Federal Autonomy and Legal Theory in US Antebellum Constitutionalism: A View from Europe

Printer-friendly version

Table of Contents: I. Introduction. – II. The autonomy of the federal legal order in US antebellum constitutionalism. – III. Justifying legal order. – IV. Autonomy, dual federalism and the monism–dualism dichotomy. – V. Conclusion.

Abstract: This Article analyses debates in US antebellum constitutionalism on the “autonomy” of the US federal order in light of similar debates in contemporary EU constitutionalism. In the early American republic, two interrelated questions permeated constitutional theory: what was the nature of the federal order that had been created by the ratification of the US Constitution, and who was the final arbiter in constitutional questions. Today, EU constitutional lawyers would have no trouble recognising these debates, which are essentially re-enacted both in scholarly discussions and in collisions between the Court of Justice and national constitutional courts. This Article starts with a brief historical overview of some of the main constitutional debates in US antebellum constitutionalism, showing that these debates were remarkably similar to issues recently presented by the PSPP judgment of the German Federal Constitutional Court and the K 3/21 decision of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal. Secondly, this Article shows that both debates are characterised by a similar asymmetry: proponents of an autonomous federal legal order mainly use functionalist arguments, while proponents of the sovereignty of the states mainly use arguments about the “nature” or “origin” of the federal order. Thirdly, the Article contrasts the framing of the debate about the autonomy of the US federal order with the monism–dualism dichotomy that is central to our thinking about the relationship between national and international law. It shows how this distinction was not relevant to constitutional debates in the early American republic, and how that could cast a different light on the EU legal order today.

Keywords: US antebellum constitutionalism – federal autonomy – nullification – primacy – monism – dualism.

European Papers, Vol. 8, 2023, No 3, pp. 1361-1401
ISSN 2499-8249 - doi: 10.15166/2499-8249/722

* Associate Professor of Law, University of Groningen, j.lindeboom@rug.nl.


European Forum


Forum Européen


Forum europeo


Foro Europeo