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Before the Countermajoritarian Difficulty: Regime Unity, Loyal Opposition, and Hostilities toward Judicial Authority in Early America

  • Stephen M. Engel (a1)

Traditional accounts of presidential hostility toward judicial authority rely on the federal judiciary's structure for explanatory leverage, focusing particularly on the court's potential to reach countermajoritarian rulings. By evaluating executive-judicial relations during the early republic, that is, the years prior to the Civil War, I suggest that anti-court sentiment stemmed not only from antipathy toward unelected judges or the seemingly undemocratic possibilities of judicial review, but also from a civic republican apprehension toward opposition. I show, first, that Jefferson, Jackson, and Van Buren considered open and stable opposition to be a harbinger of civil unrest and strove to preserve unity among the federal branches, and second, that this fear and corresponding aspiration toward unity underlay these presidents' concerns about judicial authority. As such, I argue that the presumption of the judiciary's countermajoritarian difficulty could be understood as a political development rather than a structural anomaly of the Constitution. In making this claim, I highlight the power of entrepreneurial presidents to drive conceptual change. Furthermore, focusing on the politics of opposition as a key element in the development of presidential-judicial relations broadens how we think of civic republicanism as an organizing political principle, defining not only early American political culture and electoral politics, but also influencing matters of governance.

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Studies in American Political Development
  • ISSN: 0898-588X
  • EISSN: 1469-8692
  • URL: /core/journals/studies-in-american-political-development
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