The Federalist vision of the American Republic
In part 6 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution, we rebound off the Federalists’ weak attempts to claim that the federal government they envisioned could indeed have its power checked by the states (which was not really true) to their more powerhouse vision of what a modern, American republic would really mean.
We, like the Federalists, have looked at the traditional republics of antiquity and seen that they were all very small geographically, very dependent for their success on the civic virtue of their citizens, and, perhaps consequently, very short-lived. The Anti-Federalists worried that the United States was already far larger geographically and population-wise than any previous republic, and that any central, federal government would necessarily be far removed, physically and spiritually, from the heart of the people—the farmer. Anti-Federalists said that the honest, virtuous yeoman farmer was and should be the backbone of the nation, because he could be counted on to do the right thing (the merits—or lack thereof—of this dubious argument can be set aside for now). The whole point of government should be to educate the people in civic virtue by giving them local government they could be actively involved in. That could not happen in a federal state, especially one where the states had no right to check the power of the federal government. What you want in a republic, the Anti-Federalists said, is all the people involved in all the government all the time, united in their virtue and commitment. And in this argument, they were backed by historical opinion.
The Federalists rejected this. Instead, they offered the world a radical new definition of a republic. Direct popular rule, they said, is exactly what you don’t want in a republic. Why? Because whenever human beings gather together, they fight. It’s just human nature. People break into factions. They group together, united by some common interest they discover or invent, and then they want to push their own agenda, gaining more rights for themselves at the expense of the common good in general, and the “them” they see as threatening them in specific. This “us against them” mindset is unavoidable in human society. And it leads to one thing: tyranny of the majority.
We’ve discussed this concept in several places on the HP; here, the thing to focus on is that the classical republican ideal of a populace united in virtue is a complete fantasy, according to the Federalists. No population is ever going to be united, for a good or a bad goal. It will break into factions and each faction will attempt to impose its way on the others (tyranny). And even if the majority of the population is in one faction, it’s still wrong, the Federalists insist, for that majority to impose its will on others (tyranny of the majority). As we put it elsewhere, this tyranny of the majority:
…ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public. Slavery is a good example. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans and white abolitionists were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.
Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools, for various reasons. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation. In each of these examples, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice, which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.
Faction, the Federalists say, will always trump the goal of a united populace. So what do you do to get real democracy? You avoid direct rule and embrace faction.
Here’s the argument: work with factions, don’t try to suppress them with an education program to create virtuous citizens, because that will never work. Instead, embrace all the problems the Anti-Federalists see with creating an American republic—the large size of the nation, representatives working far away from their constituents, farmers not having time to travel to a far away central government. All of these things will make a new kind of republic possible. First, the large size of the nation means that many diverse people will populate the country and it will be hard for them to join together to make large factions that threaten tyranny of the majority. The large size of the nation also means that if a faction does gain traction in one region, it will likely remain in that region—it won’t spread, because the factors in its region that promoted its growth won’t be found in other regions. And in a large nation, representatives will be physically far away from the people, and that’s good because it keeps them away from the pressure of the mob, from factions banging down their doors.
And in our large nation, members of Congress will have such diverse constituencies that they will have to compromise in order to try to satisfy as many people as possible (something that gerrymandering was quickly invented to remedy). But even with gerrymandering, this did work for many decades: one great example is slavery. The two main American political parties of the first half of the 19th century, the Whigs and the Democrats, were evenly and equally represented North and South. There were no red or blue states—each region had Whigs and Democrats. Because of this, few politicians could take a bold stance on the divisive issue of slavery, because politicians North and South knew that they had pro- and anti-slavery constituents. And so there was compromise on slavery, from the big compromises we all know, like the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, to many smaller ones. Only a few people, like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina or Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania had unified enough constituencies to take hard-line stances on slavery (Calhoun for, Stevens against).
Now, we regret today that slavery was ever an issue of compromise, but those compromises did prevent a civil war from breaking out in, say, 1820, when it would have been even more devastating to the young, unstable nation than it was in the 1860s. And we see that as the sections (North and South) became more polarized throughout the 1850s, the Whig party disintegrated, its Northern members unwilling to compromise over slavery and leaving to join the antislavery Free Soil or Republican parties, and the Democratic party became a South-only party, completely devoted to promoting and protecting slavery and nothing else. The Democratic party was able to exercise tyranny of the majority over the other parties for many years because of its unity, its factional devotion to one “us against them” issue. And so the civil war came.
So the Federalists argued that faction could be controlled by sheer size, on the one hand, but also by virtue, on the other. Yes, Anti-Federalists, there is still need for citizen virtue, said the Federalists, but instead of all the citizens needing to be ideal people who rise far above human nature’s need for tyranny and faction, only a few citizens need to do that. First of all, only a few citizens really can do that, said the Federalists, people who are well-educated and devoted to justice. If we urge our best people to go into government, then not only will our government be good, but the average person will respect their leaders and their government, and will give up some of their factional mob nature and support both instead.
In a way, the federal government in this vision of a republic is like a Play-doh fun factory: the misshapen mass of factional mob demands are fed into Congress, where members of Congress shape them into good laws by focusing on what is best for the people. In go irrational, factional demands, and out come good laws. And those good laws will inspire and educate the people, and make them less factional. So public virtue does not rise from the ground up, but moves from the top down.
This was indeed a vision of the republic that was completely new. It turned classical republicanism on its head. It said that allowing the people direct rule was just a way to make sure that their destructive factional demands destroyed their government. The Federalists said that removing the government from the destructive impulses of the people was the best way to improve the people over time.
It seems clear today that the Federalists were right to dismiss the Anti-Federalists’ devotion to the classical ideal, which was based on a fantasy version of heroic farmer politicians who would never do wrong, all citizens having direct control over government, local governments that would never become corrupted, government devoted to educating its citizens rather than governing them, and sovereign states united by ties so weak that any conflict could dissolve them.
Next time we’ll look at the arguments over representation to Congress. If that one body was going to house the powerful federal government, and somehow represent all citizens fairly, it was going to have to be composed fairly, out of a huge population. This would be no easy task. In fact, before representation could even be discussed, the structure of Congress would have to be argued out.