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States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876

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Forrest McDonald has long been recognized as one of our most respected and provocative intellectual historians. With this new book, he once again delivers an illuminating meditation on a major theme in American history and politics. Elegantly and accessibly written for a broad readership, McDonald's book provides an insightful look at states' rights--an issue that continues Forrest McDonald has long been recognized as one of our most respected and provocative intellectual historians. With this new book, he once again delivers an illuminating meditation on a major theme in American history and politics. Elegantly and accessibly written for a broad readership, McDonald's book provides an insightful look at states' rights--an issue that continues to stir debate nationwide. From constitutional scholars to Supreme Court justices to an electorate that's grown increasingly wary of federal power, the concept of states' rights has become a touchstone for a host of political and legal controversies. But, as McDonald shows, that concept has deep roots that need to be examined if we're to understand its implications for current and future debates. McDonald's study revolves around the concept of imperium in imperio--literally "sovereignty within sovereignty" or the division of power within a single jurisdiction. With this broad principle in hand, he traces the states' rights idea from the Declaration of Independence to the end of Reconstruction and illuminates the constitutional, political, and economic contexts in which it evolved. Although the Constitution, McDonald shows, gave the central government expansive powers, it also legitimated the doctrine of states' rights. The result was an uneasy tension and uncertainty about the nature of the central government's relationship to the states. At times the issue bubbled silently and unseen beneath the surface of public awareness, but at other times it exploded. McDonald follows this episodic rise and fall of federal-state relations from the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, New England's resistance to Jefferson's foreign policy and the War of 1812, the Nullification Controversy, Andrew Jackson's war against the Bank of the United States, and finally the vitriolic public debates that led to secession and civil war. Other scholars have touched upon these events individually, but McDonald is the first to integrate all of them from the perspective of states' rights into one synthetic and magisterial vision. The result is another brilliant study from a masterful historian writing on a subject of great import for Americans.


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Forrest McDonald has long been recognized as one of our most respected and provocative intellectual historians. With this new book, he once again delivers an illuminating meditation on a major theme in American history and politics. Elegantly and accessibly written for a broad readership, McDonald's book provides an insightful look at states' rights--an issue that continues Forrest McDonald has long been recognized as one of our most respected and provocative intellectual historians. With this new book, he once again delivers an illuminating meditation on a major theme in American history and politics. Elegantly and accessibly written for a broad readership, McDonald's book provides an insightful look at states' rights--an issue that continues to stir debate nationwide. From constitutional scholars to Supreme Court justices to an electorate that's grown increasingly wary of federal power, the concept of states' rights has become a touchstone for a host of political and legal controversies. But, as McDonald shows, that concept has deep roots that need to be examined if we're to understand its implications for current and future debates. McDonald's study revolves around the concept of imperium in imperio--literally "sovereignty within sovereignty" or the division of power within a single jurisdiction. With this broad principle in hand, he traces the states' rights idea from the Declaration of Independence to the end of Reconstruction and illuminates the constitutional, political, and economic contexts in which it evolved. Although the Constitution, McDonald shows, gave the central government expansive powers, it also legitimated the doctrine of states' rights. The result was an uneasy tension and uncertainty about the nature of the central government's relationship to the states. At times the issue bubbled silently and unseen beneath the surface of public awareness, but at other times it exploded. McDonald follows this episodic rise and fall of federal-state relations from the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, New England's resistance to Jefferson's foreign policy and the War of 1812, the Nullification Controversy, Andrew Jackson's war against the Bank of the United States, and finally the vitriolic public debates that led to secession and civil war. Other scholars have touched upon these events individually, but McDonald is the first to integrate all of them from the perspective of states' rights into one synthetic and magisterial vision. The result is another brilliant study from a masterful historian writing on a subject of great import for Americans.

30 review for States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bret McGuire

    McDonald's "States' Rights and the Union" offers exactly what it advertises; a detailed look at the evolving notion of the relationship between state and federal power in the first century of the nascent American nation. McDonald's reputation as both a detailed analyst and a fine writer are both well-earned. Perhaps unsurprisingly the picture that emerges most strongly from this work is the astonishing "flexibility" (if we're speaking charitably) on this topic exhibited by nearly every political McDonald's "States' Rights and the Union" offers exactly what it advertises; a detailed look at the evolving notion of the relationship between state and federal power in the first century of the nascent American nation. McDonald's reputation as both a detailed analyst and a fine writer are both well-earned. Perhaps unsurprisingly the picture that emerges most strongly from this work is the astonishing "flexibility" (if we're speaking charitably) on this topic exhibited by nearly every political actor during this period of time. This sentiment will come as no surprise to anyone who, say, has ever heard a politician speak on any topic. To McDonald's credit he's content to leave this disturbing facet alone, content to document the evolution in thinking of some of the major characters in our nation's history. First-class history from a first-class writer.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    One of Professor McDonald's last books; another tour de force.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dave Benner

    My favorite of McDonald's works.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    Among their many failings, U.S. history textbooks have often portrayed national sovereignty as a largely settled question following the revolutionary war, which was resurrected years later by southern states who wanted to hold slaves. What University of Alabama Professor Forrest McDonald shows in States' Rights and the Union, is that states' rights infused the national debate of most issues in the first 100 years of the republic. One of those issues on which McDonald provides a particularly inter Among their many failings, U.S. history textbooks have often portrayed national sovereignty as a largely settled question following the revolutionary war, which was resurrected years later by southern states who wanted to hold slaves. What University of Alabama Professor Forrest McDonald shows in States' Rights and the Union, is that states' rights infused the national debate of most issues in the first 100 years of the republic. One of those issues on which McDonald provides a particularly interesting read is the issue of "internal improvements" (modern-day supporters call them "earmarks"; detractors "pork-barrel projects"). What has become commonplace today was once looked at as an unconstitutional extension of federal power. As part of the ongoing debate, McDonald chronicles the 1825 passage of a resolution by the South Carolina legislature which condemned "the taxing of the citizens in one state 'to make roads and canals for the citizens of another state.' Virginia adopted a similar resolution early in 1827, as did Georgia late in the year." Where would today's politicians be if they couldn't deliver for their constituents road and canals? (and bridges and buildings and museums and subsidies). The book is filled with Supreme Court cases, which serves to reinforce McDonald's contention of the Court's centrality in the states' rights debate. Although today the Supreme Court is looked at with an almost sacred awe, it wasn't always that way. Indeed, McDonald notes in the epilogue that it was with the dismissal of 20th century southern segregationist laws that "the Supreme Court gained an enormous fund of moral capital in the rest of the country" which it used to consolidate its power. But due to the constant shuffle of Supreme Court Justices, the Court has been a sometime friend and other time foe of states' rights. The jackets says the book was "written in an accessible style", but demands some familiarity with U.S. History (which should disqualify about 75 percent of the American public). However, what McDonald has done is to write a consistent narrative of one of the most important and unique features of American democracy. Although the narrative ends in 1876, it is instructive background for many current debates in U.S. politics and the epilogue sets the stage for a much-needed sequel. In light of the extensive research McDonald put into the first 100 years of the states' rights debate, it would be fascinating to see him focus that same energy on the last 125, and especially the Rhenquist court.

  5. 4 out of 5

    John Lucy

    I only wish that McDonald continued his survey past 1876 to the present. Of course, the first 100 years of this country's union are the most decisive in the battle between states' rights and federal government/union, so the choice is understandable; McDonald does also include a meaningful epilogue at the end that briefly traces states' rights philosophy through to the present day. Mainly I mean only to imply how well-written and fascinating McDonald's survey is: I would have continued reading fo I only wish that McDonald continued his survey past 1876 to the present. Of course, the first 100 years of this country's union are the most decisive in the battle between states' rights and federal government/union, so the choice is understandable; McDonald does also include a meaningful epilogue at the end that briefly traces states' rights philosophy through to the present day. Mainly I mean only to imply how well-written and fascinating McDonald's survey is: I would have continued reading for another few hundred pages without getting bored. Granted, I am an anarchist by principle and libertarian in practice, so I'm biased toward liking a book of this sort. Still, McDonald does a great job of digging up some pieces of history that you might have thought you knew only to inform you that you barely knew anything. Some of the major players in historic American politics are given grand form and the major events are given new shape within the full story of what is no doubt the greatest factor in American political history: the battle between states' rights and the power of the federal government. Though I pride myself on my historical knowledge, there are a whole lot of facts and threads of analysis wholly new to me in this book. McDonald's narrative is superb, but the analysis and depth of what you can learn here is what most impresses me. Daniel Webster and John Calhoun will especially feel like new persons to a reader; but the actions of the Supreme Court and the Founding Fathers will also take on new shape. What I most appreciate about this book is that it takes the history we all know well (or should know well) and makes it seem new simply by the narrative frame. If you are at all interested in history, American history, American politics, or politics in general, I highly recommend this book. If you are simply looking for a non-fiction book to read, I also highly recommend this book. If you are none of those things but are ignorant of American history--an unfortunately necessary disclaimer nowadays--I suggest you find someone to force you to read this book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jason Carter

    Talk "states' rights" in today's political climate, and you're likely to be labeled a crank or a racist... or both, because so much ignorance passes for history in our government school system. You *will* be taught in your history classes about "checks and balances" in the US Constitution, but you will be taught that those checks and balances consist largely of the division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. Only a moment's reflection, th Talk "states' rights" in today's political climate, and you're likely to be labeled a crank or a racist... or both, because so much ignorance passes for history in our government school system. You *will* be taught in your history classes about "checks and balances" in the US Constitution, but you will be taught that those checks and balances consist largely of the division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. Only a moment's reflection, though, will reveal that those branches are still all part of the same government. McDonald demonstrates conclusively that the founding fathers viewed another check and balance as critical to the limitation on growth in federal power -- states' rights. The states, as distinct sovereignties, *delegated* certain powers to the federal government and retained all other powers to themselves (c.f., 10th Amendment). This book ends its study in 1876, the end of Reconstruction, when the Second Founding became complete -- a founding destitute of any vestige of states' rights, in which federal power would be free to grow unchecked. Outstanding summary of key issues in American constitutionalism.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Anyone interested in how we went from a loose confederacy of states to the centralized global power of today should read this book. The battles fought around these issues during the first hundred years are fascinating and illuminate the deeply held beliefs on both sides of the debate.

  8. 4 out of 5

    J. L. Wallace

    Very informative work on the issue of states rights and the evolution of constitution law and interpretation.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ron Davis

  11. 4 out of 5

    Levi Kovacs

  12. 4 out of 5

    T.J. Connolly

  13. 4 out of 5

    trina

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jake

  15. 4 out of 5

    Paul Graham

  16. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  17. 4 out of 5

    Charles

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michael Schearer

  19. 4 out of 5

    William Hunter

  20. 4 out of 5

    Harrison Recht

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jonathon Carrell

  22. 4 out of 5

    James Slattery

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ron Kastner

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  26. 5 out of 5

    Liles Taylor

  27. 5 out of 5

    Travis

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Kahl

  29. 4 out of 5

    Liam Degnan

  30. 4 out of 5

    John Baeza

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