By the twenty-first century, it is taken for granted that the United States constitute a nation. That the Union could have been referred to as the New Empire in its early days would strike us as nonsensical or erroneous. That the constitutional convention delegates could have differed on whether they were designing a national government would strike us as untenable. So we readily compare the US with European nations that are States in the EU, taking for granted that we are comparing apples with apples. That our default might be a category mistake—treating one Union as commensurate with a State in another—is off our radar screens; we simply do not question the basis of our quotidian comparisons because we presume that the attribute of governmental sovereignty renders various polities equivalent and therefore comparable.
Rather than evincing an encroaching decadence through American history, the category mistake of treating an empire as akin to one of its political units (and those units as through provinces or localities in a kingdom rather than as members of an empire) can be found in the revolutionary period. In this book, I go back to the colonial period to argue that the United Colonies and subsequent United States were (and are) properly regarded as being on the empire political level and territorical scale, and that the colonies and subsequent individual States were commensurate with European kingdoms of the time (and with European countries today). In other words, I show that a multi-level political framework can be gleamed from the historical sources and that we can utilize it as an alternative.
Of course, as Thomas Kuhn suggests in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, replacing a default paradigm is apt to be resisted by those who are personally invested in it.[i] The process of making transparent its errors and improving upon it is likely to stretch well beyond a writer’s lifetime. Even when errors are uncovered, the human proclivity to relish the familiar makes it difficult to let go of the blanket and consider an alternative way of viewing the world. So as much as this book is prima facie about historical political theory, it is even more so about the nature of the human being. As tempting as it is to continue with this discussion of the subtext, I turn to a summary of the individual chapters to complete this introduction.
Chapter one constructs a multi-level political framework that can be used as an analytical tool to compare and contrast various political territories. I utilize Althusius’ political theory and two distinct meanings of the term province. Specifically, its reference to a sub-unit of a kingdom can be distinguished from the Roman use of provincia, which signifies a major sub-unit of the empire. Because provinciae have typically been occupied kingdoms, or dependencies, I argue that the provincia scale at a given time and place is at whatever level is sufficient for kingdom status. Furthermore, based on an analysis of some provinces and kingdoms (as well as provincial kingdoms) in the history of the British Isles, I show that the amounts of territory referred to by the terms “province” and “kingdom” (or provincia) have changed over time, even with respect to the same territory. I relate their changing scales to Althusius’ level of political (federal) association, which I maintain not only reflect the scales of his time, but also are compromised by his incorporation of particular anomalies pertaining to his political context.
In Chapter two, I contend that the British colonies in North America that would go on to form the United States were provinciae in the sense of being dominions, as if occupied kingdoms, in the British Empire. They were not provinces akin to domestic British principalities such as duchies and counties. In other words, they were colonies in the Greek rather than Roman sense. I draw principally on Bancroft’s History of the United States and Althusius’ Political Digest in formulating this theory of the colonies’ classification.[ii]
Chapter three considers the various attributions of empire that were applied to British North America and the subsequent application to the alliance of sovereign States. In spite of not having a government, the alliance was on the empire-level and had an empire’s rudimentary structure. Having solved the complications in the earlier attributions, the ex-colonists faced the repercussions of their alliance’s empire-level commensurability with British imperial rule as well as the obstacles inherent in the empire-level itself and the nature of their respective sovereign nation-states. These challenges were aggravated by the erroneous projection of qualities in the alliance’s members onto the alliance itself. In general terms, clearly distinguishing the empire-level as having unique properties can preempt or dissipate such complications.
In Chapter four, I argue that the United States’ alliance was subject to category conflations and reversals antithetical to nature, logic and political theory. In spite of its scale and basic empire-level form, the alliance was treated by some as though it were a kingdom-level nation-state. The sovereign States were misunderstood as being province- rather than kingdom-level polities. The category mistake implies that the alliance was equivalent to one of the nation-states, or countries, in Europe at the time.
Finally, Chapter five focuses on the constitutional convention in 1787. Using Madison’s Notes, I argue that the traditional interpretation wherein the Union is taken as a nation and its government as a national government enables the category mistakes discussed in the previous chapter.[iii] These mistakes, in other words, were made in the convention, rather than taking hold over time. I maintain that the “nationalist” delegates tended to shirk the kingdom-level status of the individual States and compromise the application of republican principles to the governance of the New Empire.
[i] T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970).
[ii] G. Bancroft, History of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1866); F. S. Carney, The Politics of Johannes Althusius (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).
[iii] J. Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York, W.W. Norton, 1966).