Were the Anti-Federalists Right?

What if the Anti-Federalists were right and the Federalists were wrong?

When the U.S. Constitution was sent to the states for approval in 1787, what if the Federalist position of a strong central government — advocated by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, as well as the whole of Washington’s and Adam’s presidencies — was, in effect, conservative moves to try to hold back the tide of events? And what if the Anti-Federalists were the ones who really represented the future?

This is the provocative idea that Gordon Wood writes about in Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution, one of several counter-intuitive, and all very powerfully argued essays collected in The Idea of the America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (2011).

Usually, the period leading up to the Constitutional Convention is characterized as a period of overwhelming debt from the war, paired with an inability to raise revenue. The Articles of Confederation purposely created a weak central government, with no right to tax, dependent on the states for revenue, and no means to force them to make payments. Nine of thirteen states were required to pass a law; all thirteen state legislatures needed to agree in order to change the Articles themselves. This, of course, was a recipe for impasse. In addition, conflicts among the states were many, particularly over commercial matters, and the federal government had no power to resolve these disputes.

Professor Wood sees it differently.

Many prominent figures in the 1780s did share a sense of crisis and imminent failure for the republican experiment. But according to Wood the crisis was not over the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Rather, the Federalists in the 1780s had a glimpse of what America was to become — a scrambling business society dominated by the pecuniary interests of ordinary people — and they did not like what they saw. The crisis, in other words, was about republican virtue and character.

The Federalists — particularly patricians like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and those that wanted to conduct themselves like patricians, such as Adams and Hamilton — tried to live up to the ideal of disinterestedness. That is, they believed they should be above the marketplace and contribute to the nation by doing what they felt was right for the whole. As a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates for four years, Madison had witnessed other delagates squabbling over parochial interests or commercial ventures that would benefit themselves and their constituents personally. Rarely, he thought, did they do what was best for the State of Virginia.

This democratic give and take, which in our own day we simply call politics, frightened Madison. As Gouverneur Morris (New York aristocrat, stylist of the Constitution, and author of the preamble) said, The moment this plan goes forth, all other considerations will be laid aside and the great question will be: Shall there be a national government or not? And this must take place or a general anarchy will be the alternative.

So was the Constitutional Convention really an attempt to give central powers to a national government run by elites? The Anti-Federalists certainly thought so. Indisputably it was designed to eradicate sovereignty of the states. Arguably it was a power-grab by unelected officials to dissolve the Articles of Confederation. Was this the way to the future or a reaching back to the past?

Read Wood’s essay. It argues and illuminates issues that continue to radiate today.

JDN | 15-Aug-2012

From 1778, the British army and navy were additionally overstretched in a global war against France, and later against Spain and Holland. From Blenheim in 1704 to Waterloo in 1815, Britain won the majority of its victories in alliance with other countries in Europe.... In the American war, on the other hand, Britain was at a great disadvantage because it had no allies and was opposed by much of the rest of Europe in the League of Armed Neutrality (1780). Spain and France were able to concentrate upon building up their navies whose combined strength outnumbered the Royal Navy and Britain faced the most serious invasion threat since the Spanish Armada in 1588.... In consequence of the expansion of the war, the priorities of the British government were diverted from the war in America.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2013)