Virtuous Republicanism and the Federalist Debates

Posted on January 21, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In part 2 of our series on the Federalist debates, we look at the pros and cons of a strong federal government as argued at the time.

The Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government local. They did not want to change the sections of the Articles of Confederation that gave power to state governments and relegated the federal government to handling defense and foreign relations. That is, they wanted a confederation, not a union, of sovereign states that decided on their own whether they would heed calls from the federal government for taxation, or a military call-up, or a foreign treaty, etc. For instance, as we’ll see later in this series, when Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government must have the right to tax the states, unilaterally, in time of war, the Anti-Federalist response was to say, why not have the federal government go to the states when it felt it needed to raise money for war and the states would vote on whether to pay it. To us today that seems unworkable at best, crazy at worst, but it is clearly grounded in English law: the monarch had to go to Parliament to ask it to levy a tax to fight a war. This was a check on the monarch’s power meant to keep a monarch from bankrupting the kingdom in endless or losing wars. Parliament decided whether it would grant the money or not, considering whether the tax was in the best interest of the people. On the other hand, it was the breakdown of this system that had led to the English Civil War in 1642.

It’s obvious that the Anti-Federalists were worried that a strong federal government would begin to tyrannize over the states, as the British government in London had tyrannized its American colonies. But that British tyranny was just a symptom of a larger problem to the Anti-Federalists: the loss of virtuous republicanism.

Enlightenment political theorists described a successful republic as fueled by the private virtue of its citizens. Serving the state selflessly, devoting one’s energies to ensuring that the state fulfilled the common good, was an end in itself in the ideal/successful republic. All republics in history had failed, said the theorists, because civic virtue broke down—corrupted by power, or weakened by lazy inactivity. Of all the types of government, republicanism alone depended on the dedication of its citizens to the greater good and virtue as an end in itself.

This kind of republican virtue could only exist locally, according to the Anti-Federalists. When do people care about government? When they own it. When local people in local bodies make local rules, when you know your representatives and live next door to them and do business with them, then government is honest and effective, because it is truly representative, and any participant who goes against the common good is quickly voted out of office. State governments run by locally elected reps who live among their constituents can’t go wrong, especially in America, where the common people had proved their great republican virtue during the Revolutionary War by keeping their elected governments running and their local militias fighting.

The chances of local state governments remaining uncorrupted were made even greater by the fact that state reps would be elected by, and would mostly be themselves, farmers. Thomas Jefferson is the most famous of the advocates of the virtue of the yeoman farmer. A romanticized view of men who were “close to the land, close to God” was very popular during the Federal period, and continues on to a certain extent to the present day. To quote just one of Jefferson’s typical effusions:

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”

(How a man who saw most farming done by enslaved men and women whom he described as incapable of virtue could wax so poetically so often is a riddle.) At any rate, farmers were seen as the polar opposites of bankers and businessmen: farmers did not make their money off of other people, did not get rich collecting interest on debt, etc. Farmers made an honest living working the land. Therefore, farmers should be the heart and soul of local government. Of course, in the late 1700s, the American economy was predominately agricultural, and most people were farmers, so to have a government run by farmers was not only possible, but natural, and truly representative.

To remove government from the states to a federal government, no matter how centrally located, was to strike a blow against republican virtue. Reps sent to that distant national capital would be necessarily distanced from their constituents, and lose touch with them. Local interests in one state would have to fight with the local interests of another state in the capital. State needs could be overruled by cooked-up “national needs”. Traveling to and from the capital, in an era when the nation had few good roads, meant reps would be on the road or in the capital most of the time, not living amongst their constituents. Farmers would not be able to be away from their farms for months at a time to do this, so citizens might stop electing farmers, people like them, and start electing urban businessmen who could wheel and deal more effectively, but, as a result of that, politics would become sleazy. And, crucially, local needs and local focus would take a back seat to national needs and national focus, which impinged on the sovereignty of the states—when you focus on national laws and taxes, you prioritize the national over the state/local, and the states become cogs in a machine rather than separate political entities. As the nation grew, any capital, no matter how centrally placed in 1787, would become distant and out of touch with its far-flung state citizens, and then tyranny inevitably beckoned.

Again, we recognize here an argument that has never died out of American politics. “Washington insiders” are “out of touch” with “the American people”, “Wall Street” tyrannizes over “Main Street”, and the world “outside the Beltway” has nothing in common with the world inside it. “Big government” is ruining the nation, and government itself “is the problem”. We still even like to idealize farmers, at least in produce and truck commercials. And the push to weaken the federal government and return more power and sovereignty to the states has been going strong since the 1980s.

But the belief that state governments, because they are smaller than the federal government, cannot become corrupt was strange in 1787 and it remains strange today. Power corrupts, and any entity given power runs the risk of corruption. We see corruption at all levels of our government, from city halls to state legislatures. If the federal government were wiped away tomorrow, and the states ran everything, local corruption levels would rise commensurately. Mayoral elections in cities large and small are generally characterized by claims that the candidates do not reflect or represent the people; the same thing happens in elections for state government and governorships. Our population is too diverse for any one person, to fully represent all her/his constituents. And gerrymandering and redistricting efforts make sure that no group of legislators can accurately represent the people of their state.

Yet that is exactly why we can’t completely discount the Anti-Federalists’ desire to pin government to citizen virtue. If everyone felt they really had ownership in their local government, they would work harder to safeguard that government. They would vote, and run for office, and insist on reps who really represented them. A representative democracy like ours is a rarity in the world; only a relative handful of nations really have truly representative democracies. And it does rely on its citizens’ virtue: they have to really believe in life, liberty, and justice for all, and be ready to put their fortunes and even their lives on the line for it. Our current federal government, as well as our state governments, work well only when stocked by people who have that kind of virtue.The Anti-Federalists were right to insist on this.

So how did the Federalists answer these domestic concerns? Find out next time.

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