Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution. Last time, we looked at the Federalists’ conception of national security and how it demanded a strong centralized government with unlimited power of taxation. Here, we look at the Anti-Federalist reaction to this vision, and how it led, oddly, to accusations on both sides that the other side did not really want a United States.
The Federalists had the obvious position: the Anti-Federalists’ insistence on sovereign states wielding state militia to defend themselves was, the Federalists insisted, a clear sign that the Anti-Federalists did not really want a union. They weren’t really committed to joining together with other states to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the Anti-Federalists really wanted, said the Federalists, was for each state to eventually go its own way and exist as an independent republic.
The Anti-Federalists’ accusation of disunion was more subtle: in their insistence on a national security state, the Federalists themselves undermined the idea of a union by taking away citizens’ rights in the name of defense. The Federalists would tax indiscriminately, and likely impose other burdens impossible to even think of at the present time, and take away all the freedoms and all the political participation of citizens that define a republic. The Federalists would create an oligarchy in all but name.
In their argument, the Anti-Federalists were touching on an issue that actually worried the Federalists, too: republics in history had always been very small. They had to be small, reasoning went, because everyone had to be able to participate, and if you had a huge population that would be impossible (what building could hold them all in a Congress?) and if you had a large geographic footprint that would also be impossible (you would be forced to impose a random central point where the government would exist that would necessarily be far away from most of the people). The United States already had the huge footprint—just the 13 states together were much larger than any previous republic, or any previous kingdom, for that matter—and the population was bound to grow to match it. Even the individual states, as Federalist Alexander Hamilton pointed out, were already each much larger than any previous republic. Only Rhode Island was close to the small size necessary for republican government. Every other state in the Union would have to be broken up into smaller states to be true republics.
This endless splintering would spell the end of trying to create a Union. The component pieces would be so small they would feel no need to give up their government to someone else, and would only create treaties with neighboring states, for trade or for mutual protection. And if there were 39 states in the geographic area that had been occupied by just 13 states, what would happen as the U.S. expanded across the continent? You would end up with hundreds, even thousands of states, and no federal government could hold all their delegates.
While this argument made the Anti-Federalists doubt whether Union could or should be attempted, it galvanized the Federalists to argue for something that has become familiar to us today, but was new then: American exceptionalism. The United States was not like a republic of the distant past, they said. The U.S. is not ancient Greece. The U.S. is a modern republic, and it can make its own rules—it can update the definition of republic, or even redefine it. Look at those past republics, Hamilton and Madison said: they all failed. They didn’t even last very long. So why are we supposed to follow their rules? America is all about new ideas, new ways of doing things. Look at our Declaration of Independence, they said; it is the first of its kind. We are creating a new government from scratch to meet new conditions and new possibilities, in a new world of modern Enlightenment ideas. Why should we be bound by Iron Age thinking?
The Federalists acknowledged that there would be trial and error in this approach, but they made the case that the rewards were worth the risk. Let’s bind a huge landmass into a republic, they said, and find a way to represent all the people and give them an active political role nationally and locally. Let’s expand to fill this North American continent and still remain a republic. Let’s become a republic of millions. Let’s redefine what it means to be a republic, and make a new government for a new time and place.
This was an exciting argument for many Americans, but it smacked of recklessness to others. It also failed to satisfy the questions about national security—what was so new and exceptional about a government with unlimited power to tax its subjects? Isn’t that the definition of a monarchy, or a dictatorship? And what are our guarantees that a central government with that kind of power won’t unilaterally change the Constitution that gives the citizens their rights? In the end, are we re-defining republicanism, or abandoning it?