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States' Rights and the Union

Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876

Forrest McDonald

New in Paperback: November 2002
viii, 296 pages, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1227-7, $16.95 (t)


Book Cover ImageForrest 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.

“A bold, independent thinker, McDonald provides an indispensable history, replete with wise assessments, that may serve as a starting point for those who wish to form sound judgments on an intractable issue that has been central to American political experience.” —Eugene D. Genovese in Atlantic Monthly

“A book on states’ rights should include power struggles, authority issues, and great debates, and this book does not disappoint. . . . Presented with clarity and honesty.”—Southern Historian

“A masterful book by one of America’s premier historians.”—North Carolina Historical Review

“A trenchant exploration of the issues and events defining the tension between national authority and the doctrine of states’ rights. . . . Thoughtful and compelling.”—Choice

"One could ask for no better introduction into this important and often complicated history than Forrest McDonald's States' Rights and the Union. McDonald has produced an introductory survey of the subject, more for first readers than for experts in the field. His sources are less the original documents than the interpretations of earlier historians. The power of his narrative is such that even those intimately familiar with the history of American federalism will find States' Rights and the Union to be worth their time. McDonald is a superb storyteller who brings history to life. From the famous debates between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to the movement towards secession in the early nineteenth century by disgruntled New Englanders to Civil War and Reconstruction McDonald's account is magnetic"--Times Literary Supplement

"Vintage McDonald. A provocative book written with force, verve, and distinction."--Herman J. Belz, author of The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development

FORREST McDONALD is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama and author of sixteen books, including Pulitzer Prize finalist Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution; The American Presidency; The Presidency of George Washington; and The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. He was named by the NEH as the sixteenth Jefferson Lecturer, the nation's highest honor in the humanities.


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