Leading theories of the Eleventh Amendment start from the premise that its text makes no sense. These theories regard the Amendment as either underinclusive, overinclusive, or an incoherent compromise because it prohibits federal courts from hearing “any suit” against a state by out-of-state citizens, but does not prohibit suits against a state by its own citizens. Two of these theories would either expand or contract the immunity conferred by the text of the Amendment in order to avoid this absurd or anomalous result. This Article suggests that the Eleventh Amendment made sense as written when understood in its full historical context. In particular, the Articles of Confederation empowered Congress to require states to provide men, money, and supplies, but gave Congress no power to enforce its own commands. Prominent Founders initially argued that the only way to fix the Articles was to give Congress coercive power over states. But the Convention and the ratifiers ultimately rejected this idea because they feared that the introduction of such power would lead to a civil war.
To avoid this danger, the Founders designed the Constitution to give Congress legislative power over individuals rather than states. This novel approach eliminated the need for coercive power over states, and provided Federalists with a key argument for adopting the Constitution rather than amending the Articles. Antifederalists threatened to undermine this case for the Constitution by arguing that the state-citizen diversity provisions of Article III – authorizing suits “between” states and out-of-state citizens – could be construed to permit suits against states (and thus imply federal power to enforce any resulting judgments against states). Although Federalists denied this construction, the Supreme Court proceeded to read Article III to permit out-of-state citizens to sue states. Federalists and Antifederalists quickly joined forces to restore their preferred construction of Article III. In adopting the Eleventh Amendment, they saw no anomaly in prohibiting “any suit” against a state by out-of-state citizens because they did not understand the Constitution to authorize any suits against states by in-state citizens. Federal question jurisdiction did not expressly authorize such suits, and the Founders likely would not have perceived any real need for such jurisdiction given their understanding that the Constitution conferred neither legislative nor coercive power over states. Because the Eleventh Amendment, as written, made sense in light of the nature of the Union, the absurdity doctrine cannot justify departing from the terms of the Amendment.