Madison's tightrope: The federal union and the Madisonian foundations of legitimate government

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The states' rights-nationalist debate is America's oldest constitutional debate. It is also the most puzzling, since it continues to stagger through the scholarly and political landscape even after numerous and powerful assailants - including the Civil War, the 14th Amendment, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Era - would have seemed to have sealed its doom. Even James Madison, the father of the Constitution and perhaps the most widely respected political thinker among the founding generation, seemed puzzled about the nature of the American federal union for much of his career. This article argues that late in life, Madison elaborated a theory of "layered social compacts" that provides a compelling account of the nature of the American federal union. His account makes a significant contribution to social compact theory and also provides a potentially helpful guide for navigating today's states' rights-nationalist debates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)249-272
Number of pages24
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 4 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • American political thought
  • James Madison
  • U.S. constitution
  • federalism
  • social contract
  • states' rights

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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