Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the Debate over the Constitution

Posted on January 16, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to our series on the Federalist debates. We have to admit that this is a topic we’ve avoided for a long time here on the HP; somehow these impassioned, immediate debates over the very nature of our founding principles, carried out with and for the general public, have failed to capture the imagination. Part of this, perhaps, is because the Federalist debates are one of the worst-taught areas of U.S. history in American schools. You’re told there was a debate over whether to have a strong federal government, the Anti-Federalists are represented as idiots fighting an obviously good idea, and you’re sat down to read a laboriously expressed Federalist Paper or two, and that’s that. The debates seem pointless, and the Papers seem unreadable.

The debates weren’t pointless, however, and the Anti-Federalists weren’t idiots. The Papers can be dense: classical references; long, semi-historical digressions; sentences that are a full paragraph long, using more semi-colons than even the HP would dare. But generally when they have a point to make they hammer it home with minimal rhetoric and maximum good sense. So we’re going to quote from some of the Papers in this series, to make our own points. (We are also indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

We do this because Americans in the 21st century are still having the Federalist debates. The questions the anti-Federalists raised are still valid today, and not just for that minority of Americans who want to dismantle the federal government completely. The questions the anti-Federalists raised, and the answers the Federalists gave, are eerily modern, and the most eerie part is that Federalists like Hamilton explicitly stated in 1787 that they were thinking forward hundreds of years, trying in vain to fully anticipate the problems the nation would face centuries after them, and trying to build in protections for the government and liberties for the people to preserve freedom in the face of threats they could not even imagine. As Hamilton put it, in Papers 23 and 34 (the capital letters are his, not ours):

“IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances… We must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages… There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.”

These remarkable statements not only anticipate cyber-age threats no one could have dreamed of even 40 years ago, let alone 227 years ago; they also describe an argument about government power that is whipsawing American society today as we face the reality of NSA surveillance.

But that’s leaping ahead. Let’s start this series with a quick update to refresh the collective memory:

The Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolutionary War by the Continental Congress established, as the name says, a confederacy: a league of friendship between sovereign political entities—in this case, the 13 states. The federal government, which consisted of a single-house Congress, did not impinge on the sovereignty of these states very much: it was authorized to handle foreign policy, national defense, disputes between states, interstate commerce, and legislating for new territories under U.S. control but not yet organized into states.

There was general concern that the states were headed for disputes that the weak federal government would not be able to resolve. Populist state governments were making zealous proclamations/warnings about maintaining their sovereignty, and it seemed increasingly likely that if the U.S. did face an external threat, like war with Britain or Spain, the federal government would be powerless to stop each individual state from going its own way—making separate peace treaties, or joining blocs of states that followed different policies, or refusing to pay federal taxes needed to levy an army in favor of prepping its own militia to defend its own borders and nothing else.

James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York were the main leaders of a convention called to revise and edit the Articles of Confederation in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. The delegates to the convention met in secret, which worried many Americans, who were afraid they would make and pass substantial changes to the government without public input, and present the new Articles as a done deal after the fact. Those fears were realized in part when the delegates decided not to revise the Articles but to scrap them completely and write a new document. But fears that the new document would be railroaded through were not realized.

This is one of the amazing facts about the Constitution: the finished document was not referred back to the existing Congress for approval (many Americans think that members of Congress met at the convention, but while some delegates were also members of Congress, most were not; they were specially appointed by their states to go to the convention). The new Constitution was also not sent to the state governments for ratification. Instead, the proposed Constitution was sent directly to special conventions set up in each state and made up of delegates elected directly by the people. The Founders’ faith in the people, and their dedication to creating a republic where the people ruled, was unprecedented in western history. As the first Federalist Paper put it:

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

In other words, the American people will decide what system of government they will have because they have earned that right, “by their conduct and example”. A people so devoted to liberty, as proved by their conduct in fighting the Revolutionary War, must be “capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

And so the debates in the special conventions began, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists began their writing campaign to instruct and sway the people. The Federalist Papers, as well as the many documents written by the Anti-Federalists (they have no one unifying name) were published in newspapers and broadsides from October 1787 through August 1788, as the state ratifying conventions met, to educate the people about the issues at stake so they could influence their state conventions. It was a remarkable campaign on both sides to impact a vote not with lies, scandal, rumors, or personal attacks, but with logic, reason, examples, and thoughtful questions. Passions ran high, to be sure, but the passion was for the truth, and the best form of government, not for personal or party gain.

We won’t address every issue canvassed during the campaign to ratify or reject the Constitution, but we will look at those which are most pertinent to us today, in our “remote futurity”, so that we can call upon the Founders once again to help us decide our important issues of good government.

Next time: the pros and cons of big government

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