State of Mankind

A New Way Of Thinking

The Anti-Federalist Argument

Though extremely under-studied, the Anti-Federalist argument is an important one to understand the nature of our country.  The Federalists and their support for the Constitution won the debate for ratification, but the Anti-Federalists are credited with having the Bill of Rights added.  Though not well studied, the Anti-Federalists included some very influential people, such as Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”), and George Mason.  To appreciate the Bill of Rights, it is important to study the sentiment that caused its creation.  The following is a sum-up of the ideas of the Anti-Federalists by Ralph Ketchum (prefacing my copy of the Anti-Federalist papers).

…In short, the federalists sought English-style commercial growth, domestic prosperity, and world power, which they thought were compatible with Revolutionary ideals of freedom and self-government.  They believed the new Constitution furnished the means for achieving those goals.

Perceiving these aspirations and purposes, the anti-federalists were at once skeptical and disheartened.  They saw in federalist hopes for commercial growth and international prestige only the lust of amibitious men for a “splendid empire” where, in the time-honored way, the people would be burdened with taxes, conscription, and campaigns.  Uncertain that any government over so vast a domain as the United States could be controlled by the people, the anti-federalists saw in the enlarged powers of the central government only the familiar threats to the rights and liberties of the people.  The federal judiciary, for example, seemed like simply another magistry removed from the people that would enforce harsh and arbitrary laws.  The broad power to lay and collect taxes, the president’s role as commander-in-chief, Congress’ authority to pass any laws “necessary and proper” to carry out its enumerated powers, and the “supreme law” and treaty-making powers, all seemed unbounded and at least potentially tyrannical.  A persistent thrust in anti-federal thought, then, was both to withdraw some of the explicit powers given to the national government and to restrain with further checks and balances the exercise of its remaining powers.  The anti-federalists were, in a sense, “men of little faith” as both contemporary and modern critics have charged, but this was true only within their fear that centralized power tended to become arbitrary and impersonal.  The anti-federalists came to these views more readily, of course, because the Whig rhetoric of eighteenth century British radicalism and the ideology of the American Revolution were filled with suspicions of power, especially distant, centralized power.  These arguments were now handy for use against other advocates of such power.

The anti-federalists also had a positive idealism of their own, a republican vision they thought far closer to the purpose of the American Revolution than the political and commercial ambitions of the federalists.  The anti-federalists looked to the Classical idealization of the small, pastoral republic where virtuous, self-reliant citizens managed their own affairs and shunned the power and glory of empire.  To them, the victory in the American Revolution meant not so much the big chance to become a wealthy world power, but rather the opportunity to achieve a genuinely republican polity, far from the greed, lust for power, and tyranny that had generally characterized human society.  Was it possible, they asked themselves, to found a society on other bases and with other aspirations that would nourish the virtue and happiness of all the people?  Could they break the self-fulfilling cycle where selfish people needed to be controlled by checks and balances which in turn required and encouraged more and more self-seeking by the people?

To the anti-federalists this meant retaining as much as possible the vitality of local government where rulers and ruled could see, know, and understand each other.  Thus they chrished the Revolutionary emphasis on state and local councils and committees, and the Articles of Confederation where the central government rested entirely on the states.  The idea of self-government was tied inextricable to something like a town meeting directness or at least to a state legislature of many annually elected representatives who would really know the people of their districts.  Each “district,” furthermore, would be a town or ward or region conscious of its own, particular identity rather than being some amorphous, arbitrary geographic entity.  Only with such intimacy could the trust, good will, and deliberation essetial to wise and virtuous public life be a reality.  Anything else, even though resting in some fashion on the consent of the people, would not really be self-government. (The Anti-Federalist Papers, and the Constitutional Convention Debates, Pages 16-17)

Clearly, the Anti-Federalists were correct about some things and incorrect about others.  Interesting is their major fear that the Federal Government would come to dominate the political scene and the United States would become a “splendid empire”.  Were they correct?  The Federal Government does now dominate the political scene.  Have we become an empire?  Whether the individual feels we are or not, we have troops all throughout the world and fight in just about every possible conflict that could arise.  We are taxed to pay for it all, just as feared by the Anti-Federalists.

One of the biggest locks on national power the Anti-Federalists pushed was the tenth amendment to the Constitution.  It states:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The Constitution was written to allow the Federal Government to speak for the states collectively in foreign policy, to defend them with a military, to settle disputes between states relating to commerce, and to have courts to protect life, liberty, and property.  How far have we moved outside these boundaries?

Judgement on the correctness or incorrectness of the Anti-Federalists will be left to the reader.  I simply would encourage all members of our country to study their writings and ideas in order to have a better understanding and context as to the founding of our nation.

« Previous post

Leave a Reply