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Bonds of Union

Isabelle Bour
Antoine Mioche

The changing fortunes of union: the Federalist, state formation, and the origins of a united Europe

J. C. D. Clark

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1It is sometimes observed that the term “federalism” has quite different meanings in English and German discourse: in English usage it signifies the amalgamation of regions into a unified superstate; in German usage (Umbach 1-2), it refers to a national constitution that defends the regions from exactly that assimilation (we might call these “centralising federalism” and “localising federalism”). Yet English discourse has sometimes and confusingly included both meanings, and the “essential” nature of federal union is still disputed. Agreement on a trans-historical definition is likely to be unattainable as long as the historic reasons for this divergence continue to be obscured. This essay is a contribution to an historical perspective on that problem: it provides arguments for concluding that federalism is often a centralising strategy in disguise; that its track record has been mixed; and that other models of territorial union have been at least as effective.

2This essay was written at a moment of extraordinary interest, as debates on the European Union’s proposed constitution signalled a new phase of state formation, perhaps a decisive phase. How the historic nature of union is to be understood will have the widest consequences. And yet it is apparent that much of the current discussion of federal union has been undertaken in an historical vacuum, and this essay offers an explanation of that failure of understanding. In recent decades, two bodies of scholarship have developed in substantial isolation from each other: political scientists’ writings on the nature of federal union, especially invoking the US constitution of 1787 as a guide to European integration, and historians’ writings on much older patterns and processes of state formation that allow us to interpret the creation of the US Constitution differently.

3This political science indeed makes claims to historical foundations, but these foundations are often taken at second hand from older historical writing that can no longer be sustained. Most centrally, it is still widely held among political scientists that European federal union represents an ahistorical liberation from the age of the “nation state,” of imperialism and of military aggression. And although some political scientists have recently attempted to construct an alternative and more historically defensible genealogy for a communitarian federalism from Bullinger through Althusius, most such writers have traced federalism to what they anachronistically call Lockean contractarianism and see the key political expression of this Lockean vision in the US Constitution drafted in 1787:

For 500 years, Europe pursued the twin courses of colonisation overseas and centralised state-building at home. The two went hand-in-hand. The rejection of medieval or any other form of pluralism or power-sharing on behalf of the centralised state, hierarchical or parliamentary, was paralleled by the acquisition of colonies overseas by those new states as part of their muscle-flexing. World War II wrote the finish to both of those drives, initiating an era of decolonisation abroad and federal integration at home for the states of first western and then southern Europe. (Elazar, “Federal-Type Solutions” 439)

4Such accounts reveal that recent political science is also often overtly normative. As one of the foremost students of the subject has written, “the federalist movement is among the most widespread—if one of the most unnoticed—of the various revolutions that are changing the face of the globe in our time.” This was, moreover, an American invention:

Europe knew of only one federal arrangement, confederation, whereby several preexisting polities joined together to form a common government for strictly limited purposes, usually foreign affairs and defense, which remained dependent upon its constituent polities. Two centuries ago, the United States invented modern federalism and added federation as a second form, one that was widely emulated in the nineteenth century. A federation is a polity compounded of strong constituent entities and a strong general government, each possessing powers delegated to it by the people and empowered to deal directly with the citizenry in the exercise of those powers. (Elazar, Exploring Federalism 6-7)

5In this account, the US Constitution was able to square the circle and deliver both political ends at once.

6The component parts of this openly normative interpretation deserve attention. First, the essentially metaphysical idea of the unity of a “people,” whatever might be said about their diversities of origin, conduct and intention. Second, the morality of the enterprise: self-interest and aggression are to be justified in terms of metaphysical ideals, even of direct divine commission. Third, the idea of covenant: the united polity begins by a contract which, because of its semi-divine attributes, becomes a timeless covenant, guaranteeing survival and prosperity to those who serve the ideals of the association; all this, however historically fictitious the contract may be.

7It has occasionally been observed that the origins of federal union were much older than 1787: they were “covenantal,” indeed Biblical, in the idea of the relation between God and His chosen people, divided into twelve tribes but still subscribing to a common code (Elazar, Exploring Federalism 1, 5, 115-17; Nicholson). Only very recently has this different origin of federal union been given prominence, and even then it has been interpreted idealistically, in the same way that the US Constitution was interpreted as having guaranteed both a strong central government and states’ rights. Since 1991, federal theory has sometimes been traced to the theology of the Reformed Church of Zurich, and especially to Johann Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75) (McCoy and Baker); from there it passed to the Puritan colonies of New England, and also influenced the thought of the German Calvinist Johannes Althusius (1557-1638). Yet, however European federalism may have begun with sixteenth-century covenantal theology, it was translated into its present secular idiom by the force of the American example, itself resting on a reading of the separation of church and state as a process of secularisation. By the time Gierke rediscovered Althusius in the late nineteenth century (Gierke, Development of Political Theory; Natural Law), “the Americans had invented modern federalism on the basis of an individualism which conformed to Western liberal Enlightenment thinking and overshadowed the sort of covenantal, communitarian and pluralistic federal ideas originally derived from Bullinger and Althusius” (Burgess 9).

8So a new view was devised of the superior moral basis of corporatism and the inherent authority of the vocational association, the commune or the region; yet as articulated by political scientists, it is used to the old end of idealising federal union:

The Althusian compound state, in contrast to the Bodinian centralised state, is therefore an amalgam of political associations based upon consent and built up from below, in which power is dispersed both territorially and functionally. Federation thus emerges as a political order which seeks to accommodate the greatest possible number of communities and societies, primary and intermediate, without destroying them. It is a living, pluralist, organic order which builds itself from the ground upwards, constructing its tiers of authority and decision-making according to the principle of subsidiarity. (Burgess 7-8)

9Implicitly, state forms are treated in such ahistorical accounts as having essential qualities, and the nation state is to be understood as none of these things.

10To redescribe the origins of Anglo-American federalism in this Althusian way is intended to distance it from “Lockean notions of western liberal individualism” (“individualism” here having unwelcome political connotations) and to reveal for it a “much more normative, communitarian and pluralistic” origin. “Indeed, this view brings it much closer to the Continental European federal tradition than might originally have been anticipated” (Burgess 9). But an analysis that is thus Europeanised and collectivised has not been essentially changed: it still makes it appear true by definition that “[a] ‘federal’ Europe is not about a unitary centralised state. Nor is it ‘imperium’, a new form of empire. Indeed, it is the exact opposite” (Burgess 17).

11Such discussions can seem plausible only by avoiding comparisons with the historical record. Did those nominal federations the USSR and the USA, or the Wilhelmine German Empire, behave as if they were unitary states? Did they behave in anti-libertarian ways in their foreign or their domestic policies? Was power centralised within them? And, on the other hand, have composite monarchies and multiple kingdoms behaved with restraint towards their constituent parts? Have they upheld the rule of law at home, and been reluctant to use force abroad? Has executive power within them been controlled? That is, have people who employed the language of federal union sometimes behaved in ways at odds with those ideals? The answers to these questions are historical: that is, they cannot simply be read off from some theoretical definition of the timeless essence of a state form.

12Despite this recovery of Althusius, it may be wondered how much difference has been made to an older orthodoxy of political science. As one author in that older tradition explained,

Modern federalism, invented by the United States, operates essentially on a Madisonian model which, although itself derived from a variety of sources, draws its conception of civil society from Lockean individualism. Hence Madisonian federalism is based on the idea that polities are comprised first and foremost of individuals who combine themselves into peoples out of choice, establishing political institutions in the process by means of political covenants and constitutions. (Elazar, “Federal-Type Solutions” 441)

13Unknown to political scientists, the assumptions behind both interpretations have been called in question. First, the Lockean individualist. Since the 1960s, historians have given a quite different account of Locke and a quite different account of 1776. No longer can Madisonian federalism claim the status of a self-evident truth. Second, the Althusian corporatist. Here historians have reinterpreted the nature of “absolutism” and recast our understanding of sixteenthand seventeenth-century state formation to which Althusian federalism was presented as an opposite (G. Burgess; Clark, English Society).

14Yet political scientists’ writing on European union normally omits the historical scholarship that has recently illuminated the structure of composite monarchies and multiple kingdoms and has traced state formation within a dynastic idiom. Moreover, such political science reads The Federalist, that key text in the interpretation of the Constitution of 1787, in a resolutely unhistorical way. As a result, it still treats “a ‘federal’ Europe” as a simple alternative to “the modern state,” conceived as a sovereign, absolute and unitary phenomenon whose “rise” can be dated (claim the political scientists, following older historians) to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (e.g. M. Burgess 1). Accepting that analysis, a political scientist can triumphantly announce: “Sovereignty is neither final nor absolute; it is simply irrelevant. Bodin has been effectively superseded” (Burgess 15). Consequently, “there is no necessary antipathy between the national state and European integration. Nor is there a fundamental contradiction or incompatibility between the national state and a ‘federal’ Europe” (Burgess 16).

15This confidence (or complacency) can be traced to the interpretation of the US Constitution, and to the role of its key explanatory text. Jean Monnet, the father of European federalism, symbolically kept on his desk a copy of The Federalist (Pinder 48-49), and this text (here cited from Cooke) demands reinterpretation if the claims made for the exemplary nature of US government are to be understood. Reinterpretation is necessary since James Madison’s political evasions in The Federalist no. 39 about whether the new constitution was “national” (i.e. centralised) or “federal” are now accepted uncritically as a valuable invention, “a new form of government” (Schechter 125). This credulousness is part of a pattern of thought that has been called “Founderism”:

The history of western civilisation is filled with stories both real and legendary of men and women who have faced the challenge of founding civil societies capable of meeting needs of succeeding generations. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the American system, founded two hundred years ago as the first truly modern republic of continental proportions, and in Europe today which faces the challenge of founding the first truly post-modem republic of continental proportions. (Schechter 119; italics added)

16It is this historical naivety that needs to be revised if a more valid account of union is to be established. This essay, therefore, is about making a connection between these two areas of scholarship, hitherto isolated from each other: the writings of political scientists on the nature of federal union, and the writings of historians on the actual track-record of European state formation in the dynastic age. It argues first that The Federalist needs to be explained historically, and cannot be understood as a repository of timeless wisdom. Second, it briefly considers the fortunes of federal unions built on the US model, in the USA itself, in the British Isles, and in the rest of the world. Finally, it argues that historians in the last few decades have provided us with a quite different model for understanding the earlier origins of union, and asks what the lessons of that scholarship are.

17The Federalist was the title given to the collected edition of a series of anonymous articles in the New York press in 1787 and 1788 in favour of the constitution just drafted by the Federal Convention at Philadelphia and now requiring the ratification of the States, each of which was electing a convention to decide the issue (Clark, Language of Liberty 125-40). This classic work was not therefore a blueprint, and not a work of abstract reflection. Its vision was retrospective, not prospective: the Constitution had to be accepted or rejected, but was not at that moment open to revision. Its purpose was advocacy more than analysis: it was intended to persuade more than to understand. Its means were political, not academic: it sought to place an interpretation on what had been done in Philadelphia, and to do this in the context of a popular election and a media campaign in the plebeian politics of New York City.

18The United States already had a constitution, the Articles of Confederation, adopted by Congress in 1777 and in force until the new Constitution became operative in 1789 (Jensen). Centralisers disparaged this: in 1787, James Madison wrote that the Articles were “nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and of alliance, between so many independent and Sovereign States” (Madison 351). Madison, a leading framer of the Constitution in the Philadelphia Convention of the summer of 1787, favoured replacing the Articles with a strong Federal government; he initially envisaged securing its predominance by giving it a veto over State laws, vested either in Congress or in the President. He was eventually persuaded to support the “alternative system... in which the Federal Government would act directly on individuals in all matters within its competence” (Beloff xxviii). Hence the resulting Constitution was to be ratified by conventions assembled for that purpose; that is, by “the people” directly, not by the States corporately. As Madison described it to Jefferson, it would form “a government which instead of operating, on the States, should operate without their intervention on the individuals composing them.” Madison also urged the necessity of a Federal veto over State legislation in ways that called in question the Revolution itself: “Without such a check in the whole over the parts, our system involves the evil of imperia in imperio... If the supremacy of the British Parliament is not necessary as has been contended, for the harmony of that Empire, it is evident I think that without the royal negative or some other equivalent controul, the unity of the system would be destroyed” (Madison to Jefferson, 24 October 1787, in Boyd 270-84 at 271, 273-74).

19It has been argued that the lawyer Emmerich de Vattel’s distinction between fundamental laws enacted by the nation and ordinary laws enacted by legislatures promoted (although belatedly in the colonies) the idea of the special status of written constitutions (Haines 51); but law cannot be turned into a new and sacrosanct species, “constitutional law,” merely by an announcement that such a transubstantiation has occurred. We must therefore look historically at the arguments deployed in The Federalist to secure the ratification of the document drawn up in Philadelphia if we are to trace the political process by which a special status came to be ascribed to that document.

20Just what was wrong with the existing constitution, the Articles of Confederation? The Federalist replied in two contradictory ways. It claimed that a merely confederal system would lead to “frequent and violent contests” among the States (no. 6). Yet it also argued that the transition from the old constitution to the new would not be so great a change, and gave no cause for alarm. In no. 9, Hamilton contended that all that was proposed was “a partial Union.” The distinction between “a confederacy and a consolidation of the States” was “more subtle than accurate.” Read closely, however, his distinction was substantial and important. Hamilton contended that “the proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State Governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This idea fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a Foederal Government” (Cooke 55). But did it? True, conceded Hamilton, the Constitution said that “the laws of the Union are to be the supreme law of the land,” but this was not remarkable: “A LAW by the very meaning of the term includes supremacy” (no. 33, Cooke 207). If that were true, sovereignty could not be divided.

21Second, what constituted “we the people,” a people that might act to ratify a constitution of any sort? The Federalist’s answers were perfunctory. In no. 2, Jay attributed the destined unity of “this country” to “Providence.” In no. 5, he cited the arguments used in Queen Anne’s letter of 1 July 1706 to the Scottish Parliament, urging their acceptance of “an entire and perfect Union” (which was certainly not to be the result of the treaty of union of 1707): “it seems obvious to common sense,” continued Jay, “that the people of such an island, should be but one nation.” He ignored Ireland. It seems that no precise argument in The Federalist justified the autonomy of a sovereign “people,” and that its plausibility rested instead on Protestant Dissenting ideas that sovereignty ascends from below (Clark, Language of Liberty).

22It followed, thirdly, that the key political concept of The Federalist was the idea of “the people” as the source of authority and therefore as the guarantee that the powers of the federal government would be rightly used (Cooke 178). A confederate government, argued Hamilton in no. 16, would not have the power to coerce the States. It must be based on another principle: “a Foederal Government capable of regulating the common concerns... must carry its agency to the persons of the citizens” (Cooke 102).

23The Philadelphia Convention may have had authority only to propose revisions to the Articles of Confederation, but Hamilton now condemned that Constitution as “a system so radically vicious and unsound, as not to admit of amendment but by an entire change in its leading features and characters” (no. 22, Cooke 145). Rather, “the fabric of the American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority” (Cooke 146). The existence of standing armies in a strong federal state would be unproblematic, argued Hamilton, since it was unnecessary to restrain a legislative branch that consisted of “the people” (no. 24).

24Fourthly, if all power resided with “the people,” what limitations or safeguards would be built into the system? What would be the checks and balances? Where would these limitations reside? What would be their institutional expression? The Federalist had remarkably little to propose. Bills of Rights did not apply in “constitutions professedly founded upon the power of the people,” argued Hamilton; “Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing, and as they retain everything, they have no need of particular reservations” (no. 84, Cooke 578). Here, then, was an extreme Lockean position: the people retained every natural right on entering into civil society. But this therefore became a basis for “totalitarian democracy”: there was nothing that the people could not do (Talmon).

25“An intire consolidation of the States into one complete national sovereignty would imply an intire subordination of the parts; and whatever powers might remain in them would be altogether dependent on the general will,” wrote Hamilton (no. 32, Cooke 199-200). The real safeguards in this more extensive conception of federalism now became clear: not the division of sovereignty between the States and the Federal Government; not the system of checks and balances among the component parts of the Federal Government, legislative, executive and judiciary; but, instead, and solely, the idea of the general will, expressing itself unchecked, without let or hindrance, through a unified national government.

26Hamilton claimed that this did not apply: “the plan of the Convention aims only at a partial Union or consolidation,” so that “the State Governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had and which were not by that act exclusively delegated to the United States” (Cooke 200). This “exclusive delegation” hardly ever happened, claimed Hamilton: he cited as examples of the only three cases the Federal Government’s rights to “exclusive legislation” within the territory of the capital city; to set and collect duties on imports; and to establish a uniform rule of naturalisation (Cooke 200-201). There would be, argued Hamilton, a “division of the sovereign power” between the States and the Union. But his proof of this essential point was weak. He had only two arguments: first, that States’rights were “a theoretical consequence” of the division of sovereignty (Cooke 203). But how could sovereignty be divided, if the sovereign was a corporate body, “we the people”? Second, that “the whole tenor” of the constitution pointed in that direction. But such an appeal to a document’s alleged tone or tenor was of no effect in law.

27The States, as well as the Federal Government, argued Hamilton, would have “co-EQUAL authority” to tax. “To argue upon abstract principles, that this co-ordinate authority cannot exist, is to set up supposition and theory, against fact and reality” (no. 34, Cooke 207). Sovereignty, then, could be shared. But could it? All that he had said about the general will contradicted this.

28Fifthly, how could these abstract arguments be reconciled with the claim that the constitution would be libertarian in practice? In no. 39, Madison agonized over whether the proposed constitution was strictly “federal” or “national.” His answers were sophistical: federal, not national, in the source of its authority; national rather than federal in the operations of its powers. The people were to ratify the Constitution, argued Madison (no. 39, Cooke 254), but not as individuals; rather, “as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State, the authority of the People themselves. The act therefore establishing the Constitution, will not be a national but a federal act.”

29In no. 47, Madison defended the Constitution against the charge that it did not embody a separation of powers. The principle itself he had to accept: “No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty” (Cooke 324). But Montesquieu’s condemnation of the joining of powers, argued Madison, only held good when two departments of government were exactly congruent. This was not true of the British constitution, Montesquieu’s model: he could not have been condemning without exception all dealings and connections between branches of government. Nor did complete separation apply to the US Constitution. The departments of government must be “so far connected and blended, as to give to each a constitutional controul over the others,” argued Madison in no. 48; “the degree of separation which the maxim requires as essential to a free government, can never in practice, be duly maintained.”

30Although The Federalist repeated the stock phrases about the threat of tyrannical monarchy, Hamilton’s real argument was against what he held to be the “propensity of the legislative department to intrude upon the rights and absorb the powers of the other departments” (no. 73, Cooke 494; cf. no. 71). Madison, too, had urged “the danger from legislative usurpations” (no. 48, Cooke 333). They equally ignored the danger from a strong executive. Perhaps American revolutionaries, whatever their rhetoric, well knew that their quarrel was with the Westminster Parliament, not George III. So the constitution provided effective barriers against legislatures, especially those of the States, but failed to provide against the rise of an over-mighty executive that later characterised the USA.

31Sixth, The Federalist did invoke some historical examples, but its use of them deserves reconsideration. It is conventional to praise the wide learning in the classics, in political science, or in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment that informed the work of the Founding Fathers (Wills). Some greater degree of scepticism is called for on this question. The name of John Locke, for example, is not invoked in The Federalist. Not until no. 18 do we meet classical examples, the Amphyctionic Council and the Achaean League. Even then, Madison merely claimed that his sources were “the best accounts” and invoked only two modern authorities—Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709-85) and Charles-François-Xavier Milot (1726-85)—without citing references to their works.

32Madison did not stop with ancient Greece. In no. 19 he turned to “the Germanic Body.” The dissolution of its union after the death of Charlemagne was lamentable: “The most furious private wars” were now carried on between its component parts. “Out of this feudal system, which has itself many of the important features of a confederacy, has grown the federal system, which constitutes the Germanic empire.” Madison rehearsed the impressive-sounding powers of its institutions, but concluded:

The fundamental principle, on which it rests, that the empire is a community of sovereigns; that the Diet is a representation of sovereigns; and that the laws are addressed to sovereigns; render the empire a nerveless body; incapable of regulating its own members; insecure against external dangers; and agitated with unceasing fermentations in its own bowels.

33Madison urged “a proper consolidation” which would “give to the Empire the force and preeminence to which it is entitled.” This duly emerged in the late nineteenth century, in the form of the Wilhelmine Reich, nominally a federal union, in action a unified state. Its contribution to European order and to constitutional government are matters of record. Yet historical examples were not really the point. Hamilton argued, in general, by “quitting the dim light of historical research, and attaching ourselves purely to the dictates of reason and good sense” (no. 70, Cooke 474).

34It has long been known that the term “federal” was the subject of a “deft and sudden abduction” in 1787-88: “a word clearly connoting decentralisation, state supremacy and particularism in current politics mysteriously emerged from the Federal convention as the designation of a party devoted to the idea of consolidation and délocalisation” (Schechter 714). Yet it was not the Philadelphia Convention, meeting in secret, that achieved this alchemy, but the sleight of hand of the authors of The Federalist.

35Since The Federalist was not an academic treatise, it achieved its practical objectives by concealing rather than examining its premises. For much of the twentieth century, the Anglophone debate on federal unions was conducted in terms implicitly or explicitly owed to an American example that had been profoundly misunderstood. These terms (as Hamilton predicted) were essentially non-historical: instead, they were functional, democratic, and secular. They were functional in that they were preoccupied with abstract, analytical matters like the defined division of powers between the federal authority and the component states. They were democratic in the assumption that majorities of voters, once established by the electoral machinery, would be submitted to by minorities. They were secular in ignoring the capacity of religious commitments to underpin political allegiances, to create identities and to act as networks of assumptions or preconditions to which some crisis—a contest over representation or customary rights, for example—could then act as a trigger. In place of religion was the implicit attribution of a higher morality to the actions of the higher tier of authority, in this case the Federal. To rehearse these implicit assumptions is to appreciate both their strengths and their weaknesses.

36None of these assumptions could be openly rehearsed, since the central problem of British sovereignty, against which the rebellion of 1776 had been an act of resistance, was left unresolved: could sovereignty be divided in order to guard against the various threats that undivided sovereignty posed?

37In any state regulated by a generalised constitution, interpretation is of the essence; but interpretation is particularly central in a society dominated by natural rights discourse such as the Thirteen Colonies became in the 1770s, in a society dependent on the literalistic conventions of Scriptural exegesis central to Puritanism, in a polity needing to found its claim to authority on a recent and cataclysmic revolutionary event, and in a polity the constitution of which was framed by a body whose intentions could not be known: the Philadelphia Convention sat behind closed doors, and its proceedings were secret.

38The USA was such a polity, committed to a reversion to origins; but those origins were, in large part, unknowable. They had therefore to be inferred. Hence the significance of The Federalist. Max Beloff characterised that work:

This sense of novelty, this rejection of the ties of tradition and history, is paralleled by an unawareness of history as a continuing process and by a rejection of any notion that this process affects political ideas. The authors of the Federalist thought in absolute terms. They declare that political science, like other sciences, has developed since ancient times; but there is no parallel idea of the development of society. Nor do they conceive of the possibility that society may further develop and that this may call for a further revision of political ideas. The rigidity of the Federalist in this respect has been perhaps as potent as the more-often discussed rigidity of the Constitution, in giving to American political and social thought its peculiarly absolutist quality. (Beloff li)

39If the arguments contained in The Federalist had been ahistorically valid, we might have expected widespread success for federal union in the two centuries that followed. On the contrary, however, the idea of federal union experienced successes and failures like any other principle of government, notably in the USA itself.

40Paradoxically, the USA and the EU had very different track records. In the new American republic, despite the fact that its idea of federalism later became internationally normative, the Federal government met repeated and continual resistance from its component States for seventy years, resistance of which the civil war of 1861-65 was the last and definitive expression. In the European Community, established by the Treaty of Rome of 1957, the subservience of its component states to legal integration has been largely complete, impeded at most by hesitancy: principled resistance and attempts at secession have been lacking (Goldstein 14-66), largely because of the intellectual hegemony of federalism in political science and so in public debate.

41The United Kingdom, that dynastic union completed by the union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, ought to have been as fertile ground for the federal idea as the Thirteen Colonies, but here its track record was similarly mixed. It began in a quite different mental world, in which a closer union with Britain had enjoyed considerable backing in Ireland itself (Kelly). This was not, in the 1780s, necessarily a target for revision along federal lines.

42Although a friend of federalism, Jay was not a friend of devolution. In The Federalist no. 5, he wrote of the important lessons to be drawn from the history of Great Britain, but was dismissive of separatism: “it seems obvious to common sense, that the people of such an island, should be but one nation.” In no. 4, he posited a hypothetical case. Suppose the militia were divided between English, Scots, and Welsh governments: in case of an invasion, could they “operate against the enemy so effectually as the single Government of Great Britain would?” Without explanation, he then added Ireland. Suppose each of these four countries had its navigation (i.e. merchant marine) and fleet: “Let those four of the constituent parts of the British empire be under four independent Governments, and it is easy to perceive how soon they would each dwindle into comparative insignificance” (no. 4, Cooke 21).

43Similar arguments continued to be widely persuasive through the nineteenth century. In 1871, the English economist Walter Bagehot opposed Home Rule (i. e. devolved federal government) for Ireland: the functions of the Dublin and Westminster governments could hardly be defined; Westminster would have to be given an overriding power in case of conflict, and this could hardly be exercised “without provoking something like a rebellion on every separate occasion.” He foresaw the obvious objection: “It may be said, perhaps, that this difficulty has never been felt in the United States, where the State powers and the Federal powers are divided by a hard and fast line, which neither State nor Federation have the power to overleap.” On the contrary, he continued: “the Secession War was in fact a State revolt against the Central power.” In Ireland, religion would be a powerful ground of conflict, and a restored Parliament in Dublin would quickly move to re-establish the Catholic Church—“an effort which would probably give rise to civil war unless England interfered to thwart the wish of the Catholic party.” Home Rule would create a structure for the occurrence of “virulent disputes as to the political relations of the two islands,” and which could only end in “separation, or reconquest” (Bagehot).

44In the British Isles, evidence against the effectiveness of federal solutions was the non-emergence of any common cause between Welsh and Irish nationalists. Whatever their supposed affinities as “P” Celts and “Q” Celts, they sought little inspiration in each other’s example and seldom got on as individuals. This was the more remarkable since Church disestablishment and land reform, and sometimes “home rule,” featured prominently in the programmes of both Irish and Welsh Liberals during the nineteenth century. Before 1914, even Lloyd George spoke cautiously in Ireland about Home Rule (Κ. O. Morgan 84, 88).

45Seen retrospectively, through the lens of Woodrow Wilson’s political science, the existence of a Roman Catholic majority in Ireland and the populist nationalism associated with Daniel O’Connell seems to preclude in advance a unionism that could not be built on it. Yet this is to impose a later assumption on past experience, and neglects the substantial continuing strength of the idea of Protestant ascendancy (for an earlier period, Hill). The union, or unity, of Ireland, and the union of a unified or divided Ireland with Great Britain, rested on a number of preconditions. Wilsonite nationalism posited ethnic uniformity as a precondition, but in an earlier era other mechanisms were available to deal with the harsh realities of diversity.

46One of the intellectual premises on which the Union of 1801 had been built was the ideal of the state church (Brown). The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1868 was the culmination of the removal of Catholic legal disabilities that on the one hand created the potential for an effective Catholic populist presence at Westminster and on the other undermined the position of the Unionist population in Ireland. It continued a process begun at local level by populist resistance to tithe demands from the “Rightboy” disturbances of 1785 onwards. These disturbances provoked a definition of the “Protestant Ascendancy” as the Protestant landowning interest, which depended, argued Dr. Richard Woodward, Bishop of Cloyne, on the established status of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Ireland. In one way, Woodward’s attempted formulations of the problem failed, and from 1791-92 the British government adopted a policy of political rights for Irish Roman Catholics. This prompted the Protestant opposition in Ireland to reaffirm its commitment to the idea of a Protestant Ascendancy, and, on that basis, to fight a rearguard action the most important defeat for which was the end of the Protestant monopoly on municipal corporations in the 1840s (Hill 5-8, 17).

47The idea of union, originating in a dynastic age, may become merely an inconvenience in an age whose symbolism has profoundly changed. So it evidently was even for the senior politicians of Britain’s Conservative and Unionist Party, attempting to devise a settlement of the Irish problem after 1918: the key Cabinet committee’s report of November 1919, which signalled a decisive shift in policy and willingness to concede devolved government for the south of Ireland, made no reference to unionism, its history or tenets. Arthur Balfour’s restatement of the unionist case, in the form familiar and still powerful before 1914, was now ineffective (Fanning 111-17). In 1919, the British cabinet explained the grounds on which it framed its attempted settlement of the Irish problem, according to the Unionist Balfour, as “respecting the principle of self-determination and following the Peace Conference,” that is, Woodrow Wilson’s principles as enunciated at Versailles (Fanning 115-7).

48With disestablishment and land reform, the Anglo-Irish elite had been sidelined, or dispossessed, by 1914: paradoxically, this loss of one of Ireland’s three components was to make a federal union unworkable. The Roman Catholic South would henceforth accept federal devolution only as a route to independence; the Protestant Dissenting North would accept devolution for the South only as a means of entrenching union between the North and Great Britain.

49The self-referential character of US political science, and the drive to create a superstate by enthusiasts for the EU, have distracted attention from the very mixed track records of other federal unions in the last century. In India in the interwar period the Moslem League would only accept a highly decentralised federation with a weak central government; the (Hindu) Congress Party rejected any sort of federal structure and insisted on unified national government. A federal constitution was imposed by the Government of India Act (1935), but was subverted by the Congress Party’s refusal to participate. After 1945, Lord Mountbatten as viceroy found that both a unitary government and a federal government were impossible, and the Indian subcontinent received independence in 1947 on the basis of partition. So a nominally federal structure in the Indian subcontinent omitted the areas that federalism ought most helpfully to have included. Despite a common Islamic religion, Pakistan in turn then fractured: in the 1960s its East Wing demanded a loose federal structure, and, this failing, declared independence as Bangladesh in 1971.

50The British West Indian federation broke up in the 1960s in circumstances much more propitious to success. The federation of Malaysia and Singapore lasted only from 1963 to 1965. The Nigerian civil war of 1966 was caused by the attempt of one of its states to withdraw from the federation. British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika) was often on the verge of creating a federation, but never managed to do so; nascent co-operation collapsed after Idi Amin’s coup in Uganda in 1971. The Central African Federation (Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland; now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) had an even more fraught experience. Established in 1953 without consultation with the African populations of those territories for reasons of financial and administrative convenience, the federation encouraged African fears that its object was to consolidate white supremacy. The liberal hopes of Oliver Lyttelton, Colonial Secretary at the time, that the Federation would encourage racial cooperation were not fulfilled. Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia demanded secession, and this was provided for by the dissolution of the Federation in 1963 (Hicks). Southern Rhodesia then sought to preserve white supremacy by a unilateral declaration of independence, the long-term effects of which are still evident in the current situation in Zimbabwe.

51It may be said that federalism failed in Germany in 1933 to prevent the rise to power of a dictator. Yet the response of a victorious USA, invading, occupying and re-educating part of Germany after 1945, was to re-impose federalism, dividing West Germany into Lander, often not corresponding with the former component parts of the Wilhelmine empire. Perhaps the previous existence of a dynastic ideal, however, made this new, imposed sub-division acceptable to West German opinion (Umbach 5).

52Federalism can act as a solvent of nation states and composite monarchies alike, and to that degree its promotion can be deliberately destructive. Yet this rationale does not guarantee that federalism itself will provide a viable alternative polity. The federal sub-divisions that are instinctively appealed to are often ones identified by some prior dynastic unity. Thus Scotland, with a long record of unified kingship, is a clear candidate for devolved federal status as a single unit; Ireland by contrast historically lacked a strong domestic tradition of kingship, and the resulting social fragmentation has made the attempted imposition there of federal solutions into a fraught and inconclusive enterprise. To create a federal sub-division (like an English regional government) where there was no antecedent kingdom or principality in recent times is an exercise for which there is commonly little popular demand: it is, in general, the sort of project favoured by bureaucrats and intellectuals, especially those who have read The Federalist.

53This suggests that “federalism” was not (as the example of the USA might suggest) an idea wholly different from or antithetical to the dynastic idea: in nineteenth-and twentieth-century Europe, federalism generally stood on the shoulders of the dynastic inheritance. Some of the advocates of federalism have indeed sought to use it as an alternative to, indeed an antidote to, the ethnic nationalism of the nation state: a modern, secular, rational alternative, shown to be viable by the Constitution of the USA.

54There are, however, at least three major difficulties with this approach. First, the US Constitution of 1787 was not what it seemed to be, and not what present-day European localising federalists would have it to be. Second, European federalism is not a new, free-standing device, but is deeply indebted to its dynastic antecedents. Third, the combination of these two difficulties results in another: contemporary European federalism tends to create polities that are more centralised, and less accountable, than even the USA or Europe’s early-modem monarchies.

55Dynastic union, in other words, was more important, and more lastingly important, than it now appears. During the nineteenth century, the ideals of the composite monarchy and the multiple kingdom were rivalled by another ideal, that of the nation state. Its intellectual premises, in ideas of ethnic difference, are familiar; but even after these ethnological or social-anthropological ideas were rejected, the idea of cultural or linguistic unity could be persuasive, especially in an era of expanding democracy. The idea of the nation state has therefore been adopted as the conventional description, and often the normal self-image, of states whose origins were demonstrably dynastic. Adopting these new nationalist labels did have some effect in changing people’s understandings of the nature of what was described, but not all prophecies are completely self-fulfilling. After 1787 the internal dynamics of such states as Austria-Hungary, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany still had much to do with their diverse dynastic origins.

56Modern political science, however, generally claimed that the United States had invented the only form of union that worked in the modern world: federal union. Yet academic enquiries are often conducted on the basis of assumptions that, if granted, make the conclusion follow. In retrospect, we can identify one major premise of the political science that praised US federalism: the fictional unity of the people or nation, the alleged consensus established by that unitary sovereign, “we the people.” Yet Britain, too, often displayed consensual unity: the Blackstonian doctrine of unitary sovereignty, and the patriotic unity demanded by empire and by two world wars, meant that the essential unity of the British state was long taken for granted. England stood proxy for Scotland, Ireland and Wales; and even within England, political movements like Jacobitism that pointed to a quite different future were subtly denigrated. In other words, federalism was not unique, and did not identify the only viable formula for a large and democratic state.

57Political scientists assumed the opposite for another reason. They provided outline histories of the growth of federalism in Europe since the sixteenth century in which federalism was presented as an alternative to, and implicitly a critique of, what was conventionally termed the “nation state”: the absolute monarchies that were held to be the driving force behind the rise of the state from the late sixteenth century, built on the new and potent popular sentiment termed nationalism (e.g. Elazar, Exploring Federalism 128-35). The clear implication was that federal union was inherently libertarian, unitary sovereignty was inherently authoritarian. On the basis of that assumption, political theorists were retrospectively organised into teams to support the two “sides,” so defined: Bodin, Hobbes and Filmer for “authoritarianism,” Althusius, Sidney, Locke and Montesquieu for the “liberal” alternative.

58It is remarkable how much this picture has changed among historians in the last three decades, and equally remarkable how few political scientists have appreciated the significance of this reinterpretation. Historians no longer see the sixteenth century as the site of “the rise of the modern state,” and they do not see its group identity as “nationalism.” The strengthening state forms of the sixteenth century onward are understood not as nation states but as dynastic states, and these very often contained within themselves a complex structure, now identified as the “composite kingdom” or the “multiple monarchy.” Absolutism is now analyzed as one of the “fictions” that all governments employ, not necessarily more or less authoritarian than the fictions of the “totalitarian democracies” that succeeded. Nationalism is now identified as a new ideology concerning group identity, arising in the early nineteenth century. Finally, the idea of the two “teams” of political theorists has disintegrated: the most famous of those theorists now appear as extremists, at the edges of that ideological spectrum the middle ground of which was occupied by multiple monarchies and composite kingdoms with “ancient constitutions” that described and defended the liberties of their component parts.

59It was an historian of continental Europe, H. G. Koenigsberger, who pointed out in his inaugural lecture of 1975 that “[m]ost states in the early modern period were composite states, including more than one country under the sovereignty of one ruler” (Koenigsberger, “Dominium Regale” 12). His interests were specifically in the dealings of such monarchs with the representative institutions throughout their dominions, but this insight was taken up and applied more widely as a clue to the inner dynamics of such states. Conrad Russell in turn adopted the idea of “multiple kingdoms” to explain the nature of the conflicts within the British Isles in the 1640s and 50s in terms other than the English-centred, Whiggish ones that had been premised on the unquestioned unity of the state (Russell “The British Problem”; Causes of the English Civil War 27).

60As John Elliott observed in 1992, it had become a platitude of historical writing that the history of Europe since the Middle Ages was the story of the preordained rise of the sovereign state and the failure of Europe-wide attempts at trans-national union. This orthodoxy acknowledged that nation states did not emerge fully formed; on the contrary, the “process” by which they defined their borders, built up centralised administrations and evoked popular allegiances was recognised to be “slow, and often tortuous.” The same orthodoxy claimed that a process could nevertheless be clearly discerned whose end point, in 1919, was the affirmation of a “principle of nationality.” Polities that did not embody it were merely anomalies (Elliott 48-49). If this was the historical orthodoxy, indeed a view reflecting popular perceptions and commitments, it seemed obvious, after Europe’s wars of 1914-45, for architects of reconciliation to run this story in reverse, and to pursue an ideal that was understood as contrary to that of the nation state so conceived: federal union, borrowed above all from its most prominent example, the USA.

61The problem with this picture was that the rise of “the state” in Europe from c. 1300 at least until the French Revolution, and in some cases into the 1870s, was not the rise of the nation state but the rise of the dynastic state.

62The first phase of the historical reconsideration that followed was to accept that the “nation state” as ordinarily understood did indeed eventually arrive, but to argue that it was preceded by other forms of political organisation that were only later made to appear anachronistic. The next phase, however, was to argue that if the dynastic state was as effective as it was, for as long as it was, then the nature of the nation state itself needs to be reconsidered. No longer can the nation state be assumed alone to give expression to a homogeneous populist consciousness, the sovereignty of “we the people”; what the historian records are merely the claims of certain individuals that certain polities receive justification from that mythical source (E. S. Morgan). Dynastic states and national states, in other words, are not naturally-occurring phenomena, distinguished by their essential natures, but fictions of government, grand explanatory schemes intended to legitimise different polities and to validate certain of their actions.

63All European polities, we might say, are unions: only in some cases the union was so long ago and so successfully inclusive as to have been forgotten. Some of these unions were large, others small. The Roman invaders of England in the first century AD found a patchwork of monarchies each often smaller than a present-day county. Each of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy was itself assembled from smaller parts. Over time, some unions grew, and incorporated other components; others shrank, and divested themselves of territory. Over time, some unions came prevalently to be described as unitary; others as federal; others, again, as unacceptable impositions on a “people” that was alleged to demand self-determination.

64Two types of dynastic union were clarified by scholarship on these themes, commented on by seventeenth-century observers like Juan de Solorzano Pereira and Francis Bacon: the full or incorporating union, like that of England and Wales in 1536 and 1543, creating what might be termed a composite kingdom; and the sort of union that left intact the laws, institutions and customs of the different polities, creating what might be called a multiple monarchy like the union of England and Scotland from 1603 to 1707, one monarch reigning simultaneously over more than one kingdom and constituting their principle of unity.

65In the first case the key variables would be the degree to which the new territorial accession would be profitably and successfully absorbed: how far law and trade could be extended to the new territory, how far provincials could make careers at the centre. In the second case, historians would seek to know how far the laws, customs and religion of the new accession were respected by the dominant power; how far provincial representative institutions found new roles in the new union, how far the tax burden was perceived as equitably distributed.

66Multiple monarchies found one way of responding to the problem of diversity and disorder, but might require an element of coercion to become effective. In the case of Wales, this coercion was already long in the past by the time of the incorporating union of 1536, and that union therefore proved comparatively successful. Composite kingdoms found another, less intrusive, way of responding to the same problem, but the degree of autonomy granted to the component kingdoms could allow local sensitivities and grievances to develop and provided a structure helpful for local revolts: so it was in Scotland and Ireland into the eighteenth century.

67In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, composite dynastic unions were at risk from dynastic discontinuity, and this was a potent source of internal conflict, sometimes drawing in outsiders. But behind this lay another even more potent source of conflict: religious difference. Similarly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the internal operations of politics remained a source of conflict, although monarchies played a much less prominent part as their symbolic embodiments. Behind this, in turn, lay another yet more potent source of conflict: ethnic nationalism. This principle was sanctioned by Woodrow Wilson’s role in 1919, and continued to be potent thereafter: as interpreted by US diplomacy, the principle was invariably hostile to composite states that did not appeal as an intellectual premise to the fictions of popular sovereignty.

68The chief problem of a multiple monarchy, a union of kingdoms or principalities each seeking to preserve its own ways of life, was that the component parts of the polity were never equal. Outlying provinces were normally assembled around a dominant heartland: Castile in the Spanish peninsula, England in the British Isles. If the economic interests of the heartland came to take precedence, so too the heartland’s sense of identity came to stand proxy for the identities of the multiple monarchy as a whole. In an age of overseas expansion, it was normally the heartland that took the lead, and this sometimes influenced understandings of the relations of centre and periphery at home in the direction of a colonial relationship. It is conventional today to identify this process as a source of weakness, as sometimes it was; but in general it operated to strengthen the polity, and to produce a greater unity than the diversity of the component parts would otherwise allow.

69Despite these problems, monarchs had personal reasons for pursuing unions: the union of Castile and Portugal in 1580, of England and Scotland in 1603, of France and Béarn in 1620. Such unions were normally achieved on the principle of the multiple monarchy, but the second generation of statesmen and administrators involved in such projects often adopted administratively more uniform policies, pursuing efficient, unified, centralised government through evoking enhanced ideas of royal prerogative. Especially did this involve the pursuit of a greater degree of religious uniformity, again both an administrative convenience and a high ideal, as well as the most appropriate defence against the main source of political and military resistance. The revolts of Portugal against the government of Philip IV, and of Scotland against that of Charles I, could be interpreted either as proof of the need for a stronger central authority, or as proof of the unwisdom of attempting to impose such a unified rule.

70The revolt of Bohemia in 1618 was settled militarily, by the Austrian imposition of centralised rule. Following the “Bishops’ Wars” that broke out in 1638, Scotland was successful only in the short term in resisting English domination, and the resulting Cromwellian union (1654) was far more centralising than the situation under Charles I; even if a degree of autonomy was restored in 1660, this was withdrawn in 1707 when Scotland threatened to use it to vary the succession. Thereafter the Anglo-Scots union survived despite repeated Jacobite conspiracies and armed rebellions not least because a substantial section of Scots society saw Scots interests as best advanced by union with Hanoverian England, and threatened by the dissolution of union that a Stuart alternative promised. Even after 1707, therefore, the Union was prominently dynastic.

71Despite their later reputation, composite monarchies were the normal mode of European state-building, and often provided the framework within which law and representative institutions developed:

It is striking that over the period between the dissolution of the Union of Kalmar in 1523 and the establishment of the Anglo-Scots union of 1707, there were only three successful secessions from a composite monarchy—those of the northern provinces of the Netherlands from Spain in the 1570s; that of Sweden from Poland, with the renunciation of allegiance to Sigismund II in 1599; and that of Portugal from Spain in 1640. (Elliott 68)

72Why did composite monarchies work so well? John Elliott has reviewed some of the possible causes: the contiguity of their possessions; their pre-existing commonalities of culture; the potential effectiveness of composite monarchies as a way of guaranteeing the liberties and customs of provinces, indeed providing for a degree of provincial self-government; the opportunities they opened up to provincial elites; the military value of being able to call on some kingdoms to coerce their neighbours (Elliott 68-69). We might add others: the plausibility and strength of monarchical authority as a symbol of national unity and as a guarantor of allegiance to the polity; the ineffectiveness of republican institutions in these roles; and the close identification of Christianity with monarchy rather than with republics.

73It was the seventeenth century, above ail, in which the medieval drive to unify dynastic empires bore fruit. Yet it was also the era that, above all, saw localist resistance to centralisation so conceived. In Britain, James I and Charles I sought to unify England and Scotland partly by creating a common nationality, partly by imposing a common religion (Patterson). In the Iberian peninsula, Olivares strove to unify Spain and Portugal, Spain itself being a problematic assemblage of ancient territories. The older historical picture was that in Spain it was the monarchy that united the kingdom, in England the Parliament (Trevor-Roper 445). Parliament was, of course, a centrally important player. Yet we can now see how the old idolatry of Parliament has weakened since Trevor-Roper propounded that theory.

74Some form of union between England and Scotland and Ireland was a strategic necessity: this necessity, recognised by Elizabeth and her advisers, was made inescapable again in the fighting of the 1640s and 50s. But the Cromwellian and parliamentary attempt at union failed. Trevor-Roper wrote that this imposition of English rule “created Irish and Scottish nationalism” and “destroyed the prospect, which had seemed so near in 1604, of religious uniformity in the two kingdoms” (Trevor-Roper 464). But both these arguments may be doubted: we now know (e. g. Davies; Ellis and Barber; Bradshaw and Morrill; Bradshaw and Roberts; Claydon and McBride) of the much older roots of identity in the “Celtic” countries, and we know more of the religious conflicts and diversities that a superficially shared Calvinism concealed. Trevor-Roper argued that the programme of Cromwell’s agent, Lord Broghill, for a union built around “a lax, Erastian Presbyterianism” in the three countries was feasible, and frustrated only by the selfinterest of the army (Trevor-Roper 465). But it is now evident that this reflected the historian’s preferences rather than his subjects’.

75In this older historical model, the enemy was portrayed as royal absolutism. James I outlined its aims, planning to use the subordinate kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland as indestructible foundations of a massive monarchy, but was tactful and hesitant about carrying out these threats; Charles I was the tactless and impatient executor of these promises, convincing “the nobility and gentry of all three kingdoms” that “a union of parliamentary opposition” was necessary against the monarch (Trevor-Roper 454-56). But this older view, in turn, may be doubted: resistance in Scotland and Ireland was not built around those countries’ parliaments. The dynasty still offered a viable form of union. Trevor-Roper’s account also subtly downplayed the significance of the sacred: religion’s role in the 1640s was only that “nationalist feeling had been aroused and consecrated by religious forms” (Trevor-Roper 458). Yet it is now conventional to see nationalism as a nineteenth-century formation, so allowing us to discern the much larger role that religion took in the formation of earlier modes of consciousness.

76And yet, although multiple kingdoms and composite monarchies often worked, their later reputation was quite different. They were held to be anachronistic survivals into a modern world, to contradict the principle of self-determination of sovereign peoples, to be anti-democratic, to be expressive of the dominance of one ethnic group over others, to be inherently weak and cumbersome. How did this reputation arise? Two key episodes were especially formative: the framing and misrepresentation of the US Constitution of 1787, and the triumph of Woodrow Wilson’s political science at the Paris peace conference of 1919 (Thorsen; Burton; Heater).

77The salience of dynastic monarchy in Europe therefore raises the question of the nature of the American Revolution itself. As H. G. Koenigsberger further urged, this was not a unique event, since the relations between Britain and its North American colonies were analogous to the relations between the central state and its dependencies in European composite monarchies. This fertile hypothesis calls for careful consideration.

78The American Revolution reveals the limitations of historical explanations dependent upon the categories of political science. The restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the deposition of James II in 1685 were widely described as restorations of the ancient constitution; James II’s plan for the reorganisation of the colonies into the Dominion of New England, ruled by a royal governor without an assembly, was analogous with Philip II’s rule in the Spanish Netherlands, but 1688 “led to the end of the only attempt to impose dominium regale in English-speaking America” (Koenigsberger, “Composite States” 148). The Hanoverian accession in 1714 was hailed as that constitution’s guarantor. The predominant British and colonial American descriptions of their shared constitution saw it as (in Koenigsberger’s terms) a dominium politicum et regale. Nevertheless, the rebels of 1776 insisted on describing it as a dominium regale: the Declaration of Independence focused on the person of George III and ignored Parliament.

79What provided the intellectual catalyst for armed resistance in the Thirteen Colonies and frequently in continental Europe also, argued Koenigsberger, was the breakdown of old ideas of mixed government, dominium politicum et regale, in which monarch and parliament both held real power, and its replacement by a Bodinian system of unified, absolute authority, whether royal absolutism or parliamentary government. Blackstone’s theory of unlimited, irresistible sovereignty was new; this Blackstonian sovereign in Britain now confronted an older regime, dominium politicum et regale, in the American colonies and in Ireland (“Composite States” 149-50).

80This conclusion invites reconsideration. It has been easy for those who wished to praise the English form of government, from the time of Montesquieu onwards, to idealise it and to describe it in excessively libertarian terms, whether of checks and balances or of divided sovereignty (e.g. Koenigsberger, “Composite States” 135-36). But the idea that sovereignty could be divided, either between England, Scotland and Ireland, or between executive, legislative and judiciary, was unknown to English jurisprudence: debates on these matters turned rather on the composition of a unitary, absolute sovereign, whether the Crown alone, the Crown-in-Parliament, or Parliament alone.

81Blackstonian ideas of sovereignty were not wholly new; they were only newly expressed, and in an Anglican context. The American Revolution has to be explained not as a clash between different forms of government, libertarian and authoritarian, but between different perceptions of what the actually-existing government was. The way in which perceptions changed in the Thirteen Colonies has much to do with older patterns of thought rather than with the emergence of decisively “modern” ones (whatever we might mean by that): that is, the older religious debates about the ultimate location of authority in the church and therefore, by necessity, in the state. American rebels in 1776 were primarily asserting self-evident religious truths; only secondarily were they defending mixed government as a means to that end, and the mixed and divided sovereignty that the Articles of Confederation sought to implement was soon superseded by the alternative goal of unitary sovereignty in the Constitution of 1787.

82Koenigsberger concluded that the US Constitution of 1787 solved the problem that had produced the Revolution in the first place by “a clear rejection of Bodinian parliamentary sovereignty and of parliamentary government in the British sense in favour of the division of the three powers of executive, legislative and judiciary. It was a modernised and, as it has turned out, a very effective version of dominium politicum et regale” (“Composite States” 153). Yet, as we have seen, this account rests on a misunderstanding of the constitution that ultimately derives from a misreading of The Federalist. Put simply, the divided sovereignty of the Articles of Confederation was reunited in the constitution of 1787 (Clark, Language of Liberty 125-40).

83Without the catastrophe of the First World War, the intellectual setting in which we would today be discussing the question of union would be quite different. We would not take the political science of Woodrow Wilson as normative, and, standing behind him, we would see The Federalist as a propaganda exercise speaking mainly to the American case. We would instead take composite monarchies as our norm, often including within them state churches, seeking to deal with the problems of religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity but doing so in a dynastic context. Discussions of federalism might cite as examples the degree of autonomy exercised by the kingdoms comprising the German Empire, or the experiment, unhappy as it would probably have proved, of “Home Rule” (that is, devolved federal government) for Ireland. But for the unrelated catastrophe of war in 1914 that has distorted understandings of so many phenomena, historians might have been allowed to compare the records of different forms of union without the presumption that some forms were predestined to success, others to failure.



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University of Kansas at Lawrence
Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. He was formerly a Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought of the University of Chicago, and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written several books on Britain and America in the long eighteenth century, the best known being The Language of Liberty 1660-1832 (1994) and English Society 1660-1832 (2000). He is currently engaged on a study of early modern schemes of explanation that will focus on ideas of providence

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