The Compact Theory of the Union—A Revolution Within a Form

  • Ivan JankovicEmail author


This chapter traces the evolution of the localist tradition in the early years of the American republic by a way of partially converging with the centralist thought and partially by subverting it and transforming it from within. The medium within which these two processes coalesced was a reinterpretation of the Constitution, a document conceived as an instrument of state-building that was so unpopular that it had to be sold by its proponents as a decentralist document. The result was a new compact theory of the American Union that claimed the union was a contract among the preexisting and sovereign states, with the federal government figuring as a limited government of designated powers. This picture sharply militated against the original idea animating its Framers in Philadelphia: consolidating the kaleidoscope of irrational local communities into a single national state. The resistance to the project forced them to explain away many inconvenient features and provisions of the Constitution; in turn, decentralists took these reservations and make a new orthodoxy out of it. Jefferson and Madison in 1798 with the doctrine of interposition/nullification and their followers in the coming decades just repackaged and philosophically refined the basic idea that independent states created the union and retained the most important powers for themselves.


  1. Appleby, J. (2000). Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.Google Scholar
  2. Aristotle. (1944). Politics (H. Rackham, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann.Google Scholar
  3. Barlow J. J., Levy, L., & Masugi, K. (Eds.). (1988). The American Founding: Essays on the Formation of the Constitution. New York: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  4. Barnett, R. (2004). Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bassani, L. M. (2010). Liberty, State and the Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Cheek, L. (2001). Calhoun and the Popular Rule. Columbia and New York: University of Missouri Press.Google Scholar
  7. Cogan, N. (Ed.). (1997). The Compete Bill of Rights: The Drafts, Debates, Sources and Origins. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Dworetz, S. (1990). The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism and American Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Edling, M. (2003). A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Eliot, J. (1836). The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Washington, DC: Published Under the Sanction of Congress. Printed for the Editor.Google Scholar
  11. Garett, Garet. ([1938] 2004). Ex America: The 50th Anniversary of the People’s Pottage. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press.Google Scholar
  12. Ginsburg, D. (1994). Delegation Running Riot. Regulation Magazine, 1, 83–87.Google Scholar
  13. Gunther, G. (Ed.). (1969). John Marshall’s Defense of McCulloch v. Maryland. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Gutzman, K. (2007). Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776–1840. Lanham: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  15. Gutzman, K. (2012). James Madison and the Making of America. New York: St. Martin’s Press; Book Club Edition. Google Scholar
  16. Greene, J. P. (2010). Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Farrand, M. (Ed.). (1911). The Records of the Federal Convention 1787 (Vol. III). New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Jaffa, H. (1959). The Crisis of House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglass Debates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  19. Jefferson, T. ([1943] 1967). Complete Jefferson (S. K. Padover, Ed.). New York: Books for Libraries Press.Google Scholar
  20. Jefferson, T. (1984). Writings: Autobiography, a Summary View of the Rights of British America, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public Papers, Addresses, Messages, and Replies, Miscellany, Letters. New York: Library of America Publisher.Google Scholar
  21. Jefferson, T., & Madison, J. (1995). The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776–1826 (J. M. Smith, Ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
  22. Kilpatrick, J. (1957). Sovereign States. Chicago: Regnery.Google Scholar
  23. Madison, J. (1908). The Writings of James Madison, Volume VIII, 1809–1819 (G. Hunt, Ed.). New York: G.P. Putnam Sons.Google Scholar
  24. Maier, P. (1970). Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America. The William and Mary Quarterly, 27(1), 3–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McPherson, J. (1988). The Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Reid, J. P. (1974). In a Defensive Rage: The Uses of the Mob, the Justification in Law and the Coming of the American Revolution. New York University Law Review, 49, 1043–1069.Google Scholar
  27. Story, J. (1833). Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (Vol. 3). Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company.Google Scholar
  28. Taylor, J. (1820). Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated. Richmond: Shepherd and Pollard.Google Scholar
  29. Upshur, A. P. (1863). The Brief Enquiry into the True Nature and Character of the Federal Government. Philadelphia, PA: John Campbell.Google Scholar
  30. Watkins, W. (2004). Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Wills, G. (2012). Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  32. Wilson, D. (1998). Lincoln Before Washington. New Perspectives on the Illinois Years. Chicago, IL: University of Ilionois Press.Google Scholar
  33. Woods, T., Jr. (2010). Nullification. New York: Henry Regnery.Google Scholar
  34. Zuckert, M. (1996). Natural Rights Republic. Notre Damme: University of Notre Damme Press.Google Scholar
  35. Zuckert, M. (2002). Launching Liberalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MaryBismarckUSA

Personalised recommendations