Publius Symposium with Alison LaCroix

Publius Symposium with Alison LaCroix: The Interbellum Constitution: Union, Commerce, and Slavery in the Age of Federalisms

What was the nature of the American union during the nation’s adolescence, after the Founding and before the Civil War? Early-nineteenth-century Americans, between 1815 and 1861, had not yet determined what every provision of the Constitution signified. But they believed that the only way to determine that meaning was to distill potential interpretations into words, argue about those words, and accept that the arguments of the day would set the parameters for the rounds to come.

The Interbellum Constitution was a set of widely shared legal and political principles, combined with an unspoken but thoroughgoing commitment to investing those principles with meaning through debate. The debates took place in many arenas: newspaper essays, private letters, legislative chambers, and the special arena of the courtroom, including lawyers’ arguments as well judges’ opinions. The shared principles included commerce, concurrent power, and jurisdictional multiplicity, all under the heading of “commercial union.”

Each of these issues concerned what we might now term “federalism,” insofar as they concern the relationships among multiple levels of government with varying degrees of autonomy. A core claim of this book, however, is that there existed many more federalisms, plural, in the early nineteenth century than today’s constitutional debates admit.

Situating legal and political contests in their broader intellectual, social, and even personal context shows interbellum federalism to have been far more intellectually and legally generative than the standard account suggests. This method also demonstrates the existence of different species of federalism from our familiar modern ones. Simply put, the range of plausible constitutional arguments in the early nineteenth century was different and richer from our modern array.

Watch the group discuss Alison LaCroix’s forthcoming book, The Interbellum Constitution: Union, Commerce, and Slavery in the Age of Federalisms (Yale University Press, 2024) with commentary by Michael McConnell, Gregory Ablavsky, and Anne Twitty.