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"Entirely a National Government"? The Anti-Federalist Perspective
July 16, 2010
Any study of the rightful functions of government should take account of the arguments of the Anti-Federalists, those Americans who opposed ratification of the Constitution. Historians typically have not been kind to the Anti-Federalists, but Bill Kauffman argues in this essay, adapted from his acclaimed biography Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin, that the Anti-Federalists’ warnings about the dangers of centralizing political authority were prescient. Referring to what he calls “the handiest and hoariest of conservative objections to so many acts of the national government: namely, ‘It’s unconstitutional!’” Kauffman writes: “The Anti-Federalists would have told you that such ‘unconstitutional’ interventions were inevitable. Indeed, they are not so much unconstitutional as they are logical extensions of the consolidationist thought of [James] Madison, [James] Wilson, [Gouverneur] Morris, and the nationalist faction that triumphed at Philadelphia.”
Historians have not, on the whole, been kind to the Anti-Federalists, the misleading name slapped on those who opposed ratification of the Constitution. In the main they have been written off as bucolic bumpkins unable to grasp the exquisiteness of the Madisonian argument or as agrarian radicals motivated by antipathy toward wealth, commerce, and table manners. They are sometimes, grudgingly, with many qualifications, given credit for siring, indirectly, the Bill of Rights, but more often they are swept aside as beetle-browed brutes incapable of appreciating the majesty of the Constitution.
Permit me to say a few words for the Anti-Federalists.
The Antis are the men—and women, I add, not as a p.c. genuflection but in recognition of the Bay State’s Mercy Otis Warren, playwright and historian and among the most literary Anti-Federalists—who considered what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had wrought in that sweltering Philadelphia summer of 1787 and said No. They included dissenting delegates to that convention, like George Mason of Virginia; patriots still afire with the spirit of ’76, like Patrick Henry; and backcountry farmers and cobblers and libertarian editors and malcontent layabouts. They were “not simply blockheads standing in the way of progress,” wrote Robert Rutland in The Ordeal of the Constitution, “but . . . serious, oftentimes brilliant, citizens who viewed the Constitution in 1787–88 with something less than awe.”
The Anti-Federalists regarded consolidation of governmental power with what seems to me a meet suspicion, though it has seemed to others to verge on paranoia. One of my favorite Anti-Fed pseudonyms was taken by the writer who called himself “None of the Well-Born Conspirators.”
They often made wild predictions about where this all would lead. For instance, George Clinton—not the funky parliamentarian but the New York Anti-Federalist—prophesied that the federal city created by the Constitution, later known as Washington, D.C., “would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious.” Gee, thank God that never happened.
The Anti-Federalists raised a central question of political philosophy: Where ought political power to reside? In a remote central authority, or hard by the people? (My invidious phrasing, I admit.) A prominent Federalist—which is to say, using the down-is-up nomenclature devised by those crafty consolidationists, an advocate of the new Constitution—lectured that “we must forget our local habits and attachments,” but this is only possible for those who have no local habits or attachments. One might as well enjoin that “we must forget our heart and lungs.”
The sheer scope of this new system, the audacity of bringing thirteen far-flung states under one central government, astonished the Anti-Federalists. James Winthrop of Massachusetts marveled, “The idea of an uncompounded republick, on an average one thousand miles in length, and eight hundred in breadth, and containing six millions of white inhabitants 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. . . . Large and consolidated empires may indeed dazzle the eyes of a distant spectator with their splendour, but if examined more nearly are always found to be full of misery.”
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