Men of Little Faith: Anti-Federalists and Article V Opponents

By Rodney Dodsworth – April 29, 2016

There is a parallel conservatism shared by the framing era Anti-Federalists and today’s Article V opponents. Conservatism in this sense is the tendency to hold on to what is known and to resist change.

We may take it for granted, but thirteen heterogeneous societies joining in common defense was not inevitable. By 1787, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists foresaw approaching dissolution of the union under the Articles of Confederation (AC). A decade of experience with state constitutions had revealed their defects and induced among many Americans an inclination toward change. Either the independent republics must join in a more perfect union, or eventually find security with a European power. The situation was favorable to a new constitution, but not necessarily to a national constitution.

Since 1781, Federalists, men who sought to enhance congressional tax and commerce powers under the AC, crafted a solution in 1787. The resulting Constitution was new, yet had enough similarity with recently ratified state constitutions to be viewed as having both radical and familiar features.

Central to Anti-Federalist opposition was the possible abuse of power. It was on this basis that Patrick Henry at the VA ratifying convention opposed the Constitution beginning with “We The People” and just about every clause thereafter.

Among the gloomy warnings:

  • At a ratio of 1:30,000, the House of Reps would soon be inhabited only by wealthy men of an aristocratic nature who would abuse the “Times, Places, and Manner” clause of Article I to suspend elections and set themselves up as oligarchs.
  • Joining together under the treaty clause, the senate and president would set up a dictatorship.
  • Runaway slaves, debtors and assorted villains and miscreants would find refuge in the federal city.

Like today, both sides in 1787 held a dim view of human nature, knew that it must be kept in check, and feared that the people were too corrupt for republican government.

However, their approaches toward a solution could be viewed as mirror opposites. Anti-Federalists would deny power in order to prevent abuse of power, while Federalists shaped a complex government in which power was so divided, so chopped up that the concentration, if not abuse of power was all but impossible.

In their intransigence, conservative Anti-Federalists chose to remain with a form of union that didn’t serve its designed purposes, which from Article III of the AC were: “their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”

Perhaps, in retrospect, the AC could have worked as designed if it had been enforced or the states sent better men to congress. If only the states had obeyed the resolutions of congress per Article XIII: ”Every State shall abide by the determination of the United States in congress assembled, on all questions which by this confederation are submitted to them.”

Yet, despite Article XIII, the states often did not comply with congressional resolutions.

Today, like the Anti-Federalists, Article V opponents also recognize our dire situation. Like the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, while over a much longer time, has fallen far short of serving its purposes: “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” We send good men and women to DC, and exhort them all to enforce the Constitution we have, but to no avail.

While the Federalists/Anti-Federalists and Article V Supporters/Opponents all agreed there were/are problems that had to be solved in order to save the union, one side to both situations refused to address the problems head-on. They preferred to conserve, out of fear of change and possible abuse of power, that which had proved to be detrimental to liberty. James Madison pointed out at the VA ratifying convention that if a power was judged necessary to good government, its possible abuse was an insufficient reason to oppose it, for there isn’t a power or privilege on earth that could not be abused. An Article V convention represents prudent use of state power for the purpose of reversing an encroaching evil.

The problems are real. Unlike the Federalists of 1787 who sought to reform a system that was only six years old, our task today might be more difficult. One hundred and three years of rot introduced by the 17th Amendment has unquestionably pervaded the body politic, yet the solution is not to do nothing.

Of course, no particular outcome is guaranteed from an Article V convention of the states. But as in 1787, if we do nothing out of fear of possible abuse of power by state delegates, what is guaranteed is transformation of the union for the worse. The future is a certain and hardening tyranny if we do not accept our responsibilities to save the great American experiment in free government.

Article V.

We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder of the American Republic. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.

Hat tip:

Kenyon, Cecilia. Men of Little Faith – Selected Writings of Cecelia Kenyon. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. Book.

Robertson, David. Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia – 1788. Richmond: Enquirer Press, 1805. Book.

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