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American Sovereigns
The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War

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Part of Cambridge Studies on the American Constitution

  • Date Published: April 2009
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521125604

$ 37.99 (C)

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About the Authors
  • American Sovereigns is a path-breaking interpretation of America's political history and constitutionalism that explores how Americans struggled over the idea that the people would rule as the sovereign after the American Revolution. National and state debates about government action, law, and the people's political powers reveal how Americans sought to understand how a collective sovereign-the people-could both play the role as the ruler and yet be ruled by governments of their own choosing.

    • Readable and accessible, intended to be read by the general reader, does not require specialized knowledge
    • Contribution to scholarship, contributes to fundamental understanding of American citizenship and political rights
    • Interdisciplinary appeal, provides relevant insights into history, politics and law
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    • Winner of the Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2008

    Reviews & endorsements

    "This is a superb and radical book, radical in the sense that it goes to the roots of the American constitutional tradition, pushes aside the crusty generations of constitution worship that have enshrined the federal constitution as a fixed, settled and static resolution of the nation's constitutional tradition and complicates matters enormously."
    Ronald Formisano, University of Kentucky, Lexington

    "Professor Fritz’s American Sovereigns tells a complicated story of constitutional development from the period of the Revolution to the Civil War. It is not a conventional account that takes its beginning from 1787 and a focus on the Federal Constitution; rather it offers an intimate account of change that reckons with the extraordinary role of the people as sovereigns. To be sure, Fritz discusses many questions that usually enter accounts of constitutions, but he gives these questions an unusual twist, and adds a fresh perspective through analysis of state constitutions, federal action with constitutional meanings; popular behavior in extraordinary events such as the Whiskey Rebellion and the Rhode Island crisis. In all of this intricate story, the people as sovereigns, a much contested proposition—as he demonstrates—serves to give his study its coherence. His book is not only a revisionist account; it is a beautifully written piece of history that illuminates a supremely important field."
    Robert Middlekauff, University of California, Berkeley

    "American Sovereigns is a welcome addition to the literature on constitutional theory, legal history, and American political development. While the book is dense, it is nevertheless readable and presents unique criticisms and corrections, specifically concerning the literatures on popular constitutionalism and extra-judicial constitutionalism."
    -Justin Wert, Law and Politics Book Review

    "Fritz's purpose in this painstakingly researched and richly rewarding study is to show that a number of events in the early American Republic can only be fully understood by viewing them as episodes in a longstanding debate over competing conceptions of collective sovereignty...Fritz succeeds admirably in the current work in offering an original and insightful analysis of competing conceptions of popular sovereignty through the mid-nineteenth century..." -John Dinan, H-Law

    "A highly accessible, nicely produced, and beautifully researched and written book that is a must read for historians and teachers of public law." -Choice, Stanley N. Katz, Princeton University Choice

    "American Sovereigns will probably become a primer for all who study the U.S. Constitution. It provides a superb analysis of the legal concepts and politics behind the creation, testing, and modification of that document before 1860....It should be a must read for scholars of that era."  Sheldon Avenius, History: Review of New Books

    "Christian Fritz dispels the myth that constitutional theory has survived unchanged from the day it was first implemented. Instead, he shows in stunning detail how the people's understanding of constitutionalism began before the 1787 convention and continued to evolve through numerous events over the course of the next half century...I was very pleased with American Sovereigns and would recommend it not only to those who have an interest in constitutional law or theory but for those who generally love American history. Fritz gives the reader a new perspective of how the early founders viewed government power and the people's right to remove that power." -Christopher Dykes, University of Houston, American Association of Law Librarians

    "Popular sovereignty is one of the most powerful concepts in the American political vocabulary, and one of the most problematic....[Fritz] persuasively demonstrates that the rhetoric of popular sovereignty retained a striking vitality long after the Federalists exploited it to get the Constitution ratified....His explanation of the array of meanings ascribed to the nebulous idea of “interposition” is also superb."  -Jack Rakove, American Historical Review

    “There is still a debate today over the relationship between the citizens and government in American society. For this reason, this book should be of interest to those who are interested in constitutional history and the relationship between the people and the government.”  William E. Kelly, Perspectives on Political Science

    “American Sovereigns… is an able contribution to the growing literature on “popular constitutionalism,” a body of scholarship contending that early Americans believed "the people" had the right to shape and interpret constitutions and laws through methods outside formal political and legal systems….[Fritz] carries the day in his attempt to complicate our understanding of popular constitutionalism by showing its unsettled, conflicting usage and its endurance deep into the nineteenth century.” -Terry Bouton, Journal of American History

    "In one of his most important contributions, Fritz recovers the variety of methods that James Madison said the people could use to 'interpose' when they believed constitutional principles were being subverted...American Sovereigns is a good history retrieving long-lost understandings of the American constitutional system." Michael Les Benedict, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

    “Christian Fritz’s insightful study…should serve as a welcome correction to those constitutional absolutists who maintain there is only one acceptable interpretation possible (theirs) of the Constitution, or that ‘The Founders’ without question thought thus and so on every detail, as if there were unanimity at the beginning that somehow has been corrupted.”  Max J. Skidmore, Journal of American Culture

    “This book succeeds in its task of bringing to light a central constitutional issue too often neglected today. It does so in lively style, peppered with compelling stories and incisive analysis. It should be read and enjoyed by academics, judges, lawyers, and anyone else interested in our constitutional history.”  -H. Robert Baker, Western Legal History

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    Product details

    • Date Published: April 2009
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521125604
    • length: 440 pages
    • dimensions: 234 x 156 x 23 mm
    • weight: 0.61kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Prologue
    Part I. The People's Sovereignty in the States:
    2. Revolutionary constitutionalism
    3. Grass-roots self-government: America's early determinist movements
    4. Revolutionary tensions: 'friends of government' confront 'the regulators' in Massachusetts
    Part II. The Sovereign Behind the Federal Constitution:
    5. The federal constitution and the effort to constrain the people
    6. Testing the constitutionalism of 1787: the Whiskey 'Rebellion' in Pennsylvania
    7. Federal sovereignty: competing views of the federal constitution
    Part III. The Struggle over a Constitutional Middle Ground:
    8. The collective sovereign persists: the people's constitution in Rhode Island
    9. Epilogue.

  • Author

    Christian G. Fritz, University of New Mexico
    Christian G. Fritz is a professor of law at the University of New Mexico School of Law, where he has held both the Dickason and Weihofen chairs. Fritz has a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of Law. He is the author of Federal Justice in California: The Court of Ogden Hoffman, 1851–1891 (1991), a path-breaking work that analyzes the operation of the first federal district court in San Francisco. Fritz delivered the 2002 Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., lecture at the Oklahoma City University School of Law. Professor Fritz is a member of the American Society for Legal History and the American Historical Association, and has served on the editorial boards of several law and history journals.


    • Winner of the Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2008

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