George Mason, Luther Martin, and the Anti-Federalist Origins of State Power in American Constitutionalism

John Rand

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Randolph Scully, George Oberle III

Horizon Hall, #3223
March 19, 2024, 10:00 AM to 01:00 PM

Abstract:

George Mason of Virginia and Luther Martin of Maryland became leading figures in the debate over the ratification of the United States Constitution. Their contributions to the emerging nation are due for a reassessment. This dissertation makes the case for Mason and Martin as not just two among many Anti-Federalists but as figures who were among the most important Anti-Federalist leaders of the time. Both men attended the Philadelphia Convention and made significant contributions in shaping the Constitution. Afterward, their decision to oppose the document had a powerful impact on the public debate. Martin and Mason used the power of the press to voice their views and extend their influence far beyond their individual states. Significantly, their publications, published under their own names, were reprinted more times than other Anti-Federalist works during the ratification debate. While they did not prevail in the ratification debate, their ideas concerning individual liberty and the centrality of state power persisted long after the Founding Era.

Besides their shared political views, Mason and Martin also shared other important traits: both were slaveholders and both came the country’s Chesapeake region. Unlike northern states, Virginia and Maryland did not move to abolish slavery during or after the American Revolution. Unlike the states of the Deep South, in their states’ slavery was in decline. Their distinctive regional origins and background shaped their particular version of Anti-Federalism. Both men supported preserving state power but both spoke out against either slavery or the slave trade. Neither Mason and Martin portrayed state power as a means of defending the institution of slavery. In later decades, southerners would appropriate their ideas and mold them into a states’ rights argument that would be used to preserve slavery.

Despite their inability to derail the Constitution, both Mason and Martin also made other substantive contributions to the development of American constitutionalism. At the Philadelphia Convention, Martin introduced the Constitution’s Supremacy clause, arguably the most important provision in establishing the federal government’s authority over the states. During the ratification debate, Mason’s Objections to the Constitution became a rallying point for those who desired the addition of amendments to the document. By making individual and state liberties a central issue, Mason and other Anti-Federalists put pressure on the First Congress to pass a Bill of Rights. Long after ratification, Luther Martin continued to press the case for preserving state power. He represented his home state in the landmark 1819 Supreme Court case of McCulloch v. Maryland. Although Martin lost, McCulloch addressed the extent of the federal government’s power in light of the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, Supremacy Clause, and Necessary and Proper Clause.

George Mason and Luther Martin have had a long-lasting and hitherto understudied impact on the development of American constitutional thinking. Through their efforts, the plain language of the Tenth Amendment has kept the hope alive of state power in face of the increased power of the federal government. During the antebellum era, southerners distorted their views about state power to serve the interests of slavery. By the twentieth century and beyond, supporters of states’ rights would resurrect their views for other purposes. Yet Mason and Martin’s ideas must be considered in the context of their own time in order to understand their present-day significance. In both instances, the effectiveness of their distinctively Chesapeake defense of state power in opposing the Constitution has made an enduring impact on American constitutionalism.