Article IV’s command that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government” stands as one of the few remaining lacunae in the judicially enforced Constitution. For well over a century, federal courts have viewed the provision — traditionally known as the Guarantee Clause but now referred to by some as the “Republican Form of Government” Clause — as a paradigmatic example of a nonjusticiable political question. In recent years, however, both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have signaled a new willingness to reconsider this much-criticized jurisdictional barrier in an appropriate case, leading many to predict that its eventual demise is only a matter of time.
The interpretive possibilities inherent in a judicially enforceable Guarantee Clause have tantalized generations of constitutional theorists, leading to a significant body of research attempting to uncover what was meant by the provision’s oblique reference to “a Republican Form of Government.” But this research has almost completely ignored a separate inquiry that is equally critical to understanding the provision’s meaning and significance — namely, what it means for the United States to “guarantee” such republican government to the states.
This Article seeks to shed new light on the original meaning of the term “guarantee” in the Guarantee Clause by looking to an unexpected source — namely, eighteenth-century treaty practice. The language of the Guarantee Clause closely parallels language that was frequently used in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century treaties. The interpretation of such treaty provisions was informed by well-settled background principles of international law, which attached particular legal significance to the term “guarantee.” As used in eighteenth-century treaties, the term “guarantee” signified a diplomatic commitment whereby one nation pledged its support to the protection of some preexisting right or entitlement possessed by another sovereign. Importantly, however, such provisions were deemed to exist solely for the benefit of the guaranteed sovereign and conferred no separate rights or entitlements on the nation pledging the guarantee.
Viewing the Guarantee Clause through the lens of eighteenth-century treaty practice casts significant doubt on claims by modern scholars that the provision should be understood as a repository of judicially enforceable individual rights. Rather, both the text of the provision and contextual evidence regarding its original understanding strongly suggest that the provision more likely reflected a quasi-diplomatic, treaty-like commitment on the part of the federal government to its quasi-sovereign component states. This evidence lends new, and heretofore unappreciated, support to the Supreme Court’s longstanding practice of treating Guarantee Clause claims as beyond the scope of judicial cognizance.
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* Assistant Professor, Boston College Law School. I would like to thank Will Baude, Mary Bilder, Pamela Bookman, Sam Bray, Rebecca Ingber, Tom Lee, Ethan Leib, Ryan Liss, and Tejas Narechania for helpful comments and conversations in the development of this article. The Article also benefitted immensely from insightful feedback obtained in workshops at Notre Dame Law School and Boston College Law School, as well as from the hard work and valuable contributions of the editors and staff of the Harvard Law Review.