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

By modern standards there is something unlikeable about John Hancock. His type of patriotism and charity is as obsolete as his brocaded dressing-gowns and jewelled buttons. He was one of those men who curiously go in and out of style. Once they are out they are hard to value. ‘The golden showers of guineas’ that marked his almost royal progress, his big speeches, like ‘burn Boston and make John Hancock a beggar if the public good requires it,’ do not arouse in us the same genuine enthusiasm they did in his contemporaries. Such men as Paul Revere, [Royal Governor Thomas] Hutchinson, Joseph Warren, or Sam Adams never are in style or out. Their personalities exist quite independently from the accident of their birth in the first half of the eighteenth century. This is not quite true of John Hancock.

Esther Forbes
Paul Revere & The World He Lived In (1942)