s, the colonists– who were Americans but thought
of themselves as British subjects, British North
Americans, maybe– had a lot of actual political
and constitutional debates with representatives
of the British empire. It was in 1773, the
debates were printed in the Boston newspapers. Ordinary people really paid
attention and were interested in these debates. And yet, it was at the level
of high constitutional theory. But it mattered for taxation. It mattered for whether the
colonial legislatures would be able to pass laws
governing, really, all aspects of local life, or whether
those laws could be vetoed by authorities in Britain. So that’s one of the
earliest moments, I think, where the Americans
start thinking, really, as an opposition philosophy. About having these
multiple layers of government of legislature
within the British empire. And then in the 1770s
and 1780s, that idea shifts even more to start
becoming independent. They start thinking, we can
be an independent nation. But it’s really in
the 1760 and 1770s when they start articulating
this theory, which comes from within the
British imperial system. And one of the most
interesting things, also, about the
way early Americans thought about federalism was
that it actually had a really strong international component. And you can see this in some
of the early discussions in the founding period. In particular, where people
like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson– who were certainly
well-versed in this law of nations, European
political philosophy– had attitudes about
how their nation, how the federal republic would
come together in the late 1770s and early 1780s. John Adams referred in a
letter to the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation
as Our Embassy. So they really regarded their
representatives in Congress as the ambassadors
of Massachusetts to this general government,
the United States and Congress assembled. Which I think shows that, yes,
they were building a nation and that was a large
part of their focus. But they also had
a very strong sense that the colonies and
then the states mattered and had individual roles. And that it was important
to think of the government– the general government– as
bringing them all together in a kind of league. So the shift to building
an actual nation was actually quite gradual
and took place over the 1770s, even though these
ideas about changing the constitutional
basis of the empire were fermenting all
along in that period. Well, I think they’re
important because often there’s a story about
American federalism that says it was necessary. That it was a way of
saying, look, we have states and we have a
general government. This is now around the
time of the revolution. And we’re sort of
stuck with them. So we need to come
up with a theory that will accommodate them. Because we can’t just have a
completely unitary government like France, for instance,
where all authority really comes from the center. And so, in modern
debates– for instance, in modern constitutional
law– federalism is always this huge
subject of debate. It’s a background norm. We try to think about
how it should inform decisions of the
Supreme Court or acts of Congress or the states. But there’s always this question
of, what does it really mean? And, of course, the meaning of
federalism has changed over 2+ centuries. But the original
conception of it– as a real idea and a way
of having multiple levels of government within one– I think is still
important and still can inform our understanding of
how it should operate today. And something that is uniquely
institutionalized in the United States. And that was part
of the awareness people had in the early period
of the revolution and after.

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