The Age of Strict Construction

A History of the Growth of Federal Power, 1789–1861

The Age of Strict Construction explores the growth of the federal government's power and influence between 1789 and 1861, and the varying reactions of Americans to that growth. The book focuses on the dispute over the spending power of Congress, the Supreme Court's expansion of the Contract Clause, and the centralizing effects of the Jacksonian spoils system. The book also surveys the conflict over constitutional interpretation—originalism v. textualism—that has divided Americans from the time of the dispute over the first Bank of the United States until the present day.

The standard interpretation of American history holds that the federal government remained a weak and passive creature until the New Deal. The Age of Strict Construction argues that this interpretation is not valid—if measured against the original understanding of the powers of Congress and the Supreme Court, federal authority grew rapidly during the antebellum period. The most stunning aspect of centralization occurred with the rise of a party system heavily dependent on federal largesse for patronage.

The book also details how the federal government quickly came to play an unexpectedly prominent role in the lives of citizens, as its policies in areas such as land sales and tariffs had a huge effect on the fortunes of individual Americans. It also explains how the Founders' classical ideas of a rural electorate immune to pecuniary considerations quickly succumbed to the changes brought on by the arrival of a market economy and the growth of cities.

The relationship between centralization and the sectional crisis of the 1850s is also explored. The book turns the long-running argument over the cause of secession—slavery v. the growth of federal power—on its head by revealing how the two combined to cause southern states to leave the Union.

About the Authors

Peter Zavodnyik is an attorney in private practice in Chicago, IL.


"It is one of the many virtues of Peter Zavodnyik's excellent new book to take a fresh, and insightful, look at what we tend to regard as the Executive's quietest years, those from the Founding until the Civil War."—National Review Online

"This work serves as a challenge to the traditional interpretation of the growth of federal power. It also provides another explanation for the secession of the southern states, a topic on which scholars will no doubt be weighing in. This interesting and provocative study, which depends heavily on secondary work, has a place in the collections of all four-year academic institutions... Highly recommended."—Choice

"[A]n important addition to the literature on antebellum federalism."—Journal of Southern History

"[A] provocative new book. . . . In addition to his detailed portrait of the federal spoils system, the greatest strength of Zavodnyik's work is its broad accessibility to historians, legal scholars, and the average reader. The book is well written and engaging, successfully weaving complex legal doctrine into a broader story of American political, economic and cultural history. Zavodnyik's approach will particularly appeal to scholars who stress the growth and power of the federal government in early America."—Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Any student of American constitutionalism will find this work useful if only for his extensive documentation of Congressional speeches highlighting the bitter contest over the Constitution's meaning. The result is a study that challenges many of historians' preconceived notions about who advocated strict construction and why."—The Historian

"The scope of Peter Zavodnyik's book is greater than his title may suggest... Zavodnyik gives us a chronological survey of federal policy in the light of constitutional power in interaction with the politics surrounding the use of the powers. He thus gives us a very nice account of the relation between constitutional and political factors, an account often missing in studies that focus on one factor or the other... Zavodnyik has produced a provocative book that not only highlights often-neglected features of the era, but supplies intriguing insights into the coming of the Civil War."—Journal of American History

The Catholic University of America Press

9780813227122 : the-age-of-strict-construction-zavodnyik-peter
Paperback / softback
372 Pages
$34.95 USD

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