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The Age of Strict Construction

The Age of Strict Construction: a history of the growth of federal power, 1789-1861

Peter Zavodnyik
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  • Book Info
    The Age of Strict Construction
    Book Description:

    The Age of Strict Construction explores the growth of the federal government's power and influence between 1789 and 1861, and the varying reactions of Americans to that growth.

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-1706-2
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The phrase strict construction has been defined as the “narrow construction of a statute, confining its operation to matters … specifically pointed out by its terms, and to cases which fell fairly within its letter.”¹ In the context of the Constitution, strict construction provides that the powers of the federal government listed in Article I should be “narrowly construed.”² The vagueness of the charter’s terms made a narrow reading of them difficult.³ What was included in the power to regulate commerce among the states? What was not? Strict constructionists, eager to ensure that federal authority remain within the lines marked...

  2. CHAPTER 1 Ratification, 1787–1788
    (pp. 7-35)

    A survey of American Federalism must begin by answering a difficult question: when did federative government arrive in America? Its formal introduction occurred in 1774, when the first Continental Congress took control of foreign affairs while leaving other areas of governmental activity to the colonial assemblies. As a practical matter, federative government had been a fact of life in the American corner of the British Empire from the time the first settlers arrived in 1607.¹ Webster’s defines an empire as a “state uniting many territories and peoples under a single sovereign power.” A federation, on the other hand, comprises “a...

  3. CHAPTER 2 The Federalists, 1789–1801
    (pp. 36-79)

    With New York’s ratification of the Constitution, the country moved into an uneasy phase during which one government lapsed while another came to life. Many Americans continued to fear that the nation was too large and diverse to be ruled by a single entity. Fearful that the new government would exercise too much power, Virginia called for another constitutional convention, as did New York—the latter in February 1789, less than a month before the new regime came into existence. Fear of federal power proved so great that almost as soon as the first Congress met, legislators offered amendments designed...

  4. CHAPTER 3 The Republicans, 1801–1829
    (pp. 80-144)

    Although John Adams almost won the presidential contest, Federalists sustained a drubbing in the 1800–1801 congressional elections. Republicans took over the Senate (18-14) and won almost two-thirds of the seats in the House (66-40). They did not take long to exploit their advantage. At Jefferson’s urging, the seventh Congress abolished most internal taxes, including the excise on whiskey, soon after it met in December 1801. The Alien Act was repealed. The Sedition Act had expired the previous spring; the new president pardoned those who had been convicted under it. When Federalist judges sought the indictments of critical newspaper editors—...

  5. CHAPTER 4 The Market Republic, 1829–1850
    (pp. 145-246)

    Following the War of 1812, fundamental economic shifts began to occur. In time they greatly altered the role of government, particularly at the state level. Most of the changes arose out of the Industrial Revolution. Americans began to leave their farms and become wage earners. They became dependent upon state governments and political parties for protection from exploitation at the hands of employers, banks, and other powerful interests. As the need for legislative remedies increased the power of political parties, these institutions became increasingly susceptible to manipulation by the federal executive branch. An abundance of offices and contracts enabled presidents...

  6. CHAPTER 5 The Fall of the Republic, 1850–1861
    (pp. 247-351)

    While the country drew a sigh of relief with the passage of the compromise acts, underlying tensions worsened. The Whig Party began to disintegrate despite the fact that it was the more moderate party in a time when virtue was supposedly prized. There were several reasons for this, among them the passing of both Daniel Webster and Henry Clay in 1852. The continued unpopularity of tariffs in the South also played a role. The most important factor was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Heavy-handed enforcement of the law kept the antislavery movement alive at a time when the other...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 352-356)

    For seventy-two years the American experiment in constitutional government enjoyed enormous success. A handful of communities along the seaboard burgeoned into an industrial and agricultural colossus, well on its way to first place among nations. The Constitution and the government it established played a critical role in this process by ensuring the sanctity of contracts, clearing the stage of restrictions on trade, and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship with patents, copyrights, trade routes, and the protection of capital. Adam Smith’s description of the conditions that enabled Great Britain to prosper during the eighteenth century applied equally to antebellum America: “a general...