Gregory Ablavsky on the Origins of Dual Federalism

Gregory Ablavsky has published “Empire States: The Coming of Dual Federalism” in the Yale Law Journal (PDF).

Here is the abstract:

This Article offers an alternate account of federalism’s late eighteenth-century origins. In place of scholarly and doctrinal accounts that portray federalism as a repudiation of models of unitary sovereignty, it emphasizes the federalist ideology of dual sovereignty as a form of centralization—a shift from a world of diffuse sovereignty to one where authority was increasingly imagined as concentrated in the hands of only two legitimate sovereigns.

In making this claim, the Article focuses on two sequential late eighteenth-century transformations. The first concerned sovereignty. Pre-Revolutionary ideas about sovereignty reflected early modern corporatist understandings of authority as well as imperial realities of uneven jurisdiction. But the Revolution elevated a new understanding of sovereignty in which power derived from the consent of a uniform people. This conception empowered state legislatures, which, throughout the 1780s, sought to use their status under new state constitutions as the sole repositories of popular authority to subordinate competing claims to authority made by corporations, local institutions, Native nations, and separatist movements.

The second shift came with the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which bolstered federal authority partly in order to protect state authority against internal competitors—an aim reflected in the Guarantee and New State Clauses. Ultimately, the Constitution both limited and enhanced state authority; it entrenched a framework of dual sovereignty. After ratification, competitors to state sovereignty were increasingly constrained to appeal to some federal right or power. What had previously been contests among supposedly coequal sovereigns—what modern scholars would call horizontal federalism—became questions of vertical federalism, issues of whether federal authority would vindicate states or their opponents.

Although the Article concludes with some implications of this history for present-day federalism doctrine and theory, its primary contribution is descriptive. Judges and lawyers routinely and almost unthinkingly invoke localism and power diffusion as the historical values of federalism. Yet the history explored here challenges whether these near-universal assumptions about federalism’s aims actually reflect what federalism was designed to accomplish.

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