Gregory Ablavsky’s Federal Ground explains how the national government and American law were transformed in the federal territories that compose modern Ohio and Tennessee. Ablavsky’s careful research and fresh perspective will make his work a vital reference for historians, but this Book Review also highlights the book’s significance for legal academics and lawyers. Ablavsky has collected extraordinary evidence about property pluralism, intercultural violence, and disputed forms of statehood, all of which show that the United States’ legal system was founded in the Northwest and Southwest Territories, not simply in urban centers like Philadelphia and New York. Federal Ground’s analysis of the Early Republic has strong implications for modern legal debates. Conflicts over federal title in the territories show that property law can be used to support governmental sovereignty just as much as the other way around. Ablavsky’s research also affects modern disputes about administrative government: Administrative structures in the federal territories were vitally important, widely publicized, and constitutionally undisputed during the Early Republic. Additionally, this detailed history of territorial government highlights tensions in modern originalism, especially with respect to constitutional statehood and federalism. Most important, Ablavsky’s analysis of federal territories emphasizes the strength and influence of Native people during a crucial period of American legal history. Statehood, territorial government, and national creation all occurred in historical landscapes that were occupied by Native owners and residents. If modern lawyers and academics forget those historical dynamics, they will misperceive the origins of American law and ignore continuing responsibilities to respect and support Native people today.
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