American Revolution, U.S. Constitution, Federalism, State sovereignty, Nullification
In The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement 1765–1800, Aaron N. Coleman reminds readers about the importance of state sovereignty to Americans who lived in the last four decades of the eighteenth century. Nationalist historians, according to Coleman, have viewed events through the eyes of the Federalists and missed the importance of this principle. The governments that Americans established during that time, Coleman contends, were rooted and remained committed to the idea of state sovereignty because they believed that the states would be better protectors of liberty. After the American Revolution, however, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists undermined state sovereignty and attempted to replace it with a consolidated national government. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 preserved state sovereignty, Coleman argues.
Coleman divides his book into two parts. The first part, “Establishing the Revolutionary Settlement,” shows the attachment that the colonists had to state sovereignty and carries the narrative through the ratification of the Constitution of 1787. The second part, “Defending the Revolutionary Settlement,” shows how state sovereignty was preserved with the Judiciary Act of 1789 and with the Tenth Amendment. The Federalist Party, however, betrayed state sovereignty and pushed for national sovereignty. In each part, Coleman uses numerous pamphlets to demonstrate how state sovereignty remained important for all Americans regardless of what section of the country they lived in.
The author contends that a form of “federal imperialism” existed throughout the colonies from the very beginning. There was an appointed governor, a lower chamber resembling the House of Commons that drafted all revenue bills, and an upper house that functioned like the House of Lords. Therefore, a belief began to develop that held that Parliament was not sovereign over the colonies. The Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s tested this belief. State sovereignty was secured, Coleman believes, as a result of Thomas Burke’s amendment to the Articles of Confederation. Burke’s amendment said each state kept “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and [End Page 799] right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated” (45). Eleven states approved the Burke amendment, demonstrating its broad support.
The opponents of state sovereignty, or the Nationalists, sought to undermine it by calling the Federal Convention. Coleman admits that the Nationalists won some victories, but the proponents of state sovereignty won the larger war. They prevented attempts to give the national government the power to veto acts of a state. Coleman even sees the Supremacy Clause as a victory for state sovereignty because this clause, drafted by Luther Martin, a defender of states’ rights, stipulated that the national government would only be sovereign in the areas where it had explicit authority. Few Americans endorsed the idea of national sovereignty during the ratification conventions. Coleman then contends that supporters of state sovereignty won another victory with the Tenth Amendment, which was based on the Burke amendment. Although the word “expressly” had been omitted, James Madison and the amendment’s supporters expected that it would be employed by the states in the same manner as the Burke amendment. State sovereigntists then prevailed again with the passage and ratification of the Eleventh Amendment. Drafted in response to Chisholm v. Georgia, the Eleventh Amendment found widespread support among Federalists in New England. To Coleman, this confirms the large support for state sovereignty throughout the country.
Coleman charges that the Federalists betrayed the legacy of the Revolution by endorsing a form of national sovereignty that they justified under the “necessary and proper” clause. This culminated with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which were drafted in opposition to these acts, reiterated the ideas of state sovereignty and state interposition. Although no other state supported interposition, Coleman argues that the states rejected the ideas of the Resolutions “because of the heightened partisan atmosphere resulting from the French Revolution and crisis with France” (226). The strongest denunciations came from states...