For years after the ratification of the Constitution, Americans debated how the Federal Government and the several states should relate to each other, and work together, to form a more perfect union. The success, if not the survival, of the new republic depended on these governments cooperating on any number of issues, from customs enforcement to Native American policy. But where there was collaboration there was also friction among them over matters like state sovereignty, slavery, and land. Unsurprisingly, many of the same questions about government relations that American leaders like George Washington or Gouvernor Morris faced in the eighteenth century remain evergreen in the twenty-first.
On today’s show, Dr. Grace Mallon joins Jim Ambuske to chat about how the federal government and the states did, or did not, get along in the republic’s early days, and how personal relationships among American leaders often meant the difference between policy victories or defeats. Mallon recently received her Ph.D. from the University of Oxford and she is the incoming Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University. She also hosts the "Conventions" podcast on constitutional history for the Quill Project at Pembroke College, Oxford. Look for it where ever fine podcasts are available.
Interview published: February 2, 2022
Transcript created: July 6, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Grace Mallon, University of Oxford
Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuskey, and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. For years after the ratification of the Constitution, Americans debated how the federal government and the several states should relate to each other and work together to form a more perfect union. The success, if not the survival of the New Republic depended on these governments, cooperating on any number of issues, from customs enforcement to Native American policy. But where there was collaboration, there was also friction over matters, like state sovereignty, slavery, and land.
Now, fortunately we've solved these problems in our own time. Just kidding. No we haven’t, and many of the same questions about government relations that American leaders like George Washington or Gouverneur Morris faced in the 18th-century remain evergreen in the 21st. On today's show, Dr. Grace Mallon joins me to chat about how the federal government and the states did or did not get along and the republic’s early days, and how personal relationships among American leaders often meant the difference between policy victories or defeats. Mallon, who recently received her PhD from the university of Oxford is the incoming Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University. She also hosts the podcast Conventions, a show about constitutional history. Look for it wherever fine podcasts are available. So put on your best poker face and let's negotiate federal state relations with Dr. Grace Mallon.
Jim Ambuske: Grace, it's very nice to see you again. We talked, I don't know, a couple of months ago about some other stuff, but back then, uh, you were simply a PhD candidate. Now you are Dr. Grace Mallon. You have ascended into the hierarchy of the Guild and have taken your holy orders as a member of the historian’s craft, so congratulations and great job surviving.
Grace Mallon: Thank you so much, Jim. I still can't get used to hearing the word doctor in front of my name. It sort of brings on the giggles at the moment, but it is very nice to have survived the process, especially during COVID.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah no, it is, it's you never get used to it. And of course there's, some folks would be like, “well, you're not really a doctor because you don't operate on people.” Well, we operate on your soul in some ways, and you've just finished at Oxford, uh, out there in the United Kingdom. By the time folks hear this, they will have heard an episode with your advisor, Nicholas Cole, and so this is your chance to get, even in some ways, if you want.
Grace Mallon: Uh, I think I'm still going to be relying on him for references for little. So come back to me in a, in a few years and we'll see what I have to say then.
Jim Ambuske: Excellent. We've got a lot to talk about today because we want to talk about your work.
You've got a new gig. That's very exciting that I want to talk about here at the end of the program and a podcast, you've got multiple irons in the fire, as they say. But let's start with the big question of your project, which looks in a lot of ways at the question of federalism. And I was very excited to talk to you about this because the other day I happened to be Zooming with, uh, an eighth grader from Utah, actually.
And she had a bunch of questions about the Whiskey Rebellion. Every once in a while, through our education department, requests, ask a historian, essentially. And so my turn was up, and so we talked about the Whiskey Rebellion and one of the things I was trying to emphasize to her and her father, who's on the call, was that a lot of what's going on in that chaotic moment is Americans trying to figure out how they all relate to each other and how the different elements of the United States relate to each other.
And your work really tackles that second part. Got this new federal government under this constitution, but the states are still there and how is that all going to work? So I thought we might begin by talking a little bit about your sense of how in this critical moment, the Early Republic, 1789 through 1815, let's call it how Americans thought the states should relate to the federal government and vice versa.What kind of things are they thinking about as they're trying to understand how this is all going to work?
Grace Mallon: That's a really great question, and I think my strong sense is that they don't really know. I think one of the, I think one of the fascinating things for me is that, um, when you read the Constitution, as it was in 1787, there isn't a huge amount about federalism. There are a few mentions of the state governments and particularly what powers of theirs they can no longer exercise um, under the Constitution that have been transferred over to the federal government, that they're limited in exercising. And then we have the 10th Amendment, of course, which reserves to the states all powers that are not delegated to the federal government. We also have this idea that the constitution is going to be supreme over all other laws. Right, so the laws that the states perhaps are making are going to be in some sense, subordinate to the laws of Congress and the Constitution itself and federal treaties. Beyond that, there isn't really much mention of the mechanics of how, of how federalism is going to work, about how the state governments are going to fit into this new union.
And so what I see in my work is that Americans, particularly the politicians that I study at both the state and federal levels, trying to figure out who's going to be exercising which powers, who's going to be doing what stuff as part of the government, which bits of government that they're each respectively going to be exercising, and also who has the right to decide when things are going wrong, uh, who has the right to decide. Who has the right to say, “stop, we can't do this?” Is it just the federal government that's allowed to do that? Or can the states also put the brakes on certain national projects? That's a serious question that they have, um, at the time.
And I think the answers that they come up with tend to differ depending on the situations that they find themselves in and the interests that are involved. Um, so the way that I look at history as perhaps a little bit pragmatic, I tend to think about what kinds of interests people have in particular moments and what they're trying to get out of a situation, essentially.
Jim Ambuske: Take us to the constitutional convention for a moment in the summer of 1787, are the delegates talking about this in earnest and as the reporting back to their home governments, if they are, if they're breaking the wall of secrecy, that they're all swore an oath to, you know, to say nothing about what they were doing at that moment?
Are they talking about this question or are they more focused on getting some kind of new federal charters so that it can at least preserve the union, and then they'll figure all this stuff out later?
Grace Mallon: I think there's definitely a lot of trying to figure everything else out later. In fact, I was recently at the Center for Constitutional studies at UVU, where I'll be working.
We were talking about article three, the judiciary, uh, and the fact that there's almost nothing in the Constitution about how the judiciary is going to work, right, which has obviously been quite a current question over the last year with the Supreme Court commission, and there are a lot of aspects of the Constitution where that's definitely going to be true.
And I think in terms of making the State-federal relationship work, um, they come out with essentially two compromises. One of them is going to be that, that the Constitution is going to be Supreme, and the other is that the federal government is going to have certain enumerated powers that it's going to exercise and the state's going to have the rest. Beyond that, there are a number of conversations at the Constitutional Convention about going a bit further. So James Madison, he makes a proposal that really speaks to me as a Briton because he says that he really likes the British Imperial model of having multiple governments all working together at once. So the British Imperial model is that the king has the final say. The British government has the final say. If they don't like something that the colonies have done, they essentially make it null and void. And he says he wants that kind of power to exist in Congress. So Congress will have the power to essentially nullify any state law.
And I think that makes a lot of sense, but a lot of people at the Constitutional Convention are not happy about that as delegates from, as you know, from particular state legislators around the union. And they say, no, first of all, that sounds a lot like the British empire that we just fought a war to get out of.
And second of all, we, the states, deserve to have sovereignty of some kind. We deserve to have the final say over our own self-government in various areas. So what we end up with is, is this quite sort of fluffy arrangement, uh, as I would put it, that they have to try and work out the details later.
Jim Ambuske: It is kind of ironic that Madison's proposing such a scheme and thinking about it in terms of the British empire, it makes me kind of wonder, like if they had just gotten a better deal about, you know, 15 years earlier, things could have been different, but, and it's like, well, it, you know, it could've worked if we had done it this way, so let's try it now and see what happens.
Grace Mallon: Absolutely. And I think, uh, as Nicholas, my supervisor who you've interviewed always says, if, if George just hadn't declared the colonies to be in revolt, maybe they could have figured out a solution to the problem. But yes, they did rather like the British Imperial system, which is one of the things that I always enjoy about reading the records of the Constitutional Convention. There are so many things that they just want to replicate wholesale at various points.
Jim Ambuske: Let's talk then a little bit about how they begin to work this out. The federal government comes online, so to speak in 1789, it was the first federal Congress, uh, George Washington, who lived right across the street from where I'm sitting now, becomes the first president.
Where do you see some moments early on in the relationship between the new federal government in all its many parts and the constituents states trying to figure out how they're going to work together? Are there moments where they're eyeballing each other with uncertainty, where some are cited to work together, or is it in that fluffiness as you describe it, so much ambiguity that they are treading lightly for fear of causing more harm than good?
Grace Mallon: I think the first federal Congress kind of wants to come up with a game plan for how this is going to work and, and part of the way that they come up with a game plan, as they say, well, we've got to try and share information around the union. Our first priority as the first federal Congress is for the laws that we make to be enforced around the union.
Because obviously under the Articles of Confederation, it was really, really difficult for the federal government to enforce it as well as it didn't have an executive branch. Um, it tended to have quite a difficult relationship with various state governments. So they were trying to figure out, okay, how can we get these laws to be enforced all the way around the union in its different parts. Um, and one of the ways that they do that is obviously they hire their own staff and they send them out into the states. So they hire customs officials, Indian agents, they have Army officers who were all in the employ of the federal government and they go out into the states to enforce these laws.
The other thing that the federal government does, it says we're going to distribute all of our laws and our Constitution on a regular basis to the state government so they can keep an eye on the enforcement of federal law. And this is one of the things that I found to be very interesting, because when we think about federalism, we tend to think of the federal government and the state governments, each doing their own thing in their own sphere, and what I found in my project, my research is that the state governments spend a lot of time enforcing federal laws. And we might think that obviously there's a combative relationship, that there's a zero sum game in terms of the power in the federal system, but in fact, the state governments generally cooperate in the, in the enforcement of federal laws and some of the areas that they do that.
So the federal government says we don't have any of our own prisons. So if we have federal marshals arresting people for federal crimes, where are we going to put the people that we arrest? So they create a resolution, which they send out to the state saying we would appreciate it, state governments, if you would look after i.e imprison, our federal prisoners in your state prisons.
And generally speaking the state say, sure, absolutely, that's fine. We'll do that for you. Um, another thing that, that the federal government wants to do is they want to have lighthouses so they can protect commerce. And so they ask the state governments to seed either land on the coast or existing lighthouses so that the federal government could administer those lighthouses and the states generally say, okay, that's fine, um, we would like, if we could have concurrent jurisdiction there, so they don't become like a safe haven for criminals or people fleeing from state laws. Um, and they tend to write laws that say, “these are the terms that we are going to have if we're going to seed this land to you.”
So I like, I like that moment of negotiation where the states are sort of saying, “we still have a say in this, this is, you know, within our territory and we're still going to have a say in how this is going to work.” So moments of tension definitely do arise alongside this, this sense of collaboration. And one of my favorite moments of tension that arises early on is, you know, there's this hugely controversial policy the federal government puts into place, which is the federal assumption of state debts, and this is all part of Alexander Hamilton's program to rescue the national credit. And this is where the state of Virginia really begins to dig its heels in. Obviously Virginia has a wonderfully long history of resisting federal supremacy, and it starts very, very early on.
It starts right in 1790, when the general assembly of Virginia crafts a remonstrance to Congress against the law that is going to allow for the assumption of state debts and basically say “this is unconstitutional, and we, the state of Virginia, have the right to tell you that this is an unconstitutional law.”
And Alexander Hamilton is absolutely terrified by this. And he says, this is the first symptom of a spirit that either must be killed or will kill the Constitution of the United States, which feels quite prescient. Um, but yeah, so there are definitely moments of tension already arising, but obviously it doesn't lead to civil war, uh, right at that moment.
Jim Ambuske: Not yet that's coming well, it's funny because you were starting off describing a very pleasant kind of federalism, like, oh, this might actually work. But then as you point out with the assumption of state debt and a number of other policies, the conflict between the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act and gradual abolition laws in places like Pennsylvania, bringing the federal and state governments into conflict.
Can we talk more about this notion that states like Virginia in any state really would have assumed that they could nullify a federal law just because they didn't like it. Are we seeing that play out more generally throughout the period you're interested in, or is it isolated to some of these more key moments as you were describing with Virginia and in other places?
Grace Mallon: Yeah. I think one of the things that really struck me about doing this research is that I had assumed that there were some very key landmark sort of turning point moments in the lead up to the Civil War and the development of what we would call the states' rights ideology. The idea that states are fundamentally sovereign and they have the, they sort of have an equal and opposite force on the federal government, which more nationalist thinkers would certainly deny. And I think most people would probably deny it today as a theory. But you would think that those sort of key landmark moments would be things like the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions in 1798 in resistance to the Alien and Sedition acts.
So, you know, when that term you just used, nullification, that is first articulated, then moments like obviously nullification in South Carolina over the tariff and then all the way up to the secession movement, and I suppose the War of 1812 New England, is also kind of expressing that very radical sense that they can just fully reject, uh, fully reject laws that are proposed by the federal government.
But what I see in my research is that at a very low level, states across the union are articulating this kind of sense that they don't actually have to abide by federal laws if they don't want to, uh, various moments, um, from, as I say, from 1790 and onward through the years that follow, and that doesn't generally cause a crisis in a very serious sense, which is one of the striking things. So yeah, we've seen our Virginians resisting the assumption of state debts, particularly in Indian policy, which is something that I was very interested in doing this project. We see the state of New York saying that it doesn't recognize federal treaties with Indian nations. We see the state of Tennessee later on, Brown 1798, again saying, uh, we will pick and choose which federal Indian treaties we want to recognize. We see that idea generally being articulated. And I think one of the interesting things is that unless the federal government basically wants to send an army down into these states and say, “no, you will do what we say,” they basically have to nod along and say, “fair enough, as long as it's not causing a crisis, I guess we'll cope with that.” And so I think that's how that idea in a sense becomes latent in certain state governments.
Jim Ambuske: And they're picking and choosing their battles and where to put their energy and where not to. With the example of the Whiskey Rebellion we started with at the top of the conversation, they, they make the decision, “Okay, we've got to deal with this one.” This is not something that's going to go away easily.
Grace Mallon: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim Ambuske: Tell me a little bit about your research. We've got the records of the Constitutional Convention, the ratification debates, all that kind of stuff, but a lot of what you're talking about is playing out in the aftermath in relationships that are forged between the federal government and the state governments, between assemblies and Congress, but between officials and officials. And so tell us a little bit about where you found your stories and where you were seeing these moments of collaboration, but also this moment of tension.
Grace Mallon: So, uh, you mentioned the, the records of the federal convention. That was really where I got started out doing American historical research. I'm working on the quell project. So that was, um, that legislative record was a kind of record that I felt really comfortable working with from the beginning of my graduate research.
Um, and I thought that maybe if I went into state archives particularly and looked at their legislative records, they would be able to tell me a little bit about how the state governments were receiving information from the federal government, how they were processing that information, how they were figuring out how to respond to things that the federal government was doing.
So quite a lot of my research was in state legislative records. Some of those are a bit patchy, something that really fascinated me is that there aren't actually any print records for a lot of early national, Massachusetts history. So we have a manuscript records of the legislative debates, but they were never printed.
Um, or if they were, we don't, we don't have those print records anymore, which is extraordinary because you think Massachusetts is so important.
Jim Ambuske: It's like where everybody could read in Massachusetts. Why weren't they printing that stuff?
Grace Mallon: Exactly. But, but, but elsewhere, um, There were a lot of great records around, New York has to be my favorite. Thank you to the New York Historical Society for their incredible print records that they have on hand. Um, and then, yeah, as you say, I was looking at correspondence because I, one of the things I had a strong sense of is that, you know, for your, some of your listeners will be sort of Revolutionary War, uh, experts, people interested in the Revolutionary War.
And one of the fascinating things coming out of the Revolutionary War, obviously George Washington goes from Commander in Chief to Commander in Chief of the nation, and many of his sort of lieutenants or his, his officers go off and become state governors. So Washington has this relationship, this personal relationship with various governors and so to, to members of his cabinet. So Alexander Hamilton also has this Revolutionary War experience and these Revolutionary War relationships with different state officials. So a lot of those things do play out in terms of personal relationships between state legislators, state governors, and then cabinet officials, congressmen, and the president himself.
I was reading a lot of correspondence as well.
Jim Ambuske: That's really interesting, and I guess I really haven't considered that before. Where you could look at the command and control staff of the Continental Army and various state militias during the war, and then suddenly these guys are presidents, governors, um Richard Barrick who transcribes all of Washington's correspondence, becomes mayor of New York, all in positions of authority and power.
So there's a familiarity there that they can work with on a personal level.
Grace Mallon: Exactly, so one of my favorite relationships here is actually, um, Henry Lee. Who's the governor of Virginia and, uh, Alexander Hamilton. And they're quite interesting because they're both what we would probably designate Federalists, more than, I mean, Alexander Hamilton certainly is, we would probably call Henry Lee a federalist as well. They also have quite radically different political positions within that general designation of Federalist, so Lee is really upset with Hamilton that he's going to ruin his reputation by pushing this rather radical program of, of restoring the national credit.
But they also, you know, interspersed through that correspondence, they're talking about horses, they're talking about their romantic lives, they're talking about the business of states and you know, and how, uh, how the state and federal governments are going to get on, and then when it comes to the Whiskey Rebellion, which we've mentioned a few times, Alexander Hamilton is appealing to the different state governors to get them to supply militiamen for this army, which is going to march into Western Pennsylvania and put down the Whiskey Rebellion.
And he obviously writes to Henry Lee and says, the President and I would really appreciate your cooperation at this point, and then Lee becomes the commander of the forces in Western Pennsylvania. Um, so yeah, I think those personal relationships, even though it's really unpopular with his state assembly, who kicked him out of office because he takes on this persona. So I think these personal relationships are quite important for the federal government there.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah. It's like you went, uh, you were all part of a fraternity in college, and then you decided to do business together later in life when you're middle-aged.
Grace Mallon: It gets ugly pretty quickly. Yeah.
Jim Ambuske: It gets ugly pretty quickly. You mentioned Federal Indian policy a moment ago, and I actually would like us to explore that a little bit.
Because I think that's one of the more fascinating points of the project and in this history in general of this era, because the federal government is in a sense, as we were talking about taking on the model of the British empire and prior to the revolution, the British government oversees, in a sense Indian policy, a broader Imperial Indian policy with Indian agents, and they're in charge with negotiating treaties, with people like the Iroquois and Cherokee and whatnot. The colonies turned states have relationships with these peoples as well, but one of the key sticking points between the colonists and the empire, there was over Western expansion.
And here you've got a similar case in the 1790s where the federal government is overseeing land in the Ohio country. It's taken on the role of managing relationships with Native peoples. It's treating Native peoples as sovereign entities. And the states, uh, sometimes don't like that. Tell us a little bit about those relationships and where you see moments of state and federal governments working together, but also where there's real moments of conflict.
Grace Mallon: There are these two different ways of, uh, for the states of approaching the fact that the federal government through the Constitution is trying to take over responsibility for Indian policy in much the same way as you say that the, the British empire and then the Confederation Congress had tried with more or less and often less success to do.
And one of the ways that they react is they're pretty excited that the federal government is going to be taking this over, so, um, the state of Georgia, I'm absolutely fascinated by the history of Georgia, which can be both sort of incredibly nationalist and obviously incredibly secessionist and resistant to the federal government.
And one of the reasons they get really nationalist, sort of circa 1789, just when the first federal Congress is starting up, is they've been having quite a tough time through the Revolutionary War. They're not especially wealthy. They obviously got invaded. Um, and they had to sort of fight off the British Empire there and the British regulars.
And, uh, they also are sort of squeezed, as they feel it by the Muskogee Confederacy, the Creek Confederacy, which is this very significant indigenous polity in the borderlands of sort of the United States, um, and the Spanish Empire. Uh, and that sort of in lands that are claimed by Georgia that are now I think Alabama and also the west of Georgia and Florida.
And, they write to Washington when he's inaugurated as president, and they say, we're so excited that you're going to be president. We've been having a really difficult time with the Indians and we would love it if the federal government would basically send an army down here to, they don't say this in so many words, but you know, it would be really great if you guys could give us a show of force and then we could continue to settle our Western lands without feeling threatened by the Muskogee Confederacy. And Washington basically writes back and says, yeah, I really appreciate your congratulations on me becoming president but, uh, uh, I'm not really sure there's anything that I can do about that right now. And so one of the reasons you end up with a tension is that as you say, the federal government has a real interest in kind of squashing, certain Native nations in the northwest where they feel particularly threatened and they should feel threatened, because they have a tendency to get defeated by these particular Native, uh, armies and in the Southwest, as it was, they are generally less concerned because they don't want to be fighting a war on multiple fronts.
They're just trying to keep everything calm. Uh, and for that reason, the Georgians get pretty upset because, you know, they're saying you're sending armies to fight these other Indians, why can’t you send, send armies to fight the Creeks. And so they go off and they, they raise their own army without federal consent and they go and commit various murders and various other atrocities in the Creek country without any kind of federal permission, which, which makes everyone pretty angry. But I mean more generally beyond this, this outbreak of violence, I mean, a number of different states, either try to extend their state laws over Native people who are living within what the states consider to be their territorial boundaries, which we'll obviously see later when it comes to Indian removal, this is sort of a classic tactic. Um, but New York actually gets a real head start on that kind of behavior in the 1790s and 1800s
And they also try to negotiate their own treaties, and again, New York has particularly guilty of this. And in fact, the New Yorkers conduct a state treaty despite the fact the federal government has said, we will be the only people who are making Indian treaties now. New York then goes and makes its own treaty with various members of the Six Nations.
And one of these treaties was found to be unconstitutional a mere, 200 years later. In 1985, there was a 1985 Supreme court case, which actually ruled a 1794 treaty between the Oneida Nation and the state of New York to be unconstitutional because it violated a federal law of the 1790s. So you do see these things playing out over a long period.
Jim Ambuske: I mean, it’s amazing because where I thought you were going with that is that it would violate Congress and the President's treaty making powers and foreign diplomacy, and the prohibition of states concluding alliances with foreign nations. But the question, I guess on everybody's mind in that period is: Are Indian peoples a sovereign entity, and if they are what's, what are the implications of that? And if we deny that sovereignty, well, we can make a treaty and we can keep the federal government out of this.
Grace Mallon: Yeah I mean, I think one of the interesting things is the federal government absolutely does before, obviously the Cherokee Nation cases in the, the removal period in the 1790s, the federal government is very much insisting that these are more or less sovereign entities, that there should be no treaty making, right, between the state governments and the Indian nations. And they lay this out, not only in the Constitution, but especially in the Trade and Intercourse Acts, a series of which are passed by Congress in 1790s. Um, and New York goes ahead and makes this treaty, and then the chief Indian agent for that area, who is Timothy Pickering, who is a famously unpleasant character from Massachusetts.
Jim Ambuske: Yes, yes he is.
Grace Mallon: Um, he, he, he says to he's, he's sort of writing to various members of the federal government saying, can New York do this? And then he and Washington have the Attorney General write an opinion saying, you know, that it's unconstitutional for you to make a bilateral treaty between the state government and this Indian nation, and New York basically throws up its hands and says, what are you going to do about it?
And that's how a lot of this relationship works in this period I think.
Jim Ambuske: So nothing is different really is what you're saying.
Grace Mallon: So nothing's different. Exactly.
Jim Ambuske: What's next for this project? You've finished the dissertation, uh, folks out there who have written one, know what that's like for folks who have not written one, it is like pushing a boulder up a hill that will roll down on you, and then you have to push it all the way back up the hill. And then it's a [00:29:00] constant Promethean, Atlantean struggle to keep the fire burning and the world afloat. That's over now, thank God. Uh, you can rest easy. Uh, you, you have passed the Jedi trials. So now the question is what do you do with it?
Grace Mallon: Yeah, I've got a number of, um, I mean, I've got a number of plans.
I think, uh, obviously part of the plans are going to be taking in the various critiques that I've had from my brilliant examiners who read the whole thing, you know, and had various thoughts as you might imagine about it. And then I'm sending it off. Obviously in the United Kingdom, we don't have a committee system, we just have one supervisor and then two examiners for the thesis itself.
So I'm basically trying to build my own committee and send the thesis off to people that I would like to read it, to tell me what they think is wrong with it, what they think is right with it, what they would pull out, um, for articles and things like that. I'm coming to the Washington Library, obviously in 2022. Yay! Um, I'm very excited about that, and one of the things I said I would do is to try to write an article about George Washington's relationship with state governors, which I was just talking about. So I'd like to pull that out a bit. I think there's a general conceptual contribution that I would like to make, which is to do with the nature of federalism in America and, um, how that actually works in the Early Republic. We tend to think that there's a real sort of breaking point in federalism between when FDR comes to power in the 1930s, and we have the development of what people call cooperative federalism, and before that you'd had this rather cleaner distinction between the powers of the state and the federal governments.
And I basically went to question and challenge that distinction and that chronology. Um, so that's an article that I'd like to write. And then, yeah, I mean, turning it into a book is obviously the big dream or nightmare as you may frame it, how you will.
Jim Ambuske: It’s both. Trust me, I'm in that process right now.
Grace Mallon: Right, so I'm hoping to join you in that process soon.
Um, and just talking to people who know what they're doing in that area and see, you know, what's what it's going to take to turn this into a book that people want to read, which is the crucial thing.
Jim Ambuske: Exactly. You do, you do hope someone reads it, and I'm sure they will. Yeah, no, I think it's fascinating. It struck me as I was reading through your work.
I'm like, yeah, people have written on this before, but not really. It's like, why? This is kind of important.
Grace Mallon: Well, it's really good to hear that, first of all, because my, I think a lot of people who are doing a doctorate will have this feeling of, I'm sure someone's already done this, and you know, every time a new book comes out that has Federalism and the title, I'd be like, oh my goodness, somebody is going to have stolen my project or have got to my project before me. Um, and so I'm glad to have this sort of bound as it were and printed and bound and out of that in some sense. But, uh, yeah, in terms of why people haven't, haven't managed to look at state governments. I think part of it is to do with the records and just having to jump around between different states.
It would be so much easier if there were a pack of records that you could look at, right? But it just doesn't exist for federalism. The records are everywhere and so dispersed. So I think that was one of the fun bits of coordinating the project.
Jim Ambuske: Oh, I bet so. Well, you got to go to a lot of cool places. It's ironic that somebody from Britain came over to do all this work, as opposed to someone in the United States who had less travel expenses to do it, could, could have done it, but we're glad that you did so, and we're very excited to have you at the library here.
So you've got that. And then you've got another exciting thing that's going on. You are going to be working, I believe at Utah Valley University, which you, you mentioned UVU a little bit ago. Your advisor Nicholas Cole, who was on the program, talked a little bit about that in the context of the Quill Project.
So could you just remind our listeners very quickly what the Quill Project was, and then tell us about your new gig.
Grace Mallon: Absolutely. So the Quill Project is a digital humanities project that looks at, or essentially models, formal negotiation processes. Now don't stop listening there. Um these formal negotiation processes go towards the creation of constitutions and laws and treaties.
So it essentially looks at how constitutions are made and what it tries to do, what it does successfully do, is to take the rather unwieldy documents that we have, the records that we have of constitution making processes, and to use clever digital technologies, that I do not claim to understand, to turn those into a visualization of what each delegate to a particular convention would have had on their desk every day of the process.
So let's say we're talking about 1787 Constitutional Convention, and you want to know what let's say, Gouverneur Morris, everybody’s favorite member of the Constitutional Convention, the gov. You want to see what the gov has on his desk in the middle of June, um, when they're right in the weeds of trying to figure out what the Constitution is going to look like, and the Quill Project will show you that he would have had, I'm just making this up at this point. He would have had, you know, five different articles drafted that the convention had negotiated together. Um, and what's special about what Quill can do, is that up to this point, we didn't have any of that kind of record available. If you wanted to know what the text looked like at any given moment, you, the historian, would have to painstakingly go through and essentially manually rebuild it by pulling together the amendments that have been proposed.
So Quill does all of that for you, which is quite exciting. And, uh, I'm really excited because what my new gig will allow me to do is to go back to working with Quill. So I was one of the earliest research assistants on the project back in 2016, shortly after I finished my undergrad. And now I get to work with them again, because I'm going out to be the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, um in Orem, Utah, which is going to be very different for me, but very exciting. And essentially the Center for Constitutional Studies has been, is the American wing of the Quill Project. So the Quill Project, which is based at Pembroke College, Oxford, but a lot of the research that Quill does, that is done through the Quill Project name is done by brilliant undergraduate research assistants at UVU who are employed by the center, and they've been working on a range of projects way beyond the 1787 materials that I worked on when I started at Quill. So a project they've been working on is reconstructing, as it were, the negotiation of the Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and surrounding legislation. And another project for which the center was granted funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, was looking at Western state constitution making, and that is a project that I'm going to be particularly involved with when I go out to the center.
Jim Ambuske: That’s very exciting. Congratulations.
Grace Mallon: Thank you!
Jim Ambuske: Yes. Very different than Oxford. Uh, but I'm sure they've got lovely cake shops out there in Utah as well.
Grace Mallon: It's all I need is the cake shops. Yeah.
Jim Ambuske: Exactly. And on top of all of this, you also have a podcast. Tell us a little bit about that.
Grace Mallon: Yeah. So this is also another Quill thing. Let's just, you know, Grace, Grace doesn't need a personality. She has the Quill Project, but, uh, yeah, no. So I've been wanting to do for a while a podcast.
Adam Smith, um, got me hooked on podcasting by getting me on onto his, the Last Best Hope podcast out of the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford a couple of times, and I thought, wow, this is fun.
Jim Ambuske: We should clarify that we're not talking about Adam Smith, the great economist, he's dead. Uh, this is a professor at Oxford university. Because when you said that Adam Smith was on your research committee. But he's not alive, and I forgot that there was the other one.
Grace Mallon: And I'm sure Adam has never heard that joke before, but never. Um, but, uh, so yeah, I got hooked on podcasting and I wanted to do my own one and I particularly wanted to do one on constitutional history because that's what I feel my work is generally on.
But also because this semester I've been teaching remotely for UVU, and the course they got me to teach, which felt a little bit uncomfortable initially was comparative constitutionalism. And I started to think about the global history of constitution writing as a result of this. I'd had a very Anglo-American focus initially in my constitutional history studies, and then I was looking at things like India. Um, the constitution of India, I was looking at even Communist constitutionalism, which is a very fascinating phenomenon. And I was looking at other sort of early Age of Revolutions constitutions, France, Haiti, and I started to think, wow, wouldn't it be great to interview experts on these different constitution making processes, um, and on constitutional law, more generally on podcasts. And to bring together, constitutional studies obviously sits uncomfortably at the junction of a number of different fields, like history, political science, legal studies, and to be able to bring those experts together, so that's what we're seeking to do with the Conventions podcast.
Jim Ambuske: More conversations after the break. Hey folks, before we get to today's great conversation, I want to tell you about one of my favorite history podcasts. It's called Consolation Prize, and it's hosted by Abby Mullen of R2 Studios. Consolation Prize is a show about seeing the world through the eyes of the American consoles who represented the United States abroad since the early days of the Republic.
I love the show because it takes you back in time and around the world from Zanzibar to Mexico, covering history as US consoles saw it, and sometimes made it. So if you'd like stories of revenge, humiliation, triumph, joy, and I'm not even kidding about this part, exploding volcanoes, then this show is for you. Look for Consolation Prize wherever you get your favorite podcast.
Well, Grace, what book are you reading right now?
Grace Mallon: It's funny that you asked that Jim, because the book that I've been reading again and again, and again and again for the last few weeks and or months is my doctoral dissertation. Um, but let's imagine that I've been reading other things as well. In fact, the last thing that I read for what could be called fun was Benjamin Park’s book, The Kingdom of Nauvoo. As you mentioned, I'm moving out to Utah from the United Kingdom and something that, um, I think a lot of people who visit Utah will be asking is what's happening with the Latter Day Saints, and that was a question that I had. And so, um, and I knew that there was this great book out there, so I've been reading the Kingdom of Nauvoo and what I think is really fascinating about it, um, it's not just a religious history, it's also kind of a constitutional history because one of the questions that the early Latter Day Saints were asking, the very sort of 19th century American question in a lot of ways, is what would it look like if we drafted a constitution for the kingdom of God, which is what they try to do. And so, as a constitutional historian, I thought that was really fascinating.
Jim Ambuske: Who’s the author you most admire?
Grace Mallon: Well, this is just such a difficult question. Um, can I have two?
Jim Ambuske: Yes you may.
Grace Mallon: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Um, and I would have more than two, obviously I'll stick to two for the minute. So when I was an undergraduate, um, I had to do a lot of medieval history because at Oxford, you can't just choose your track.
You have to get steered in lots of different directions. And so I ended up reading a lot of British medieval history and, uh, an author that I had to read a lot was sort of 20th century, British medieval historian called James Clark Holt, JC Holt. Um, and he wrote some of the sort of foundational modern works on Magna Carta.
And I've been thinking back on, you know, why am I interested in the law and constitutionalism and legal history? And in some ways it goes back to that second year of undergrad having to read JC Holt and just the clarity with which he was able to capture some of this really difficult history. But to come sort of forward in time, a little bit someone, uh, his work I read recently and just thought it was absolutely wonderful, um, is Sarah Knott. I read Sarah Knott’s Mother is a Verb. Um, she was a visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, and, uh, it was one of those history books, um, sort of it's a mix of history and memoir and, uh, it's just, um, really, really brilliantly written and it was just a joy to read, so definitely Sarah Knott as well.
Jim Ambuske: What is the most exciting document you found in the course of your research?
Grace Mallon: So I think at a general level, it was always really exciting to come across famous names in the archive. And I think particularly during the Hamilton fever, I remember the first time I came across Aaron Burr in the archives and one of his letters and just being like, oh my goodness, I saw you on this West End stage.
But actually, and this is going to be a little bit niche, um, this is not a full document as such in fact, I can't remember it was a letter. I can't remember who it was from or who it was written to, but this was something that really kind of captures my imagination as a historian. And what it was was that there was this letter and it was, I can't remember, as I say what the context was, it was either in the New York Historical Society or the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Um, and I was going through all of this correspondence and I saw on the back of one letter right next to the seal that the author of the letter had written “take care and not tear the writing when you open the seal.” This might sound crazy, but it had that effect of, I don't know if you have this in the archive, you suddenly have this flash of a human being, having produced this artifact.
Um, and you could see someone writing at their desk and thinking, oh, I've wrote really close to the seal and now when they open it, they're going to tear it, and I've just got to make sure that they get, and you have that moment of a human connection between you and the person who wrote the letter. Um, and I think those are the kinds of moments that I actually live for in the archive, even more than you know, making the great historical discovery, is that sense of a connection with someone living in the past.
Jim Ambuske: No that’s true. I, I completely get that. Yeah, totally understand. I've been there a few times, myself. How do you hope people remember your work?
Grace Mallon: Well, it's sort of a difficult point in my career to be, uh, making, uh, a general statement about that, because I really hope, academic jobs permitting, that there will be, there will be more of my work to remember, and that I will have more of a contribution to make them than the contribution I've made so far.
But, uh, what that, as I've been talking to people about, Dissertation and research that a phrase that has kept coming up to see is this phrase in practice. Something that I'm fascinated by is the idea of government in practice, not just talking about politics as a set of ideologies, but as a set of relationships, government as a set of relationships and a people trying to get things done.
And the contribution I think I want to make at this point is, is to the idea of government as a practice and federalism as a practice. So I hope that's something that people will take away from my work at this stage.
Jim Ambuske: Grace, thanks so much. This has been great.
Grace Mallon: Thanks so much, Jim, for having me on the podcast.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for joining us today onConversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer. Jeanette Patrick offered editorial assistance with additional support provided by Mount Vernon’s media and communications department. Our music is “Witches’ brew” by C. K. Martin.
Be sure to subscribe to Conversations on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your favorite programs. If you liked the show, please rate and review it on your favorite podcast app. Find this and other episodes by heading over to our website at georgewashingtonpodcast.com. Thanks, and we'll see you next time.
Grace Mallon received her doctorate in History from Oxford University in 2021. Her dissertation project explored the relationship between the state and federal governments in the early American republic and its effect on policy. She is the incoming Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, and is a 2021-22 Washington Library Fellow. She hosts the 'Conventions' podcast on constitutional history for the Quill Project at Pembroke College, Oxford.