Federalists and Anti-Federalists: what did the debates do?

Posted on March 12, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

In our conclusion to our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our constitution, we try to wrap up their overall impact on the U.S., in their own time, and over the centuries since 1787.

We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.

But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the  new government.

This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on  even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.

We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.

And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.

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The Federalist vision of the American Republic

Posted on February 19, 2014. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

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.

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Federalists and Anti-Federalists: which one really wanted a Union?

Posted on February 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

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?

Next time, we’ll see how prescient the Anti-Federalists were about that.

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