Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Book Review: A Revolution in Favor of Government

Another week of seminar reading, another recent book about which I can write up a review that might be of some interest. This time it's Max Edling's 2003 A Revolution in Favor of Government, a flawed but still valuable re-interpretation of the origins of the Constitution. Edling, a Swede who's currently teaching at the University of Uppsala, expanded his two doctoral theses into this book, which claims that the debate between federalist and anti-federalists over the Constitution was really about the concept of state-building.

The federalists, Edling argues, saw the need to create a powerful national government which controlled the ability to set fiscal and military policy, a la the European states of the day. In America, however, the people would only accept such a state if it could function, in Edling's words, in a "light and inconspicuous" manner - that is, if the government wasn't visible in the everyday lives of the citizens, didn't make them pay too many obvious taxes, etc. The anti-federalists, while agreeing for the most part that the national government should have those functions (after living through the Confederation, who wouldn't?), disagreed on what limits should be placed on the national government's ability to make war and raise money.

Edling's research suggests that anti-federalist sentiment stems largely from the "English opposition" tradition (the roots of which are documented well in Bernard Bailyn's cornerstone work The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). Deep suspicion of government and fear of anything that could be perceived as an encroachment on personal liberty were the hallmarks of this line of thinking, which is extended by Edling into the anti-federalist rhetoric during the debate over ratification of the Constitution and beyond. He fails to address the obvious tension for those who utilized the rhetoric during the run-up to Revolution and then pushed for the Constitution - (a good jumping-off point for future study, if anyone's if need of a dissertation idea).

I have a few issues with the arguments Edling puts forward, mainly for the questions they leave unanswered than anything else. He seems at various points but particularly in the final chapters to conflate anti-federalism with Democratic-Republicanism as it arose in the 1790s; this is really a difficult case to make, given the participation of so many one-time federalists (Madison being the preeminent one) on the Jeffersonian side of the first party debate. I worry that Edling has equated small-f federalism (the ideology) with large-F Federalism (the political party); his failure to differentiate the terms is troublesome.

As a prior reviewer (the eminent historian Lance Banning of the University of Kentucky) has written, "This is not an easy work to read. It is repetitive and graceless, decidedly monographic, and heavy handed in the stating of its case. And yet, despite a number of mistakes with scholars’ names or titles, the scholarship is deeply impressive and the argument is an important contribution. It will certainly repay the efforts of every scholar in the field." This text is a historian's history, full of references to the prior work of such-and-who, and totally lacking in narrative structure or style. It's not difficult to tell it stemmed from a doctoral thesis, and Edling does repeat himself ad nauseum (if you don't get his point after reading the book ... or even the first five pages ... you haven't been paying attention).

For its stylistic and structural flaws, the argument is interesting and different. Edling's book is a significant one, however imperfect.


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