Diffuse Sovereignty in the Federalist Papers: A Schmittian Critique

59 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 10 Aug 2010

Date Written: 2010


As the conference chairs have noted, hard economic times typically trigger populist reactions. In the American polity, populists have frequently sought to legitimize popular sovereignty by reference to the views of the Founders. Contemporary Tea Party activists, motivated by perceived misuses of taxes to promote economic recovery, national health care, and other ameliorative aims of the federal government, likewise plead their case publicly by mobilizing claims that the Framers intended sovereignty to be an attribute primarily or entirely of the people of the United States. Yet the founding vision of sovereignty was substantially more complex than such claims reveal. This paper explores that complexity through a close textual analysis of the various uses of the term "sovereignty" in the text of the Federalist Papers. In so doing, it seeks to determine various meanings of that term as employed therein, while bringing to bear as well Carl Schmitt's functional definition of sovereignty as the power to decide upon and respond to exceptional circumstances (such as dire economic and financial crises). It seeks to demonstrate (contrary to populist claims) that both in Schmittian terms, and in the Publius authors' own understandings sovereignty was not primarily situated with the American people under the Constitution's framework. The paper also advances the more surprising finding that the Federalist Papers as a whole make radically inconsistent claims about sovereignty under the nascent constitutional scheme, locating it variously in the people, the states, and branches of the federal government. Further, it argues that the Framers saw the Constitution (and possibly the Federalist Papers themselves, in a subsidiary sense) as functionally sovereign. The paper argues that textual sovereignty, is, however deeply problematic under a Schmittian analysis. If valid, such analysis demonstrates that true sovereignty in the decisional sense cannot lie with either the people or governing texts, especially in hard times.

Keywords: Carl Schmitt, Sovereignty, Federalist Papers

Suggested Citation

Delaune, Timothy, Diffuse Sovereignty in the Federalist Papers: A Schmittian Critique (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1644656

Timothy Delaune (Contact Author)

SUNY Cortland ( email )

P.O. Box 2000
21 Graham Ave.
Cortland, NY 13045-0900
United States

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