Professor LaCroix's new book is a major addition to the dominant interpretations of political authority in the era of the Revolution and the Constitution. We are familiar now with the foundational work on political ideology by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, and also with the new institutional and Atlantic histories of Jack Greene, Christine Desan, Dan Hulsebosch and Mary Sarah Bilder. To oversimplify, the focus of this ideological history is revealing the conceptual framework of those who successfully pressed for revolution. The focus of the institutional histories is to situate the creation of the new American nation within a broader context of empire and imperial practice. Professor LaCroix in her history of the origins of American federalism, draws on each but also effectively suggests the need for a new category of analysis.
Of the two schools of thought Professor LaCroix is clearly more at home in the first. The book, as it sets out to do, successfully "brings ideology back into the discussion of the meaning and significance of federalism in the founding and ratification periods." (5) Yet she parts ways with this earlier ideological work in two important respects. First, her analysis takes us beyond the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, telling a story that does not culminate in Philadelphia but instead reaches into the early republic. Second, she does not locate the origins of federalism within republican ideology, the chief driving force in so much ideological work of the founding era. Instead, Professor LaCroix is interested in the history of what she calls "the federal idea" or "the broader context of the development of federal thought" from the 1760s to the beginning of the nineteenth-century.
This federal idea is much more sophisticated and powerful, and also more elusive, than the common depiction of federalism. The federal idea is more than the battle between state and national power that confronted the framers of the Constitution, and the textual accommodations they reached. It is more than the division of authority between state and federal governments in the service of limited government and popular sovereignty. The rise of the federal idea is instead a richer story of "the emergence of a normative vision of multilayered government." This vision drew upon earlier ideas of divided authority in the work of Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, and also the practice of divided government in Scotland and Ireland inside the British empire. It was, however, transformed into a dominant strand of American political thought in the decades from the Stamp Act to the Judiciary Acts of 1789 and 1801.
Over the decades, in multiple political and legal disputes over British imperial policy, this federal idea was debated and refined and led ultimately to "a newly defined federal ideology" in which sovereignty was not linked to territory, be it colony, state or nation, but was instead tied to "particular substantive objects." Jurisdiction, or power, was "bounded by subject matter, not by political space." In the hands of political and legal elites, this emerging ideology was "defined by a belief not only that lines could be drawn between sources of authority, but also that such line drawing was desirable as a normative matter." In disputes over the Stamp Act, the Coercive Act, and into the creation of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, an ideology took shape that held as its premise that authority could and must be divided, or layered, among and between "parallel and nonoverlapping repositories." How power ought to be divided between these layers of course remained central and contested, but Professor LaCroix's accomplishment is to show us a concept of sovereignty, based on "subject -matter-specific principles" that "ultimately provided the foundation for the American federal experiment." This concept of government was, as she shows, at the heart of the debate at the constitutional convention, but did not begin or end there. The framing of the Constitution is a vital point in the story of American federalism of course, but it is at the same time part of a much longer and richer intellectual trajectory.
In its treatment of the emerging idea of federalism in the founding era, it is not too much to say that Professor LaCroix's book has done a great deal to change the terms of the debate. We must now take account of the "federal idea" because she has so effectively demonstrated that this idea was at the center of American political and legal thought in a way we have not seen fully before. In this book we encounter the usual suspects, Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall among others, but we have a new frame in place in considering the content of their ideas. It is an exciting discovery, and once we are shown it, we cannot stop seeing it texts we thought had been largely mined to exhaustion, including the Federalist, Jefferson's inaugural address, not to mention the Constitution itself. Just as Bailyn and Wood showed us a republican ideology that explained so much, and ultimately perhaps too much, here Professor LaCroix shows us an idea of federalism central to the framers that we have not considered in full, either because we were not looking for it, or looking at a single point in time, the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, and so missed the progression, and even the content, of this foundational idea.
Still, like all groundbreaking work, this book raises methodological questions, and I would like to raise two. First, if Bailyn and Wood do ideological work on a grand canvas, Professor LaCroix's work is more an exquisite pointillism. The book moves primarily by careful attention to emblematic texts, which leads to an in-depth and subtle readings of the sources. This approach necessarily cannot take account of a broad swath of material. Professor LaCroix's claim is to be sure fully supported in its account of ideas of federalism among the leading political and legal thinkers in the founding era. We now need more work on the breadth of this ideology. Part of the explanatory power of an ideological examination of the Revolution that focused on republicanism is the way it bridged political, regional and class divides in the service of fighting a long and bloody war. Thus republicanism had high and low and middling manifestations. It may be that federal ideology did as well. but we do not know that yet. This is not a call for Professor LaCroix to write a different book, only a question about the social and political reach of the ideology she explicates so well.
Second, and in a related point, Professor LaCroix's treatment of the federal idea is somewhat disconnected from specific political conflict, particularly in the framing of the Constitution. The book is so careful not to fall into the trap of reducing the convention to a one-dimensional battle between Federalists and Ant-Federalists that it largely does away with categorizing the debate over federalism altogether. We need to know more about who was doing intellectual battle and why. One does not need to be a Beardian to view the constitutional convention as a high-stakes battleground, and the story as presented by Professor LaCroix is a little too clean, or not yet enmeshed enough in the furious contests over power and law and wealth that made the passage and ratification of the Constitution such a near thing . We are thankfully past the point where we have to choose between ideology and interests as driving historical change, and Professor LaCroix is sensitive to context and the force of competing commitments. Yet we do need to know more about how the ideology she analyzes was grounded and contested, if not between Federalists and Ant-Federalists than between what other factions or nascent political parties.
This book is driven by a new insight into the founding era, and its main accomplishment may be to re-orient us to the content of fundamental debates and documents, to re-frame our understanding of these debates closer to the way it was understood by the historical actors themselves. We can count on more work that will teach us more and more about the federal idea, and we can thank Professor LaCroix for helping us see how little we knew and how much we still need to learn about something we thought we knew so well.
Daniel W. Hamilton
Professor of Law and History, University of Illinois College of Law