Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Vol. 1 / Hermann von Holst -- Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1889

Von Holst describes his eight volume work The Constitutional and Political History of the United States as the work of a lifetime and after reading volume one and volume seven, I can say that it was a worthwhile life. The first volume, entitled State Sovereignty and Slavery traces the political currents of the period 1750-1833. Von Holst makes two clear and strong arguments. First, the fundamental constitutional question of the time was state sovereignty and second, either explicitly or implicitly, the status of slavery animated the dispute between federalists and states rights advocates. There is, however, a third mostly subtextual argument: specific political commitments usually trumped commitments to constitutional principles.

The volume begins by describing attitudes toward government and national identity in the colonial period through the period governed by the Articles of Confederation. The inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation led to the Constitutional Convention that resulted in the adoption of the Constitution. Von Holst's description of the negotiations leading to adoption is compelling.

The great bulk of the book, however, traces the political conflicts that strained the bonds of union. The imposition of a tax on wiskey led to threats of rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, which was suppressed by resolute proclamations from President Washington and a lessening of the tax. Later, in the wake of Genet's mission to the U.S., the "XYZ Affair," and the Alien and Sedition Laws during the Adams administration, Madison and Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, proclaiming the authority of the states to "interpose" (Madison) themselves between the federal government and the state or to "nullify" (Jefferson) federal laws. These resolutions served as the cornerstones for future secessionist arguments.

Seccessionist arguments came, however, from the federalists as well. During Jefferson's administration, the embargo against England rankled Northeastern commercial interests so much that talk of succession arose there. Jefferson needed to insist on the authority of the federal government to maintain the embargo against federalist objections. Later, during the War of 1812, anti-war sentiment rose so high in New England that Rhodes Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut sent delegates to a convention in Hartford to discuss seccession. The report of the convention asserted the value of establishing a separate league of states for self protection and implicitly recognized the right of secession.

Von Holst's treatment of the period following the War of 1812 tends to be more political than constitutional. In particular, he examines the disputes over slavery, in particular the extension of slavery to Florida, the Alabama territory, and the territory of the Louisiana purchase. However, his analysis inevitably returns to assertions of the right of states to secede and these assertions invariably come from those states that appear to be losing the battle for or against slavery.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the union prior to the Civil War came during Jackson's administration. Though ostensibly a states rights Democrat, Jackson opposed South Carolina's attempt to nullify the federal tarrif. Holst presents this conflict compellingly. The result was a political win-win which solved nothing. South Carolina insisted upon the right to nullify federal law, Jackson declared that federal troops would enforce federal law, and the tarrif that was the source of the conflict was reduced to a level that South Carolina could accept. Consequently, neither side needed to assert its claim in practice.

The tarrif nullification crisis demonstrated that federalists and states rights advocates were willing to use consitutional principles to assert their political agendas, but that in the end, a political compromise was always better than pushing the issue to civil war -- that is, of course, until 1861.

What is most clearly revealed in this volume is how tenuous the bonds of union were in the first decades of the nation's history. One is left with the impression that the bulk of opinion, among all parties, was that the federal government had no right to compell states to remain in the union, but that presidents appealed to the minority opinion in favor of federal supremacy to further their objectives. All that kept the union intact were political compromises sufficient to stay rebellion.

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