Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism by Martha Derthick.
Students of American politics wanting to refresh or deepen their understanding of our form of federalism—what James Madison called our "compound republic"—can turn to Martha Derthick's Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism. Derthick, Julia Cooper Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and former Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, is a prolific author. The 11 essays in this volume touch on and summarize many of the arguments she has made at much greater length in her many books.
"American federalism," she writes, "is a very large elephant indeed, and it is hard for a lone observer to grasp the properties of the whole beast. One needs to be abreast of constitutional doctrines; of legislative, judicial, and administrative practices over the whole range of governmental activities…and more. To understand the condition of federalism, one needs to comprehend the functioning of the whole polity." In this splendid volume, Derthick continually demonstrates this level of comprehension. In clear, powerful prose, she examines the founding generation's understanding of federalism; the way in which "national programs, institutions, and techniques of influence [especially federal grants-in-aid] came together to enlarge national power at state and local governments' expense;" and the consequences of the public's "sharp devalu[ation]" of "federalism as a constitutional principle."
A clear theme running through her essays is the profound impact that past U.S. Supreme Courts have had on altering the original federal design and concentrating power in the federal government through their decisions on reapportionment, criminal procedure, the establishment clause, and incorporation. She notes that, by contrast, the Rehnquist Court has become the great defender of federalism. She welcomes its federalism decisions, because they have "encouraged Americans to contemplate the subject." By so doing, she hopes they will renew their commitment to "a form of government that divides and disperses official power, with the goal of making it representative and grounding its exercise in practicality as opposed to a political rhetoric that is all too often the demagogic style of mass democracy."
—Ralph A. Rossum
Claremont McKenna College
* * *
This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of the Claremont Review of Books