As this article argues, federalism was practiced in a particular institutional context in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, one built on the overlapping jurisdictions that defined the colonial legal order. States and the federal government shared authority with localities, where governing business often was done in legal venues. With authority so widely dispersed, different bodies of law operated simultaneously in different parts of the governing order, a situation that has been obscured by the fact that not all were documented in writing. In particular, those bodies of law operative at the local level gave people without the full range of rights more access to arenas of governance than has been assumed in the historiography, although access varied widely. The implications recast our understanding of all Americans' relationship to governance in this formative period of U.S. history and of the Civil War's implications, particularly for women.