RECAP: “A Union, Not a Nation-State: The Constitution as a Federal Treaty,” Colloquium w/ King’s College London’s Max Edling

Providing a sneak peek of his forthcoming Oxford University Press monograph, Perfecting the Union: National and State Authority in the U.S. Constitution, King’s College London Reader in Early American History Max Edling began his October 9 talk at the Kinder Institute, delivered via Zoom from Sweden, by describing how his ambition for the book is that it might underscore not only the ways in which the Constitution was seen to matter in early America (as well as the ways in which it is seen to matter now) but also how its role might be somewhat overstated by modern historians. In particular, his talk brought a unionist scholar’s approach to examining the “blurred line” that existed at the time of the republic’s founding regarding where state powers ended, where national powers began, and vice versa. Unionist scholars, he showed, perceive the U.S. Constitution as a document that serves as an agreement between sovereign states and not as the fundamental law of the nation-state. In this context, the Constitution solidified, as well as institutionalized, the United States as a formal government which, perhaps supreme among other things, could forge international relationships with greater ease. Running counter to this unionist interpretation, he continued, is the far more historically acclaimed (and practiced) progressive interpretation, which understands the U.S. Constitution in terms of its function as a document that redistributes properties and status for the nation’s citizenry.

In further drawing out his own approach, one aspect which Dr. Edling highlighted was the meaning of “internal police,” a phrase that came up repeatedly in his research on the 1787 Constitutional Convention and subsequent state ratifying conventions. “Internal Police,” he noted, carries little meaning in contemporary political discussions, and he found no works from the time that clearly laid out what exactly it refers to. Thus having to rely heavily on the historical context in which the term was used to clarify national versus state power, Dr. Edling worked from there to try to identify whether internal police powers were principled restraints or practical limitations on authority, a distinction that would end up playing a key role in shaping the overall narrative of his new book.

As for his methodology for unpacking both the meaning and significance of “internal police,” Dr. Edling explained how he researched over 400 laws passed by Congress from 1789-1797 and then compared them to the legislation of several states during this same time period to determine both the themes therein and what these themes said about the broader focus and domain of each legislative body. What he found was that many of the national laws were international in what they addressed, while the state-level legislation’s focus was almost entirely on domestic issues, a division of interest that supports the unionist reading of the perceived role of the U.S. Constitution at the time of the founding as well as how that role should continue to shape our thinking about the framing document in the present.

A video recording of the full talk can be found here.