Compact "Theory" of the Union

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    1. When we read Webster and Madison’s discussions of the Constitution’s nature, what are we to understand the difference to be between a constitution and a compact or league of states? For example, in Vice number 8 of Vices of the Political System of the US, Madison says that,

    “As far as the Union of the States is to be regarded as a league of sovereign powers, and not as a political Constitution by virtue of which they are become one sovereign power, so far it seems to follow from the doctrine of compacts, that a breach of any of the articles of the confederation by any of the parties to it, absolves the other parties from their respective obligations, and gives them a right if they chuse to exert it, of dissolving the Union altogether.”

    Madison again uses similar terms, as Professor Gutzman points out in his fantastic book on Madison,

    “That same day, Madison opposed Ellsworth’s motion to refer the proposed Constitution to the state legislatures for ratification. The Constitution would make changes to the state constitutions, he reasoned, and the state legislatures were therefore incompetent to ratify it. If the legislatures ratified the convention’s proposal, it would be a “league,” but if the people did, it would be a “Constitution.

    2. Did each state not acede to the Articles? Why did Madison complain of a “Want of ratification by the people of the articles of Confederation.”? Was Madison, in fact, as we often hear, saying in this Vice that the instrument needed to be ratified by the people of the states as one body?

    3. Further, how does Madison’s desire for a constitution, not a league,reconcile with his statement that

    “The document under consideration was not a treaty, “in which were specified certain duties to which the parties were to be bound,” but “a compact by which an authority was created paramount to the parties, & making laws for the government of them.”
    (This quote also is from Gutzman’s excellent book. I recommend anyone who reads this and has an interest go out and buy that book immediately. I’ve been studying/ruminating on it for almost a month and a half now, and there’s so much information in there that I can say it was one of the best $20 I’ve spent.”)

    Thank you again for all of your work!! You guys are awesome.


    Also, why did Jefferson, when referring to the Jay Treaty scandal and the possibility of the Western states leaving say that if they were to do so, “We are incapable of a single effort to retain them.” and that “it cannot be done.”?

    Am I correct in interpreting that to mean that, in light of the rest of the quote and his comments in his inaugural address that, he disapproved of efforts to “retain” seceding states, and was just stating the fact that it was impossible as a practical matter?

    Thank you!!


    Madison’s position tracked Jefferson’s complaint about ratification of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, which had been adopted by the Revolutionary Convention without referral to the counties–as Jefferson advocated. Some have also seen Madison’s position as dictated in part by popular politics, as it was pretty clear that Patrick Henry, who dominated the General Assembly, could thwart Madison’s efforts if the state legislature were charged with deciding on ratification of a new federal constitution.

    I’m glad you have profited from JMMA!


    I believe you are.

    Chapter 1 of my latest book is about Jefferson’s view on federalism. He said repeatedly that states had a right to secede, that forcing them to stay despite their wishes would violate “our principles,” etc.


    Thanks for taking the time to respond to all of my questions.

    I think I’m still missing something though. Are we to understand that there’s a difference between a Constitution, a compact, and a league, as Madison and Daniel Webster said?

    It seems to me almost that those things had different meanings to the people discussing them.

    How are we to interpret the Convention’s support for Madison’s position favoring a constitution over Ellsworth favoring a league in the conversation about leagues v. constitutions when he said that, in your words, “the law of nations said that any breach of a league freed the other parties of their obligation, but the same was not true of breach of a constitution.”

    This seems incompatible with the idea that a. It’s a compact and b. A breach of the compact authorizes rescission of one or more of the parties.

    How am I misinterpreting this?

    Thanks again for all your time!


    As Madison had it, a league was an agreement among sovereigns, while a constitution made a single entity. The former could be dissolved by the sovereigns, while the latter could not.

    Note that this was not the explanation of the Constitution given by the Federalists in the Virginia Ratification Convention. They described it as Vattel described federal constitutions in his highly influential treatise on the law of nations. See my account of Nicholas’s speech in the Richmond Convention’s waning hours.

    (A compact could be either a league or a federal constitution. The point of using that word is to convey the fact that there is more than one party.)


    I’ll look up Nicholas’s speech.

    Did Chisholm v. Georgia run amok of this conversation in Virginia?


    Other than Madison’s Virginia speech, what is the most significant exchange shedding light on the meaning of the words “the people”? Was there one in the Philadelphia Convention that can prove that the meaning was hashed out in front of the representatives of ALL the states?


    See Article VII and Madison’s explanation of the term “states” in the Virginia Report of 1800.

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