How is it that America became a “strong but limited” government, and the world’s richest and most free country? That is the central question both considered and answered by Luigi Marco Bassani in his new work, Chaining Down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government, 1776–1865. As an eminent scholar, Bassani has long studied the antebellum area, Amercia’s struggle between national vs. local power, and the Jeffersonian tradition that colored the era. By combining all of these subjects into a single work, he endeavors to clarify the dynamics of political power in the early republic.
As it turns out, the federal, decentralized framework that underscored the American political structure was its most distinct characteristic—a feature that is often ignored or downplayed by contemporaries. “The golden age of federalism and federal liberty,” as Bassani puts it, resulted only from the multitude of self-governing societies that composed the federal union, all of which had a plausible claim to challenge the impositions of the federal government. Every command of the central authority, he writes, “was subject to be opposed and contained in a web of competing counterclaims.”
From the outset, Bassani promises to give the reader a very different interpretation of the antebellum period than they have likely been exposed to, and in this aim he succeeds. Rather than take all the claims of the Federalist advocates of the Constitution at face value, the author makes sure to give greater credit to those that opposed the framework. “The true defenders of the federal system were those who opposed the draft constitution, and they are fully entitled to be on equal footing in the history of American political thought,” he declares. By this assertion, Bassani sets his work apart from virtually all others from the outset.
In the tradition of Montesquieu, the Antifederalists were political realists that doubted a joint republic could long survive over such a vast territory as North America. By extension, they feared a strong executive, national court system, centralized law enforcement apparatus, and uniform system of taxation would soon grow to oppress the fledgling states. While they championed republican-oriented representation systems, they doubted that Congress would ever be truly representative enough—and even made attempts in several states, such as New York, to make the ratio of constituents to representatives greater than it was set to be in the House of Representatives. In all of this, Bassani proves that the Antifederalists were undeniably prophetic about the trajectory of national overreach in ways that practically leap off the pages.
Most interestingly, he also demonstrates that Antifederalists were hardly the anarchist-driven zealots the Federalists often portrayed them as. Instead, they generally sought to amend the Articles of Confederation while still advocating constitutional government. Rather than reinvent the constitutional system, Bassani demonstrates that the group that opposed the Philadelphia Convention’s proposal did so on the same basis that the American Revolution was waged—to preserve the local autonomy of each governing unit from transgressions from the central government.
As he moves beyond the founding period, Bassani masterfully recounts the origins of the “Principles of ’98,” Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s strategy for combatting federal usurpation over reserved states’ powers. According to both figures, each state—as the creators of the federal compact—could determine in the last resort whether that agreement had been violated. By extension, each state could nullify, or actively obstruct the enforcement of unconstitutional laws. As the two Virginians reasoned, granting the federal courts the same power unilaterally only guaranteed that the central government would gradually grow to oppress and subordinate the states into a dismal and unforeseen condition. To push their gambit forward, the two men crafted sets of resolutions for Virginia and Kentucky in 1798, both of which made a firm stand against the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. While the controversial acts were ultimately left to expire, and the Adams administration and Federalists in general were pushed out of power, clashes between the central government and the states continued in the ensuing decades.
One of the most impressive parts of Bassani’s narrative is its comprehensive treatment of forgotten events that followed in the footsteps of Jefferson and Madison’s nullification doctrine. One example includes the federal attempt to conscript minors during the War of 1812, a plan that produced concerted hostility from New England. Prominent politicians from the region openly called for secession, others said the idea should be at least entertained. In the end, delegates from the northeastern states congregated in Connecticut for a meeting that became known as the Hartford Convention. While all states stopped short of declaring secession, several of them raised Jefferson and Madison’s own prose to render the conscription law unauthoritative, void, and of no affect within their own states. If there is one aspect of the work that would shock laymen, I think this is it.
In another invocation of nullification and self-determination, Bassani chronicles the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and its implications for federal versus state power. As the writer reveals, John Calhoun justified South Carolina’s opposition to the federal tariff on the same foundations as Jefferson and Madison’s political creed. Even as fire-eaters demanded secession in South Carolina, Calhoun stepped down from the vice presidency in opposition to Andrew Jackson, and defended the discharge of nullification as a happy medium that would keep his state in the union while still opposing what he deemed to be a bold-faced constitutional usurpation. Throughout the episode, Bassani explores the particulars of Calhoun’s legal argument in ways that defy the manner in which the eminent South Carolinian is caricatured today.
In the book’s penultimate chapter, Bassani depicts Abraham Lincoln, the “herald of the modern state,” as the true source a new, reinvented American political structure. Even before Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency, the author reveals that Calhoun predicted in 1850 that the union was “doomed to dissolution” within the time frame of “twelve years or three presidential terms.” Bassani demonstrates that from his first inaugural address onward, Lincoln—as the scion of Hamiltonian nationalism—subverted the federal framework in favor of a singular, homogenous nation-state. In stark contrast with the perception of the ratifying states as they adopted the Constitution, Illinois’s favorite son portrayed the union as an inflexible, superlative, semisacred institution. As the author notes, this perception unambiguously denied the Jeffersonian construct of a utilitarian, decentralized league of states.
Far from the “Great Emancipator,” as he is sometimes called, Lincoln supported a constitutional amendment that would have barred the federal government from restricting or ending slavery for all time. Moreover, under his direction the federal government continued to enforce the despotic Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 long after the war had started, turned a blind eye to slavery in the states that remained loyal to the union, and reprimanded General John Fremont when he attempted to enact an exhaustive emancipation in conquered Missouri.
Most significantly, Bassani artfully illustrates the manner in which the president disregarded the Constitution’s original intent in the pursuit of his “perpetual union” creed. Indeed, Lincoln jailed hundreds of northern editorialists that criticized his administration, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, placed members of Maryland’s legislature under house arrest such that they could not congregate, began a system of conscription for the first time in American history, instituted an income tax, and when Congress was not in session universally called forth an army of seventy-five thousand soldiers to invade the South. While Lincoln insisted the Southern states had no right to secede, he treated them nonetheless as independent enemy states for the purposes of waging war against them. By disregarding the originally ratified constitution, then, Lincoln ushered in a new era of political consolidation.
With Chaining Down Leviathan, Bassani has assembled one of the most thorough and convincing defenses of federalism in the antebellum era, and in so doing, deconstructs prevailing American history narratives. Most importantly, the book reveals that decentralized government and states’ rights were far from reactionary, postratification political strategies—they were the very cornerstones of the American political system. From every angle, the author reveals that it was the nationalist model of the union—rather than the federal counterpart—that was the counterrevolution to the federal compact between states. If it accomplishes nothing else, Bassani’s formative account puts the final nail in the coffin of American nationalism.