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Public Law & Legal Theory


The years between 1787 and 1802 witnessed a transformation in American federal theory: from the focus on legislative authority that had occupied constitutional thinkers since the colonial period to a new emphasis on jurisdiction and a corresponding institutional preoccupation with courts. This shift is evident in the decades-long debate concerning the nature and scope of the federal judicial power, which saw repeated efforts by jurists and statecrafters to establish the proper jurisdictional arrangement to mediate between the multiple levels of government set forth in the Constitution. The fruits of these struggles to cement the practical and ideological meanings of federalism were the judiciary acts of 1789 and 1801. The two acts have received remarkably disparate treatment from scholars, with the 1789 act heralded as the basis of the federal judicial system and the 1801 act largely regarded as an embarrassment notable only for its role in the partisan conflict surrounding the election of 1800. Instead of lionizing the 1789 act and attempting to excuse or dismiss the 1801 act, however, I read the two together to offer new insights into these crucial decades. In the 1801 act, Federalists sought to revive the colonial idea of subject-matter jurisdiction by establishing broad federal jurisdiction, including granting “arising under” jurisdiction to the federal courts and easing the requirements for removal of cases from state to federal court. The election of 1800 and the ensuing repeal of the 1801 act, however, spelled the demise of this idea of jurisdiction and a return to the type of concurrence and overlap among levels of government that had characterized the system set up by the 1789 act. As a chapter in my forthcoming book on the history of the American federal idea, this essay challenges the assumption underlying some modern federalism scholarship that nationalization through the federal judiciary is a relatively new, post-1937 phenomenon. My argument demonstrates the anachronistic nature of such assumptions by highlighting the centrality of the judiciary to early republican debates concerning the scope and extent of national power.



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