Saturday, June 1, 2024

Q&A with Alison L. LaCroix


Photo by Lloyd DeGrane


Alison L. LaCroix is the author of the new book The Interbellum Constitution: Union, Commerce, and Slavery in the Age of Federalisms. Her other books include The Ideological Origins of American Federalism. She is Robert Newton Reid Professor of Law and Associate Member of the History Department at the University of Chicago.


Q: What inspired you to write The Interbellum Constitution?


A: My first book, The Ideological Origins of American Federalism, aimed to tell an unfamiliar story about familiar people.


The unfamiliar story was about the relationship between the United States’ federal structure of divided sovereignty and how it both borrowed from, and also rejected certain elements of, the British Empire. 


Familiar members of the founding generation, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, spent much of their careers puzzling through what it meant to have multiple layers of governmental power – the national government, the states – interacting over the same territory and people.


That book ended roughly around 1800. I started writing The Interbellum Constitution because I wanted to figure out what happened next. I wanted to understand why Americans in what we tend to define very loosely as the “antebellum period” were so obsessed with arguing about the Constitution. 


To me, it was clear that beginning around 1815, the cobbled-together ideas that the founders had strung together 30 years before started coming under increasing strain, especially on the crucial issues of commerce, migration, and slavery. 


This “interbellum” generation of Americans, as I call them, had been born during the founding era. They grew up feeling tremendous anxiety about both upholding and improving what they viewed as their constitutional, legal, and political heritage.


In many ways, they resembled adolescents who alternated between bravado about their own capacities and intense fear of ruining what their forbears had created. And their fears were real. On each side, the period was bordered by war: the War of 1812, which ended in 1815, and the Civil War, which began in 1861.


Q: The author John Fabian Witt called the book a “brilliant, alternately rollicking and harrowing account of the law in action in the nineteenth-century United States.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love that description – it really captures the mood that I hope readers will feel.


I wrote the book in a narrative style, with historical characters carrying out their lives and interacting with each other in particular places, sometimes down to the level of specific buildings and streets. 


As I was writing the book, I came to the realization that many of the characters in the book are either tragic or terrible, and some of them are both. 


Rollicking, harrowing, tragic, and terrible – those adjectives, taken together, give a flavor of this unique period in the history of the United States.


Another reason that I wanted to bring this period to life is that it has tended to be overlooked. So many accounts of American law and politics focus on just two iconic moments: the founding and the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Clearly, both are foundational. 


But these conventional stories skip over the 46-year period between the founding and the Civil War, treating it as a constitutional flyover country. 


But if we look at what was happening on the ground throughout the United States in the interbellum period, the picture that emerges is very different: debates from the courtroom to the newspaper to the parlor to the street, over hot-button issues including slavery and commerce, conducted by statesmen from all regions of the country as well as Native leaders, female commentators, and free and enslaved Black activists. 


At the same time, the Supreme Court under Chief Justices Marshall and Taney issued a host of foundational decisions concerning the federal-state relationship.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I worked on the book for about 10 years, and I spent much of that time reading archival material: letters, court records, diaries, notes of debates, and more letters. 


I traveled to many archives and repositories, often bringing my family with me, and I took thousands of photos on my phone and my digital camera. I also spent many, many hours reading microfilm. 


But spending time with interbellum people’s letters was my favorite part of the research – I got to know Attorney General William Wirt’s handwriting so well that I could tell when he was writing in a carriage, or when he changed pens. 


And finding the occasional doodle from a Supreme Court justice, or a sketch of some fashionable new printed tartan fabric for a daughter at home, was also a treat. 


Those were the best surprises: the reminders that all these people who lived so long ago, and wore such different clothes, and lived in a world so unlike our own, were still actual, living, individual human beings who sometimes stayed up too late writing letters, resented their husbands’ work travels, or longed to have literary careers instead of spending their time tending children or answering clients’ queries.


Q: Do you see any similarities between the period you're writing about and today when it comes to constitutional questions?


A: I certainly see echoes between current debates and the book’s period of the early 19th century.


The book also upends several conventional stories about the U.S. Constitution: that it was fixed in place when it was written in 1787; that it remained unchanged until the Civil War; and that constitutional law consists only of what the text of the Constitution says. 


The book examines the many different and contested historical meanings of what we now term “federalism.”  


In the interbellum period, we find the seeds of many of our most current political and legal debates and struggles. 


From controversies over who governs the southern border, to the regulation of abortion, to voting rights, firearms, healthcare, and immigration, the issues at the center of public debate right now have their roots in this interbellum period. 


All these controversies involve questions about federalism – which level of government is to govern, given our system of multiple levels of authority? 


Although the book is primarily a work of history, it speaks to current legal and political issues. The interbellum period laid out much of the legal and political landscape that we know today. 


This landscape was formed by constitutional structure, doctrine, practice, and text. It was also shaped by debate – in courtrooms and in Congress, but also in the public square, in newspapers and pamphlets, and in private letters and diaries.


The book also has special relevance to today’s debates about the role of the Supreme Court, as exemplified by President Biden’s creation in 2021 of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States, on which I had the honor of serving. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been working on extending the story of American federalisms, plural, into the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. So much wonderful and important scholarship has of course been written about these periods, but I think there are still new materials to be investigated, new characters to be put into conversation with each other, and new surprises to be discovered. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One of the historical actors in the book whom I find particularly fascinating appears in a pair of chapters that focus on a searing episode of political controversy that began in South Carolina and then reverberated throughout the nation, and across the Atlantic. 


The individual is Maria Henrietta Pinckney, the daughter and niece of Revolutionary generals and signers of the Constitution, and the wealthy heiress of an elite Carolina family. 


Pinckney was described by her family as a “woman of masculine intellect” – such a phrase! She was a writer, planter, slaveholder, and a leading theorist of the nullification movement. 


Her male cousins served in South Carolina’s nullification convention in 1832, but it was the family’s mansion – owned by Maria Henrietta and her similarly unmarried sister – that became the center of Charleston’s parades and public ceremonies. 


Maria Henrietta Pinckney’s pamphlet defending nullification became one of the core texts of the states’ rights movement. When Pinckney died in 1836, a notice in the Charleston Mercury lauded her “heroic patriotism,” the “strength of her bright character,” and “the tributes of her cultivated intellect.” 


Pinckney embodies several themes of the book: the anxieties of the interbellum generation; their battles to control the legacy of the founding; and the breadth and variety of ideas about the Union that were debated throughout the interbellum period, even in the notorious firebrand state of South Carolina. 


And she doesn’t fit at all into our usual molds of political thinkers or female activists in the period.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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