Revisiting States’ Rights Controversy at the Wrong Time, with Altered History

Washington Times, October 15, 2000; reprinted in Democracy and the Constitution: Landmarks of Contemporary Political Thought (AEI Press, 2006).


Forrest McDonald is a reputable scholar. Early-American historians especially are indebted to him, not only f or his important study of the formation of the republic, and his celebrated biography of Alexander Hamilton, but because, in “We The People,” he convincingly discredited Charles Beard’s quasi-Marxist interpretation of the Constitution and, by so doing, removed the shadow Mr. Beard had cast over the reputations of its Framers. Thanks largely to Mr. McDonald, we now know what we always believed, that the Constitution is not the product of selfish men wanting to feather their own nests.

But the present volume is something else again; indeed, one might well ask why he bothered to write it. Mr. McDonald says it is the first “book-length study” of the states’ rights controversy. True enough; yet he knows very well–in effect he says–that anyone familiar with the history of the United States during its first 100 years will find nothing new in this book. But how many are they?

For the others (and we may have reached the point where this means almost everybody), the book provides an instructive account of this controversy, of the disagreements concerning the nature of the Union and the line to be drawn between the authority of the general government and that of the several states. Mr. McDonald says the country was preoccupied with this issue, or with the “tensions” arising out of it, beginning in the days of Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and continuing through the better part of the 19th century. Indeed, as he would have it, “the tensions continued to be felt as the twentieth century came to an end.”

American Enterprise Institute