Review: Chaining Down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government, 1776–1865
How is it that America became a “strong but limited” government, and the world’s richest and most free country? That is the central question both considered and answered by Luigi Marco Bassani in his new work, Chaining Down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government, 1776–1865. As an eminent scholar, Bassani has long studied the antebellum area, Amercia’s struggle between national vs. local power, and the Jeffersonian tradition that colored the era. By combining all of these subjects into a single work, he endeavors to clarify the dynamics of political power in the early republic.
As it turns out, the federal, decentralized framework that underscored the American political structure was its most distinct characteristic—a feature that is often ignored or downplayed by contemporaries. “The golden age of federalism and federal liberty,” as Bassani puts it, resulted only from the multitude of self-governing societies that composed the federal union, all of which had a plausible claim to challenge the impositions of the federal government. Every command of the central authority, he writes, “was subject to be opposed and contained in a web of competing counterclaims.”
From the outset, Bassani promises to give the reader a very different interpretation of the antebellum period than they have likely been exposed to, and in this aim he succeeds. Rather than take all the claims of the Federalist advocates of the Constitution at face value, the author makes sure to give greater credit to those that opposed the framework. “The true defenders of the federal system were those who opposed the draft constitution, and they are fully entitled to be on equal footing in the history of American political thought,” he declares. By this assertion, Bassani sets his work apart from virtually all others from the outset.
In the tradition of Montesquieu, the Antifederalists were political realists that doubted a joint republic could long survive over such a vast territory as North America. By extension, they feared a strong executive, national court system, centralized law enforcement apparatus, and uniform system of taxation would soon grow to oppress the fledgling states. While they championed republican-oriented representation systems, they doubted that Congress would ever be truly representative enough—and even made at
Article from Mises Wire