Click on desired page to read full-size article...
A lesson from history...
Federalist v. Anti-Federalist
When the states’ representatives emerged from the convention of 1787 with a new constitution for a new government for America, the result was a firestorm of controversy. What followed was a political division between those who favored the new constitution, and those who opposed it. The new government, as organized under the constitution, would consolidate the 13 individual states into one nation, under one federal head. Those members who developed this plan believed a stronger central authority would prevent problems between the individual states and that its source of authority came directly from “the People”; these were the Federalists. Facing them were the Anti-Federalists, men who cried “Foul!” at the arrival of an entirely new document when what was supposed to appear was a revised and strengthened Articles of Confederation. Patrick Henry stated that this new government was a “Revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain”. Federalist co-author James Madison countered with a question in No.45: “Was the revolution fought so that people could have peace, liberty and safety or so that states could enjoy a certain amount of power and be like sovereign entities?”
Madison’s question would not have a clear-cut answer, but it did bring to the forefront two of the many issues that the ideological arguments would have to face—individual liberty and states’ rights. The extent of representational government, the balancing of power, the rights of men and the dangers inherent in ruling a nation were other subjects that would be discussed by both sides. That the Articles of Confederation were faulty was contended by no one, but the extent to which they needed repair was.
For Federalists like Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, the Articles of Confederation simply could not be amended enough to suit. They believed that the conditions under which the Articles were written induced a pressure for haste that allowed for a flawed document. Their current situation, allowed Jay, provided better circumstances for a “national government more wisely framed”, constructed with “cool, uninterrupted… consultation”, with no outside influences. The result, claimed Jay in Federalist No. 2, was a “plan produced by their joint and very unanimous councils”.
The Anti-Federalists saw things differently. The Pennsylvania dissenters painted a picture of “secret enclaves” devising a new government, excluding those who disagreed. They, with other Anti-Federalists, believed the Articles could be amended so that the central authority would have enough power to do its work without resorting to such drastic measures as consolidating the government entirely. The Anti-Federalists all believed in the union of the States, and held an optimistic view of America’s future. Patrick Henry believed the Articles deserved praise, not approbation—it had seen the new nation through some very dark times. The Federal Farmer, while acknowledging the uncertainty of the times, pointed out that many of the current issues being called out as reasons to do away with the Articles were issues that dated from the war, and that those issues and others were being righted. Hard work and careful spending were top priorities, both privately and publicly, and debts in both areas were being re-paid so that economics were slowly improving.
Henry and the Farmer also expressed the Anti-Federalist view that the framers of the Constitution had over-stepped their bounds. They were sent by the State, said Henry, not by “the people”. Furthermore, added the Farmer, if the real purpose for the convention had been stated at the beginning, no state would have sent representatives. Instead, the federalists had decided the time was right for a total revamping of the government and the “young visionaries” and “aristocratical faction” had undermined the convention’s intent and “calculated, in time, to change our condition as a people”. Madison disavowed this charge in Federalist No.45, insisting that “the proposed change does not enlarge these powers”, but only allowed more effective administration of the old ones.
Agreement was found on both sides in the simple fact that government was a necessary evil, and that for a government to function, some of the people’s liberties had to be sacrificed. Both sides also agreed that the federal government should take care of duties that applied to all of the states (specifically, treaties and a uniform currency) but beyond that the two sides were again in opposition. Madison’s voiced insistence that the sovereignty of the state must be sacrificed brought the States’ Rights issue to the surface.
In No.10, Madison expounds the benefits of a strong central government, claiming there would be less factionalism, instability, injustice and confusion. Curing factionalism could be accomplished in two ways: remove its causes or control its effects. Since removing its causes was all but impossible, and because “property” was the greatest source of factionalism, regulating the differences in moneyed interests was, therefore, the foremost job of legislation. A pure democracy could not accomplish this end, but a national republican government could, given enough powers and greater territory and citizenry to provide the required corrective pressure.
Anti-Federalists argued that the larger territory and citizenry would have the opposite effect—that one nation could never rule such vast lands and diverse peoples. The country was too large to be administered without strong state governments, and the central government would be too far from the majority of the people. The number of representatives allowed by the Constitution was too small for adequate representation, which would effectively limit the people’s voice. The limits placed on the states themselves would lead to an enlargement of the federal government at the states’ expense. States would not be friendly towards interference in their internal operations, which would lead to conflict and possible revolution or the destruction of freedom. This was a partial consolidation, said the Farmer, with the intent of having all of the powers, eventually. A consolidated government was “incompatible with the genius of republicanism” stated Patrick Henry. The sovereignty of the states would be relinquished and, with the Constitution superior in power, the state constitutions with their Bills of Rights would be at risk. Further, Henry argued, there would be no checks, no real balances because a balance of powers “supposes human wisdom and enough weight in each to unbalance the other(s)”.
The Federalist Papers disputed the anti-federalist claims regarding the effect of the nation’s size on representation as well as the strength of their “checks and balances” plan. Madison argued in No.s 10 and 14 that the country was not so large as to prohibit representatives from coming together for short periods of time to take care of business; in fact, a strong central government would improve transportation and communication between the states. Also, a greater variety of interests among a larger citizenry would make it less likely that any one special interest would take the reins. Madison acknowledges that states on the frontier, furthest from government, would partake least in the government, but they would also receive the lion’s share of its support. Hamilton discusses the balance of state-federal power in No. 28, describing how the state and national governments would watch each other, with the power of the people coming in on either side to maintain a balance in power. The dispersal of the states would also serve to make it improbable that the national government could quell any general uprising of the states. The balance of power within the federal government is also explained by Madison in No. 45 in his description of how the three branches are actually dependent upon the state in that the states are the electors of the members of Congress, and in turn, the executive and the judiciary. Earlier in No.44 Madison also tells how if Congress should misconstrue of enlarge powers not warranted by the constitution’s “true meaning”, the executive and judicial can rein them in; if this does not work, then the people can take action by electing more faithful representatives to annul the legislation.
It was this “misconstruing” of powers that really concerned the anti-federalists. Not only did the “Supreme Law of the Land” designation throw States’ Rights into doubt, but the “Necessary and Proper” clause gave powers to the federal government to react in the future to unforeseen issues. Anti-federalists were extremely jealous of individual liberties and rights; that’s why John DeWitt and the Federal Farmer wrote that the line delineating these rights needed to be explicitly stated and could not be too precise or accurate. Madison argued back that there were simply too many issues to delineate them all (which is why the anti-federalists were pushing for a Bill of Rights to list the most important). He went on to claim that powers to the federal government would be “few and defined”, while powers to the states would be “numerous and indefinite”. The additional phrase, “That which is not expressly granted, is of course retained” was ambiguous—it could apply to either the government or the people, the Federal or the State. Madison’s statement that “wherever the end is required, the means are authorized.” probably made the hair rise on the back of the anti-federalists’ necks.
The ambiguous language of the Constitution raised fears among the anti-federalists. “General welfare” was too broad and unspecific, as were the “Supreme Law of the Land” and “pursuant to the constitution” clauses. Issues of jurisdiction congressional power to make and/or alter laws at their “will and pleasure”, and extensive executive powers all combined to leave anti-federalists with the specter of a government lacking clear, outlined functions. Cato comments in V that “inexplicitness seems to pervade this whole political fabric”. Patrick Henry’s greatest objection to the Constitution was its total lack of responsibility by legislators. “Will they make a law to punish themselves?” Henry asked. Even the “grossest maladministration” had no actual punishment.
Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists acknowledged the darker nature of mankind. Often it was used to throw invectives at the opposing side, but Hamilton commented in No.6 on man’s ambitious, vindictive and rapacious nature, his “love of power, prestige and authority”. He addresses private passions and needs for gratification, abuses of public trust for private gain. Ironically, he declares the anti-federalists are not realistic in thinking that the states can live together in perpetual peace because the nature of man is the opposite. The Anti-federalists use the same argument against the federalists, saying “aristocratical men” would abuse their legislative powers. Representative terms too long in length and without a limit in number would lead to rule by too few for too long and would allow consolidation of power. With taxing authority, legislators would be able to maintain themselves “in as much splendor as they please” (Henry), alongside a “great and mighty executive” with extensive powers. Brutus added “every man, and every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it and acquire a superiority over everything that stands in their way.” He continues, writing “Great officers of government beyond control of the people… abuse their powers for self-aggrandizement.” Brutus’ idea that “when the people once part with power, they can seldom or never resume it again but by force fits neatly with Henry’s question, “Did tyrannical rulers ever let go of those oppressed because they were asked to?”
To offset possible infringements on liberties, the anti-federalists pushed for alterations before a vote for ratification. The Pennsylvania dissenters offered a specific list of changes that would provide what was essentially a Bill of Rights. Right of conscience, trial by jury, freedom of speech and the press, the right to bear arms—all of these were descended from the Declaration of Independence, and the federalists did not argue with them, only promising them “later”. Instead, the federalists urged haste in passing the Constitution. Promoting a general sense of shame at the state of national affairs under the Articles, and proclaiming foreign and domestic threats—frequent and violent—loomed in the immediate future, they decried the anti-federalists desire for a thorough evaluation. Anti-federalists, in turn, decried the fear-mongering and challenged the federalists to give a specific example of one of the immediate threats to the Union. Instead, the federalists continued to urge haste—a condition that lent itself to increasing the wariness of the opposition.
“Why the haste to make this drastic change?” asked John DeWitt. For DeWitt and the other anti-federalists, better too slowly than too fast. They knew it would be easier to give powers than to take them back, again. The constitution would be much easier to change ahead of time than after, when the greater majority would complicate the idea. The Federal Farmer stated that “if men hastily and blindly adopt a system…they will as hastily be led to alter or abolish it.” The Farmer maintained that there was no danger if they took their time to investigate it—people were doing alright and taking care of themselves, so 3, or 6, or even 9 months would make little difference—and it was important that the end result was the right one. Problems would be caused by “ambition, impatience and troublemakers”, but not by taking the time to fully evaluate the document.
The rush to pass the document raised warning flags among the anti-federalists, but so did a variety of other things. The fear of a standing army, of states left without their own strong militias, of a government with limitless powers of taxation and representation of a type that allowed some states to dictate legislation to others (nullifying their right to self-rule), and an executive with monarchial powers were all alarming. Perhaps there was an element of paranoia among the anti-federalists, but when faced with a consolidated government that had what the Pennsylvania dissenters referred to as “complete and unlimited powers over the purse and the sword”, perhaps paranoia was not such a bad thing. Patrick Henry answered the federalists’ “Trust us!” with the declaration, “suspicion is a virtue, as long as its object is the preservation of the public good, and as long as it stays within proper bounds.” Basically, it was a “been there, done that” moment. Experience from the Revolution had taught many lessons. One was appreciation—Henry named liberty as “the greatest of all earthly blessings.” He continues with the advice to “Guard… the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel… nothing will preserve it but downright force: Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.”
For most, the evaluation of the Constitution was a choice between a confederated government, which maintained the authority of the individual states to protect individual rights, unified under a federal head, or a consolidated government, where states still existed, but were mere shadows to the power of the national authority. The Federal Farmer gave a third choice: a confederated government of independent republics that controlled the internal policies of their states but allocated specific powers and authority to a central government in areas of joint concern to all member states.
In the end, Federalists swayed opinion and secured the ratification of the Constitution. Although that document has maintained our nation for over two centuries, reading the arguments of both sides and evaluating the effects of time leads me to believe that the anti-federalists actually won the argument. Many of the promises made by the federalists have been disproven—the balance of power between the federal government and the states was undone by the civil war, and the balance of powers within the federal government leads either to stalemate or collusion. The premise of citizens understanding their rights and being prepared to defend them (Hamilton, No.28) no longer holds true in a society of sound-bites. The general language of the Constitution has been used to increase federal power, and the sphere of that power. The local spirit that Madison foresaw has suffered the siphoning of federal monies into “pork” projects and the rule of special interests over the good of the nation. The feared standing army that would never overpower state militias, did. The detestation of monarchy is now an avid admiration. The denial of titles of nobility has been replaced with titles of authority (“Senator”, “President”), proving Shakespeare’s adage that a rose by any other name… The procedure of having men capable of analyzing the needed qualities of an executive, deliberating judiciously has been replaced by a popularity contest. The idea of the People sitting back and watching, giving the government the means to exercise complete authority over them was not believable to Madison, but it is our reality. It is an insult to his “free and gallant citizens” that they “should reduce themselves… by a blind and tame submission to the long train of insidious measures which must precede and produce it”—but we have.
The anti-federalists seem to have had a better grasp on human nature. Patrick Henry recognized that the Constitution was a document designed to change the United States into “a great and powerful people”, not for securing their individual liberties, “which ought to be the direct end of… government.” He believed in States’ Rights because he knew that nations that had searched for “grandeur, power and splendor” had ended as victims of their own greed and lost their liberties. Cato followed that line of thought and foretold the future when he wrote “the progress of a commercial society begets luxury, the parent of inequality, the foe to virtue, and the enemy to restraint.” Centinel No.1 expanded on the importance of virtue and fairness, stating that “republican or free government can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous, where property is evenly divided; there, the people are sovereign and their sense or opinion is the criterion of every public measure.” Brutus, in turn said that “If representatives do not know, or are not disposed to speak the sentiments of the people, the people do not govern, but the sovereignty is in a few.” And that is where we are, today.
The situation is not, however, hopeless. Brutus maintained that “Perfection is not to be expected in anything that is the production of man.” With that in mind, We the People can accept that our government will never be perfect, that neither the federalist nor the anti-federalists path would have been entirely smooth. Patrick Henry defended the American Spirit as the best defense of the American people, making them inordinately able to overcome obstacles. Measures were built into the Constitution that can return the government back into the hands of its citizens. While they may have disagreed on the course that needed to be taken, both sides of the constitutional argument did agree that the starting point for our government was there— with the People.
RJ Morgan Smith
History 368, Texas A&M University
Dr. C.E. Brooks