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Published for EH.NET (May 2005)

Max M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State. Oxford: Oxford University, 2003. xii + 333 pp. $39.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-514870-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert A. McGuire, Department of Economics, University of Akron.

In this account of America’s founding period, Max Edling, Research Fellow and University Lecturer at Uppsala University, interestingly reveals that his book began as, not one, but two dissertations, the first one in history at Cambridge University and the second, “a revised and expanded version,” in political science at Stockholm University. As a result, it should not be surprising that this book presents a historical and political story about the Constitution and the emergence of the American nation-state. The approach of the book is traditional historical narrative. The thesis of the book is straightforward. According to Edling, the framing of the Constitution was first and foremost about state building. The Federalists wanted to design an American state in the image of the European “fiscal-military” powers of the day; they wanted a central government that would have unlimited fiscal and military powers. But, because of strong anti-statist views of the American people, a general distrust of concentrated central authority, the Federalists did not want their new state to be so intrusive that it might be rejected by the people. So to conciliate these anti-statist sentiments, the Federalists designed the Constitution with the fiscal and military powers they desired but reserved to the states most other government powers; they designed our “federal” system of government.

According to Edling, the Federalists’ concern was not so much with present events as with the future. Consequently, the Federalists designed the Constitution so there were no constraints on the ability of the central governments — the United States — to use its military power and its fiscal powers, its taxing and borrowing authority. They designed a political system with a strong nationally-oriented central government that could act in the nation’s interests both fiscally and militarily in the future without having to depend on the permission of state governments or state resources and with state governments that could act in most other circumstances in their citizens’ interests. To survive in a world with the major European powers after the Revolutionary War, the United States had to have the ability to act militarily if needed and this required the ability to finance any military defenses or ventures. According to Edling, the government’s ability to borrow, whether domestically or abroad, was critical to its ability to act militarily, especially in times of crisis. And the unconstrained ability to extract resources (taxes) from its citizens was crucial for a government to borrow successfully, as taxing powers provided credibility; they provided the means for servicing debt and for repayment.

Edling claims that this is a new story of America’s founding and the Constitution. The traditional view of the Constitution is that it was designed to limit government and protect the rights and liberties of the American people. This traditional view is essentially the story of “Madisonian federalism,” which is reputed to be James Madison’s political thinking at the time of the framing and which considers Madison the “Father of the Constitution.” Edling maintains, however, there is an alternative view of the origins of the Constitution. That view is that the Federalists were much more oriented toward building a centralized state; they were interested in designing a nationalist-oriented central government. They wanted a strong central government in terms of its military powers and its ability to extract resources from the people, its fiscal powers. The leading eighteenth-century proponent of this view was Alexander Hamilton. Yet Edling hesitates to refer to this view as “Hamiltonian federalism,” because, as he argues, there were many other Federalist framers of the Constitution and many Federalists involved in the ratification process that adhered to this view. To Edling, the framing of the Constitution was not primarily about limiting government, protecting the rights and liberties of the people, or the economy, it was ultimately about state building.

To tell his story and support his view of what the Federalists wanted, Edling relies upon a vast amount of documentary evidence from the state ratification debates. His evidence is drawn from the rhetoric of the Federalists and Antifederalists during the ratification campaign, with emphasis on the former. Edling also takes a comparative approach, drawing additional evidence for his story from the political thinking at the time in England and Europe and from how Britain and other European powers designed their “fiscal-military” states during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It is argued that state building was the dominant theme during the ratification debates and claimed that the debates overall were dominated by discussions of the new government’s power to raise and maintain armies, its relationship with the militia, and its ability to tax and borrow. The Federalists regularly argued that strong fiscal powers were necessary for the new central government to provide a strong military which was necessary to survive as an independent nation. But the new government would not impose oppressive taxes because that would not be in its self interest, as less not more revenue would be collected with oppressive taxes, the Federalists argued. Among their arguments was that the new government would rely on “external” and indirect taxes, such as duties and excises, which they maintained were the “easiest” taxes for the American people, rather than “internal” and direct taxes, such as land and poll taxes, which directly burdened the people. On the military side, Antifederalists argued that the Federalist vision of the state designed into the Constitution would lead to a large army, which would be used to support unlawful and unpopular policies, and the militia would either be disarmed or participation in it made unattractive. The Federalists countered with arguments for the necessity of strong military powers but not a large standing army and a military that would be maintained far from the citizens’ lives with little or no impact upon the people. To quote the title of chapter 13, the Federalists promised the American people “A Government for Free” (p. 191).

One reservation I have about this book is that, although Edling is generally careful in not making the Federalists’ arguments his arguments, at times the book still appears to take the arguments of the Federalists too uncritically, especially when it comes to their arguments claiming the new central government would be self-restrained in extracting resources from the American people, that it would rely on specific types of taxes, and the Federalists’ explanation of various tax burdens (see, in particular, chapters 13 and 14). Another reservation about the book is that certain aspects of Edling’s alternative view of the origins of the Constitution are not as new as he makes them out to be. In particular, the view that many Federalists were more “nationalist” than “federalist” oriented is actually well known and the view that many Federalists were less interested in limiting government than previously thought is not that new either. Both views, for example, have been emphasized in my own research on the Constitution for nearly two decades — and in no way are they original to my work. Some less important reservations follow. When it comes to discussing an economic interpretation of the origins of the Constitution, the book is dated. Moreover, Edling’s view that the Constitution, and Federalist thought in particular, had little to do with the economy is somewhat oddly presented. Edling’s view is that the economy did not matter because, he maintains, the Federalist framers were not out to design an economic document that primarily promoted the economy, otherwise they would have argued differently during the ratification campaign. However, economic interests did generally play an important role in the Constitution’s design, as, again, my own research on the Constitution indicates. Finally, Edling’s view toward the fiscal matters in the Constitution, which he claims do not support an economic view of the Constitution, does not in any important way conflict with an economic interpretation of specific fiscal provisions placed in the Constitution.

These reservations notwithstanding, I learned much from reading A Revolution in Favor of Government. It is definitely a book well worth reading for all who are interested in the Constitution and the American founding, as well as anyone interested in state building more generally.

Robert McGuire is Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles and Professor of Economics at the University of Akron. His recent book on the Constitution is To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2003). His research has two distinct strands; one in legal and political economic history and the other in demographic and health economic history. He is currently involved with a group of economic historians in completing a book titled, Government and the American Economy from Colonial Times to the Present. He also is currently examining the political economy of one of the great North-South constitutional agreements involving tariffs, slavery, and congressional voting rules in the U.S. Constitution and investigating the role of parasitic diseases in American economic development and history.