Give Anti-Federalists Their Due
Rodney Dodsworth February 12, 2018
Riot and mayhem welcomed the draft Constitution when it made the Philadelphia newspapers. Advocates of the new plan held a majority in the Pennsylvania legislature, then in the last days of its regular session, and they attempted to ram through a statute calling for a ratification convention. To prevent a quorum, some of the Constitution’s opponents, the Anti-Federalists, made themselves scarce. The Assembly sent the sergeant-at-arms to seize enough absent members to establish a quorum, and forcibly kept them on the floor of the chamber.1
It is difficult today to comprehend the apprehension and enormity of the choices set before society in the 1776 – 1788 era.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the US did not have the attributes of nationhood. Among other features, nations have taxing powers, a common currency, and make commercial treaties. To correct these deficiencies and keep the Union, Federalists designed a less federal and more national government.
But, to many people in 1787 the shortcomings of the Articles did not justify the Constitution’s mixed democratic/federal structure. Both sides recognized the fundamental feature of the Constitution; it was a government derived from the people rather than one expressly in the hands of the people. The Constitution squinted toward an aristocracy of the nation’s natural aristocrats, a government manned by the leading men of society. It wasn’t as if the Federalists had lost faith in the people; they simply believed a government too close to the people led to ambitious demagogues and dangerous factions.2
Is republican, liberty-preserving government possible across a large territory? Federalists thought it possible; Anti-Federalists were certain it wasn’t.
Anti-Federalists regarded the Constitution as a repudiation, if not betrayal, of the Revolution. Aristocratic government is typically not conducive to liberty. Where the Revolution transferred power from the few to the many, the Constitution, wrote Melancton Smith in Letters from the Federal Farmer, “is a transfer of power from the many to the few.” To the Federalists, the greatest dangers to liberty didn’t arise from society’s natural leaders, but instead from excessive participation of the people in government.3
The Constitution’s initial allotment of only sixty-five congressional seats, and the subsequent limitation of no more than one rep per 30,000, was proof enough to the Anti-Federalists of the denial of representation adequate to reflect the people’s true interests. To reflect the people’s interests, feelings, and opinions, congressional districts must be small, so small that instructions from constituents guided representatives, rather than the Framers’ intent for representatives to use their independent judgement.4
The Anti-Federalists were not alone in their estimate of representation and had a powerful ally. On their side were the writings of the very influential Charles de Montesquieu, who theorized that only small geographic areas with a citizenry of like-minded, if not homogenous people were suitable for republican government. James Winthrop of Massachusetts expressed a common belief when he said, “The idea of an uncompounded republic, on average one thousand miles in length, and eight hundred in breadth, and containing six millions . . . all reduced to the same standard of morals, of habits, and of laws, is in itself an absurdity, and contrary to the whole experience of mankind.”5
While the Federalists explained that their plan did indeed create a compounded republic in which Article I Section 8 left a vast reservoir of state-retained powers, the Anti-Federalists would have none of it. The new government would tax individuals and use the funds to keep standing armies. History, and not distant history, justified their fears. European armies defended monarchs against both external military threats and internal revolts. Where George III didn’t dare impose martial law in England, Bostonian’s experience under his martial law was a recent bad memory.6
The power to tax and raise armies, combined with Montesquieu’s theory, convinced the Anti-Federalists that America’s vast expanse made it incompatible with republicanism and guaranteed tyranny.
Unfortunately for the Anti-Federalist cause, opposition to the Constitution was often haphazard and scattershot, which allowed ratification in several states by a whisker. For example, the leading Anti-Federalist of the era, Patrick Henry, raged against the Constitution’s opening, “We the People,” and every subsequent clause. Had the Anti-Federalists focused their opposition on the impossibility of real representation in a distant congress in a future national city, there was every chance of falling short of the requisite nine ratifying states.
The Anti-Federalists lacked all faith in the Constitutional institutions that presumed to speak for the people. The president, standing alone as commander-in-chief of the armed forces was unencumbered by an executive council, and had power over appointments not extended to most state executives. As opposed to the Articles of Confederation in which state delegates were term-limited, all constitutional offices, including the president, were eligible for repeated reelection. In this, they feared an eventual monarchy emboldened by a near-perpetual senate composed of a fixed and unchangeable body of men. They reacted to the combined powers of the President and Senate with horror.7
Together, the president and senate held all of the executive and two-thirds of the legislative powers, and jointly appointed all civil and military officers. Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, another respected Anti-Federalist, asserted that the combined executive/senate authority was “a most formidable combination of power” that unbalanced the Constitution.
Anti-Federalist opposition boiled down to fear of losing their liberty. The president and senate were too distant from the people. They scoffed at a hopelessly inadequate House of Representatives. At 1:30,000 it was a mere “shred or rag” of the people’s power and faced certain domination by the monarchal and aristocratic branches.8
“What have you been contending for these ten years past?” the Anti-Federalists asked. Liberty! What is liberty but the power of governing yourselves? If you adopt the Constitution, you give that power to men a thousand miles away.
The Constitution threatened liberty, that circle of freedom in which no free government can intrude. While the Anti-Federalists were aware of democratic excesses and the need for a more vigorous government, the Constitution went too far. It pulled too much power from the states and lodged it in an imperial city. In this isolated city, a part of no state, the Anti-Federalists expected the worst. There, they expected the nation’s criminals and rogues to gather and rule the republics and people like the Tsar and his nobles.
Despite losing the immediate argument, Anti-Federalist influence did not end in 1788. Their criticism of the lack of a bill of Rights led to the adoption of the first ten amendments soon after the new Constitution went into effect, and their general opposition to centralized power passed from generation to generation down to the present time. As opposed to today’s opinion poll and passion-driven congress, societal leaders of the founding/framing generation thought ahead into the future; they constantly considered the effect of contemporary decisions on future generations. And what the Anti-Federalists envisioned horrified them. Since truly representative government across a continent was absurd, the supposed safeguards of enumerated powers in Article I Section 8 were but a smokescreen to hide incipient despotism.9
We would do well to step back from contemporary politics and reflect on James Winthrop’s warning long ago. As modern domestic enemies promote conflict among factions distinct in wealth, race, gender, and sexual proclivities, while simultaneously enforcing nationwide intellectual conformity via repressive scotus decisions and punishment for “hate crimes,” society is lurching toward an authoritarian rule not compatible with liberty, but with a people at constant war amongst themselves.
We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Government is the playground of politicians, but the Constitution is ours. Be proactive. Restore the American Tradition. Join Convention of States.
- Maier, P. (2010). Ratification – The People Debate the Constitution. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc. 64.
- Wood, G. S. (1969). The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 516, 581.
- Ibid., 516, 517.
- Kenyon, C. (2002). Men of Little Faith. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. 3, 73.
- Ibid., 3, 79-84.
- Ibid., 79.
- Wood., 520, 521.
- Ibid., 521.
- Kenyon., 79, 83.