A review of Chaining down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government, 1776–1865 (Abbeville Institute Press, 2021) by Luigi Marco Bassani

Bassani begins his book with a sockdolager. “This book is not part of the 1619 project. It is an intellectual history that barely mentions the problem of slavery. If you believe that American history is nothing but a cover up for inhuman bondage, for white supremacy, Anglo-Saxonism, and so on, you will find little here to interest you or to support that view. In this book what the protagonists say is taken at face value.”[1] Thus, Bassani—distinguished professor of history of politics at University of Milan—warns readers that his book follows a traditional, dry historiography that does not look for secreted meaning in words or sentences.

With that historiographical aside given, Bassani turns to development of his thesis: that the federalism in practice between the Revolutionary War and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was a period of American history when the Jeffersonian ideal of thin government constrained by the strictures of the Constitution and with a lean to states’ sovereignty, to some extent, predominated. With election of Lincoln and the provenance of the Civil War, the United States shifted abruptly from that ideal, true federalism, to a bigified modern state, swollen by stultifying debt, typified by European nations. That marked the shift to what might be dubbed governmental “Leviathanism”—what Bassani calls the “modern state.”

The title, of course, is reference to Thomas Hobbes’ infamous modern sovereign state in Leviathan. The intimation is that the “American dream of self-government,” of creating a radically new way of life through the ideals of light government, maximal human freedom, and government by elected representatives whose chief function was to act in strictest obedience to the strictures of the Constitution was being practiced, or at least approximated, until the heavy-handed actions of Abraham Lincoln definitively removed sovereignty from the States to the federal government, and thereby brought an end to the American experiment of government by the people. Leviathan, now too large for his chains, can no longer be constrained by them.

Bassani’s prose throughout is clean, and intelligent. He confidently makes his claims, first, because it is plain that he has thoroughly scoured the relevant primary and secondary literature, and that in itself is unusual in today’s selective historical climate, and, second, because he has thought long and hard about this thesis, articulated in an earlier book,[2] but not fleshed out.

Bassani’s lengthy argument unfolds sequaciously throughout the six chapters. The first chapter sets the stage with a historical look at the development of the modern sovereign state and its implantation in Europe. Chapter 2 reconstructs the early debate concerning federalism and anti-federalism vis-à-vis the vigorous debates concerning the proposed U.S. Constitution. The third chapter examines Jeffersonian political philosophy and his aegis of strict constructionism, states’ rights, and nullification. The fourth chapter looks at the Hartford Convention of 1814, during the presidency of James Madison, in which New England states considered secession due to incompatibility of Eastern and Southern interests. Chapter 5 is about John C. Calhoun’s political philosophy, his analysis of how Southern economic and political interests have been ignored by the North, and his advocacy of nullification and even secession as a remedy. The last chapter introduces Lincoln as the U.S. “herald of the modern state.”

The rise of the modern (European) state was “a true revolution that destroyed the medieval world” and created a “new political order” that privileged some groups at the expense of others. Yet the history of freedom, as a reaction to that new order, is a story of “resistance to that emergence” by restrictions to the powers of the modern state.[3]

Prior to the emergence of Lincoln, the United States successfully resisted the autocratic Leviathanism of European states by its commitment to federalism, which was in some measure patronage of states’ sovereignty and strict constructionism along with commitment to nullification and right of secession. Writes Bassani, “State sovereignty and the contractual nature of the federal bond are deduced from—and are not instruments of—constitutional hermeneutics.”[4]

Early American political thinking was “constitutionalist.” “American polity was conceived as a system founded on a document, the interpretation of which determines the nature of the system.”[5] The first “constitution” was the Articles of Confederation, which only loosely aligned the newborn states. Its numerous defects led to crafting the Constitution, which described the various components of the federal government and delineated the powers of each component. “The constitution establishes a simple and clear separation of powers: the States have overall political power, while the federation is a government with delegated and limited, enumerated powers.”[6] The federal government’s powers are few and strictly limited by the principles stipulated in the Constitution. It cannot assume powers unexpressed by that document, while the states are at liberty to act in all ways unless such an action is expressly prohibited by the Constitution.

American’s commitment to federalism, says Bassani, is evident in the debate between Federalists and Antifederalists germane to ratifying the Constitution. The Federalist “brilliantly constructs the arguments against the previous confederal system of government while also eviscerating the principles of the centralization of power in the American political community.”[7] Yet, adds Bassani, Anti-federalists—those disfavoring ratification of the Constitution—too had a singular role, for they “were the first conscious champions of American resistance to the modern state and to importing the European model.”[8] Jefferson, as is well-known, was in favor of the Constitution, provided that there would be appended a Bill of Rights. He made it known that he was in favor of a sufficiency of states, nine, for ratification, with the remainder of states in opposition, thereby forcing the Congress to push for a bill of rights to be appended.

The modern state, of course, was championed early in the country’s history by Alexander Hamilton. In Washington’s cabinet, there was formed a rift between Hamilton and Jefferson, and that rift led to differing partisan ideologies. The former favored a massified central government with powers relatively unhampered by the constrictions of the Constitution—the notion of loose construction. The latter favored a demassified federal government with powers strictly enumerated by the Constitution—the notion of strict construction. While Hamilton wanted political power to be in the hands of a select few and the federal government to be arbiter of states’ actions, Jefferson wanted both political power to be in the hands of the people, who elected and guardedly watched their representatives, and the individual states to be sovereign in all matters without Constitutional sanction. For Jefferson, the powers of the federal government were restricted to foreign affairs—“a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants”—and protection of citizens’ rights.

An early battleground for Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians would be Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts and Jefferson’s response in his Kentucky Resolutions. Writes Bassani, “States, inasmuch as they were sovereign parties entering into the constitutional compact, had created the federal government simply as their agent, subordinate to their own power, and designed to carry out limited and well-defined functions.” In his draft proposal, Jefferson used “nullification” to illustrate the sovereignty of states. “Where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy.”[9]

That takes us to the crux of the issue for Bassani: Is the nation or are the states to be sovereign? Prior to 1860, that question, in spite of the influence of Hamilton, was not settled.

Bassani then examines the political philosophy of South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who claimed that the source of societal conflict was government, which divided citizens into tax payers and tax-consumers. The significance of Calhoun was that he represented the interests of the South, whose interests had been ignored, if not suffocated, by the North, which had control of the Federal government. “In the three decades preceding the civil War, the South concluded that it was a minority within the Union, oppressed and exploited by the federal government, which by then had become the powerful political lever of the North.” Calhoun maintained that the Constitution was crafted to regulate the federal government, not states’ governments. Much weight Calhoun placed on the Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[10]

Yet the federal government abused its authority over the years through what it deemed to be protective tariffs. In May 1828, congress passed what would come to be called the “Tariff of Abominations,” which greatly diminished both British purchasing power for Southern cotton and Southern purchasing power for its needed goods, while it avowedly protected New england industry. Yet the revenue from the tariffs was nowise aiding the South, but was going into “the coffers of the industrial North.”[11]

Calhoun would become the figurehead for the embittered South and published anonymously his South Carolina Exposition (1828) which argued for states’ sovereignty and use of nullification. Calhoun writes: “So partial are the effects of the system that its burdens are exclusively on one side and its benefits on the other. It imposes on the agricultural interest of the South, including the South-west, and that portion of the country particularly engaged in commerce and navigation, the burden not only of sustaining the system itself, but that also of the Government.” The problem for Calhoun was both economic and political. There were some 53 million dollars of exported goods per year for the United States and some 37 million of them from the South—almost 70 percent. Calhoun calculated that 16.5 million dollars of every 23 million dollars that went into the federal government was the product of Southern labor, yet the Southern interests were habitually disregarded by the politically powerful North.[12] Moreover, the South had merely 76 members in Congress, while the North had 137.

The nodus took the form of an acute dilemma. “We continue to be constrained, as we now are, on the one hand, by the general competition of the world, to sell low [our cotton]; and, on the other, by the Tariff to buy high [goods that we need].” The Northern system of tariffs, said Calhoun, tended “to make the poor [South] poorer, and the rich [North] richer.”  He sums, “after we are exhausted, the contest will be between the capitalists and operatives; for into these two classes it must, ultimately divide society.”[13] Calhoun, thus, saw the growth of the modern European state in the nation: capitalists in the North, operatives in the South.

In 1832, South Carolina passed the Nullification Ordinance which declared unconstitutional and unbinding the 1828 and 1832 U.S. tariffs. Any attempt at governmental coercion vis-à-vis compliance, he asserted, would be grounds for secession, for the Constitution was a compact between states, not the play-toy of the federal government. The powers of the federal government, thus, were granted by the sovereign states, which were empowered with both nullification—a declaration on behalf of the principal that the agent empowered to act on his behalf is nullified—and secession—withdrawal from the union.[14]

The tension would come to a head by the time of the Civil War, with Lincoln’s insistence to save the union at any cost. Slavery for Lincoln was not a vital issue. Writes he to Horace Greely in 1862: “My paramount object is this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by feeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” Lincoln, in another letter in 1864, maintained that his role as president “imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation—of which that constitution was the organic law.”[15] It was, for Lincoln, the nation—viz., the federal government—that the Constitution had made sovereign.

Lincoln, says Bassani, changed forever the course of the nation. Whereas the first 10 constitutional amendments (the Bill of Rights) began, “Congress shall not…,” the Fourteenth Amendment contained, “No State shall…”—a seismic shift of balance of power from states to the nation. Bassani adds:

The Bill of Rights had always been considered the unassailable fortress that sheltered all Americans from the abuse of power by the federal government. After the Fourteenth Amendment, its significance became that of a shield protecting minorities from oppression by an internal majority within any state. This shift in emphasis in understanding the Bill of Rights underwent a very rapid acceleration in the second half of the twentieth century. In all three of these amendments (Thirteen to Fifteen], the power to enforce their terms is explicitly assigned to the Congress of the United States.[16]

Bassani ends by noting that Ronald Reagan attempted to return to the fiscal narrative of Jeffersonianism: responsible government through minimal spending and riddance of welfarism. Yet when Reagan left office, the federal government and the nation’s debt had grown much.[17]

Was Reagan a false prophet?

Says Bassani: “Once a government has reached a certain critical mass, it does not seem possible to restrict centralization and reduce the weight of bureaucracy. The secret of Jefferson’s success and Reagan’s failure lies in the fact that the former was the president of a genuine federation, the second was not.” Reagan presided over “an imperial and modern state.”[18]

Is Bassani’s thesis correct—that is, is the argument on its behalf cogent?

That is difficult to know. The argument on its behalf is complex, textured, and lengthy—he covers a goodly amount of American history—and of course each of the links of such an argument must be strongly established for the overall argument to have cogency. For instance, it is unclear given the unfolding of events over the decades whether Bassani wishes us to consider Lincoln to be a malicious rogue—a secret champion of large government and a power-loving autocrat—or a victim of his own moral convictions concerning preservation the union at any cost. Given Bassani’s title and his conclusion—he states in the latter that the history of America should be analyzed by “pluralism”—the view articulated by Arthur Bentley and Robert Dahl, the former seems to be the case. Pluralism is a “normative political statement” that asserts that sovereignty can be eschewed by having numerous political power centers, not one, such that use of the negative is much more widespread than “the power to impose solutions.”[19] In such a manner, even states lose much of their power.

What we do know is this. The nation’s debt in 1860 was near 65 million dollars while the expenses needed to operate the nation required 63 million. By the war’s end—the war had cost some 5.2 billion dollars—the estimated debt was 2.2 billion dollars. Thus, Lincoln’s insistence on preserving the union at all costs in effect forced the federal government at the end of the war to overhaul wholly its financial organization—to institute federal programs and institutions to handle its Brobdingnagian overspending.[20] The nation has never recovered and returned to the sort of fiscal responsibility that it had prior to the war, for instance, during Jefferson’s and Jackson’s administrations. Today’s federal debt is nearly 29 trillion dollars—an impossible sum. There is no conceivable return to fiscal responsibility for the federal government and that suffocating debt is to be shared by every state.

We can say this. The American dream of self-government—a political experiment which could have been reasonably tried prior to the Civil War—cannot today be anything other than a dream—a Xanadu lost. And so, there is no reason today for other nations to look to American for moral incentive in their political affairs. Today’s America is just another modern state.

[1] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government, 1776–1865 (McClellanville, SC: Abbeville Institute Press, 2021), v–vi.

[2] Luigi Marco Bassani, Liberty, State, & Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010).

[3] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 24–25, 37–39, and 43–44.

[4] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 63.

[5] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 71.

[6]Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 81.

[7] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 86.

[8] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 93.

[9] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 143–44

[10] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 193–94.

[11] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 201.

[12] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 201–3.

[13] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 204.

[14] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 221.

[15] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 278.

[16] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 297.

[17] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 310.

[18] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 310–11.

[19] Luigi Marco Bassani, Chaining down Leviathan, 306.

[20] “Historical debt Outstanding—Annual, TreasuryDirect, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt.htm, accessed 18 Jan. 2022.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over nearly 60 books and over 200 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 160 essays and 23 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected] 

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