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In 1863, Edward Augustus Freeman published the first volume of his History of Federal Government, a study of ancient Greek federalism under the Achaean League. Though unknown today, Freeman was the most enthusiastic advocate of the federal idea that Victorian England produced. He is best considered a liberal nationalist who was drawn to federalism because it addressed the problems posed by continental nationalism. He endorsed nationalist movements in Italy, Germany and the Balkans, and opposed the Austrian and Ottoman empires on the grounds that they violated the principles of nationality and popular sovereignty. To help build these nation-sates, Freeman pointed to federalism, arguing that federations would enable populations of similar nationality to achieve independence, cohesion and security, while at the same time establishing liberal governments in which decentralization would curb the exercise of power. But Freeman’s endorsement of federalism had its limits. He did not regard federalism as a solution to the constitutional problems that arose in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s over Irish home rule and imperial federation. Having derived his federalist principles from a continental context, he was reluctant to apply them to Britain. Because he saw federation as a means to build or preserve large states, he considered it applicable to those areas where large states did not exist. But such was not the case with Britain. To create a federal Britain by sharing sovereignty with Ireland or the colonies would only reverse the process of nation-building and weaken an already strong unitary state.

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Freeman, federalism, nationalism, Balkans, nineteenth-century Europe, intellectual history


History | Intellectual History


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The Limits of Victorian Federalism: E.A. Freeman's History of Federal Government