Patrick Henry

From the 2003 Abbeville Institute Summer School.

I’m going to be talking about the Anti-Federalists. The first question we might ask is: “Who were the Anti-Federalists and why did they take the position they took?” Today, historians are never happy just to study the writings, speeches, correspondence, and other documents produced by the protagonists of an era or a battle. They just want to outguess everybody, and they want to show everybody that they know better, so the Anti-Federalists were against the Constitution for a lot of social reasons and because they were these bunch of people and so on and so forth. There’s been a lot of studies and not one was conclusive; the Anti-Federalists socially were pretty much not so different from the Federalists. But if you take the position that they really thought about what they said, declared, and believed, modern academe thinks you’re pretty naïve. And, in actuality, all this social and sociological look at the Anti-Federalists is simply watered-down Marxism. And if we are still in love (or, rather, if American academia is still in love) with this form of watered-down Marxism, then I suggest we just go for the true thing – real Marxism. It’s much clearer, stated better, and it’s got a philosophy behind it. But this kind of watered-down Marxism is really not convincing at all to me. So here, as far as I’m concerned, we’ll discuss Anti-Federalism from what has become a pretty naïve standpoint, which is the idea that all these people really meant what they really said and declared, both in public and in private.

We’re going to be talking about something that should be called “Loser’s History.” When you take the Anti-Federalists (and then Jefferson, and then Calhoun), it’s like you’re specialize in “Loser’s History.” As Professor Livingston was saying yesterday night, which is very true, Switzerland is still some kind of a true federation, Canada could be considered a decentralized federation, but the United States is no more. That’s true. That’s a pity. I wish we had not only one Switzerland in the United States, but dozens, thousands. Not that I don’t like the United States – it’s just that I want more of them. But the thing is that nowhere else can you go, if you want to find some political thought on Federalism. If we were to discuss the political thought of Switzerland, it’d take about five minutes. I’m not talking about the great Swiss system, all their customs, traditions… that’s a great thing. But when it comes down to political thought, then in about ten or fifteen minutes it’s over (unless you consider William Tell and that kind of stuff political thought). The great thing about the American decentralist tradition, which is a Southern tradition, is that it’s the only real thought on Federalism that you can find on Earth. Sometimes, a lot of scholars, in Europe especially, when we talk about: “What do you study?” “American political thought.” That’s it. They start losing interest in it. The Anti-Federalists, Jefferson, Calhoun, Thomas Cooper, John Taylor, and so on, they add up to a pretty good group of people that wrote thousands and thousands of pages on what we consider radical Federalism or authentic Federalism. Now when we talk about Anti-Federalism, we refer of course to the movement of opinion against the ratification of the Constitution that was very strong in 1787 and 1788. And then they lost the battle (supposedly) and probably won a little compromise with the Bill of Rights. I’m convinced the Federalists lost as well. There were two losers. They both lost.

But the thing is that suddenly, in 1788, they disappeared from the political scene. There were no Anti-Federalists around anymore. The Bill of Rights was passed. It was the work of the winning side – the Federalists. By 1790 most of the Anti-Federalists had joined ranks with the Federalists and they wanted to be considered completely and totally legitimate opposition in that time, so that now they were ready to join ranks. This is not true. Some of them were. Actually, most of them were going underground and waiting for political opposition to resurface, which is exactly what happened a few years later with the Jeffersonian party.

As soon as Thomas Jefferson started to organize the opposition to the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists joined ranks with him in the Democratic-Republican party. And of course, you all know who the most famous Anti-Federalist leaders were: George Mason, Patrick Henry, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Richard Henry Lee, and Melancton Smith. Smith was a great one. He is now almost forgotten but he wrote some very interesting stuff. Of course, you all know that the Anti-Federalists were not against Federalism (despite what their enemies said), and Federalism had become a good word in the U.S. by the 1780’s, pretty much like “democracy” is today. In 1794 Mr. Fauchet was the ambassador to the United States from France and he was a Jacobin, so you can imagine he was not too much in favour of Federalism. In those times the accusation of Federalism during the Terror could bring you directly to the guillotine without any trial whatsoever. Federalism was the worst accusation you could have in those times in France. But Fauchet understood something because, in a letter he sent home to Paris, he said there was a real contrast between the names and the real opinions of the parties: “The Federalists wanted to destroy Federalism and the Anti-Federalists wished to preserve it.” He was probably the first European who understood this and he said nobody in Europe understood anything like that or what was really going on in America. The Anti-Federalists usually denied that their name was accurate and very seldom made use of it. They didn’t refer to themselves as Anti-Federalists. They claimed to be the true Federalists and insisted that their name had been stolen during the Convention. In fact, Luther Martin wrote: “During the Convention there was a National party and a Federalist party and we were of the Federalist party, but our name has been stolen.” In 1981, Herbert Storing published his seven-volume collection, The Complete Anti-Federalist (I call it The Quasi-Complete Anti-Federalist, because there are some Anti-Federalist writings Storing didn’t include) and it’s really the definitive work on Anti-Federalism. The first volume is very interesting. It’s called What the Anti-Federalists Were For. There appears, Storing says, to be a subtle meaning in which “Anti-Federalists” could actually be correct as a label, because “to become Federal” in those times meant also “to unite.” So, in this sense, critics of the Constitution refused to go Federal. Sometimes they said: “Our State will never go Federal, will never unite.” And they didn’t want to see their own States merge into a mass called the United States of America. They wanted as much liberty as possible and as little union as possible.

And what was their political theory? Well, first of all, they were definitely at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their rivals, the Federalists, who produced a single work, well-structured and better conceived, in defense of the Constitution. The Federalist, (by the way never say “Federalist Papers.” It was Clinton Rossiter who invented the term “Federalist Papers.” The real title is The Federalist, or the New Constitution, and it was published at the end of the battle in 1788. As you know, it was written to convince the people of New York and it came out in New York and it was written mainly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with a few asides by John Jay. It appeared as letters or periodicals in the New York papers and it was well structured because it was a complete defense of the Constitutional project. On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists’ theory was usually piecemeal rather than being presented with any degree of systematic continuity, so different elements of it appeared more or less prominently depending on the author and as the occasion demanded and according to the preferences and proclivities of different writers and speakers. So, if you really want to read Storing’s whole seven volumes, it’s easily going to be 5000 pages, and then at the end you’re going to need to study a lot more in order to grasp what the Anti-Federalists were for, because they never sat down together to try and figure out the best theoretical attack on the Constitutional project. So, the Anti-Federalists were all opposed to the Constitution and most of them had pretty much the same reasons for opposing it, but there was never a strategy to go against it, no coordinated plan of attack. They didn’t plan. They were dispersed. They proceeded in dispersed order. You also have to realize that, for a long time, in American history and political thought there were only the Federalists and nobody else. Up to 1955, I would say the Anti-Federalists went into oblivion for at least a century, because the last person of some stature who wrote about them positively was the great President Martin van Buren, who was actually a libertarian. So, for about one-hundred years nobody talked about the Anti-Federalists. Historians who were interested were very satisfied by The Federalist, and you might want to know that in in Germany, Italy, France, and even in England, the only book on the Constitution of the United States is The Federalist. It was translated, it was debated, and so on. There’s no single work, not even a scholarly article, on the Anti-Federalists. That’s why I’m translating about 500 pages of Anti-Federalist writings into Italian, with about 150 pages of introduction, which will be published in six months. It’s a big work and it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. The situation in Continental Europe is pretty much like fifty years ago in the United States. The only source is The Federalist. In 1955 there was this great article (I mean it was totally wrong on concepts, but it was great because it revived the interest in the Anti-Federalists), written by Cecelia Kenyon for the William and Mary Quarterly, it is called “Men of Little Faith” and by “men of little faith” she meant that they had little faith in democracy, which is pretty doubtful. That was certainly not the inurement of Anti-Federalism. After Kenyon’s article came out, people started to study the Anti-Federalists again and the best book around on the Anti-Federalists is by Saul Cornell, and it’s called The Other Founders and it was published in 1999. It’s really great and it shows exactly how a lot of these people merged into the Jeffersonian Party, which is one thing that was denied for a long time, because if you read all the Jeffersonian scholars, they write articles that are called “Thomas Jefferson: Federalist.” They just never link him with the Anti-Federalists despite all the evidence that there’s a clear link between the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists.

So, what was their position? They wanted hardly any government, especially on the Federal level. They believe that a weak government, not a strong one, was going to secure their liberties, and that was really the central issue of the debate. There was all this talk about energetic government in 1787 and they all said: “No, no, no, we don’t want an energetic government. The government’s got to be very weak, almost as weak as during The Articles of Confederation.” They actually had a very different vision for America and feared that Federalists wanted the U.S. to begin building an empire. The Anti-Federalists always talked about empire OR liberty. The Federalists wanted the empire. They didn’t care too much about liberty. The Anti-Federalists thought there was a clear dilemma between empire and liberty, there was an opposition, a dichotomy, a choice had to be made, either empire or liberty. And then, of course, there was Jefferson who came out with his idea of the “empire of liberty,” so he could really see very many positions.

Well, when did Anti-Federalism get started? When can we start to begin to talk about Anti-Federalism? I would say “immediately,” because the campaign against the ratification of the Constitution began even before the Philadelphia Convention met, like a few months before. This campaign was already brewing while the Convention met in the summer of 1787 and Patrick Henry didn’t go there. They wanted him to go there, but he refused because, as he famously said: “I smell a rat.” The campaign actually broke out in full force when the Convention ended. On September 15th, George Mason, Edmund Randolph, and Elbridge Gerry explained why they could not sign the document. If you read their statements (you can find them online in the first volume of Elliot’s Debates), you’ll have a pretty good idea what Anti-Federalism was going to be all about, and much of their explanations equaled what was going to become the standard Anti-Federalist position. And it’s important to take a good look at non-signers and their arguments in order to gain a better appreciation of the motives that were driving the other Founders. You can find all these speeches online. The best one is George Mason’s. I suggest you take a look at that because it’s the most concise statement of Anti-Federalism. But let’s move to specifics.

Most Anti-Federalists revered, of course, The Articles of Confederation. So, too, did Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to John Adams from Paris when he took a look at The Constitution and he didn’t like it at all. He said: “All the good of this new Constitution might have been couched in three or four new articles to be added to the good old venerable fabric which should have been preserved even as a religious relic.” Like Jefferson, The Anti-Federalists knew that some changes were not totally out of the question. They wanted some changes and we talked about that. Generally speaking, what they wanted was to give Congress more power. They had no problem with that. What they were not ready to do was change the structure which was derived from authority entirely from the States. That was the thing that was to be preserved. And actually, if we take a good look at The Constitution, all the authority still derives from the States. “The States” are mentioned 103 times. The nation is called “this land, the United States” and it’s only mentioned three times. The whole structure of The Constitution is that the States do not have to ask permission to do anything. They just have to look and see if there’s something they cannot do in The Constitution For the general government it’s exactly the opposite. They have to look for specific permission in the text. So, in a certain sense, it could be argued (it was definitely argued very well by Calhoun) that all authority stemmed from the States and there was no other source of authority within the Constitution. Of course, the Anti-Federalists had a lot of objections to the new plan and I’m not claiming that they were 100% right on everything, but it would be a great research project to write a good book. You could title it Anti-Federalists’ Fears, Federalists’ Reassurances of their Fears, and What Really Happened. It would be great. You could see what they got right and what they got wrong. You’d find out that they predicted what was going to happen with a 99.2% accuracy. And these people are supposed to be dumb compared to the great Federalists. Most of them were considered almost illiterate and if you do read some of the articles and pamphlets that were published by Storing in 1981, you can tell that some of them were not exactly masters of their English prose and it was probably like their first published work, but they were right on the mark. They were not as brilliant as the Federalists probably as far as intellectual powers go, but still. Let me give you just one example of this – Anti-Federalist fears, Federalist reassurances, and what actually happened. In June 1788, the Virginia ratification convention was taking place and Patrick Henry was the leader of the Anti-Federalists and since for Henry the crux of the issue was the choice between liberty and empire, he immediately attacked the Federalists and asked “Who authorized the federal Convention to speak the language of ‘we the People’ instead of ‘we the States?’” Henry was kind of a scary, imposing man, an imposing speaker. So, one by one, the proponents of the Constitution rose to reassure the suspicious Henry. First of all, they told the story of how it was changed from “We the People of the several States” (naming all them) to “We the People of the United States” as an act of diplomacy, since the Constitution had not yet been ratified by the States, and they didn’t know which States would ratify and which wouldn’t. And then Henry Lee said of course it meant the people within each separate State and James Madison had probably the final word and said that the people mentioned in the preamble were not the people as composed in one great body, but rather the people composed in thirteen sovereign States. You know the rest of the story. You know that in less than 80 years the States became obedient tools dominated by Washington, and so, Patrick Henry was certainly right in his remonstration.

The most common Anti-Federalist argument was the claim that the new Constitution would lead to consolidation in government, a consolidated system of government. Now was this claim correct? Of course, we know it is. I mean there’s no doubt about that. But was it correct in 1787? Could it be seen? Could it be seen by anybody who was not a centralizer? Well, to answer this question I will go very briefly to the story of the famous (and infamous) signer of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, who really had the guts to sign the Constitution against the will of his State. Now, it is almost incredible when you think about the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and the Convention because it is exactly true that on 18 June, he was there for six hours, and he came out with the boldest plan of them all, the most centralized. Even now there are some people who would not like his plan. I don’t just mean us. I mean the general public, the orthodox public, and well-informed Americans, there would be a lot of people that still would not agree at all with that national plan of government. Jefferson was quite right when he said that Hamilton was “for the new government merely as a stepping stone to monarchy.” (He didn’t care about kings and so on, he was thinking about the essence of monarchy). So, Hamilton’s active participation was limited to two days, 18 and 19 June, and Hamilton’s plan was devised like this: First, a central legislature with supreme power to make the laws of the United States, divided into two houses, with an assembly elected every three years and a senate for life. Second, a supreme executive authority of the United States with a wide range of powers and elected governor or president for life. Third, almost all the powers of government were to be divided between the senate and the governor. Nearly all the power was divided between a life-time executive and an assembly of senators who were also elected for life. Very democratic this, the whole thing, not only to speak of centralizing. Fourth, the governor or the president of each State was to the nominated by the government of the United States, with general right of veto over all State laws. No state was to have armed forces. There are some other points that are incredible in this plan, but this just gives you the flavour. If Hamilton had won, he would have gotten his republic un et indivisible, but of course nobody took him seriously. They just thought he was a dreamer. Actually, years later John Marshall called him “a political dreamer.” None other than John Marshall, the other big centralizer of the early republic. On June 19th, Hamilton explained his view of the States and said they had to be abolished, and that no boundary could be drawn between the national and State legislators, the former must therefore have indefinite authority, because two sovereigns could not co-exist within the same limits. That was Hamilton’s idea and it remained his idea. Shortly after this crystal-clear statement for centralization, Hamilton abandoned the Convention, returning for a bit from time to time to see what was going on. And what was going on was not so disappointing to him. It could be used exactly as Jefferson said, as a stepping stone to monarchy, so he signed the Constitution. We know the project was certainly not anything close to what he proposed. But why is that? In the conversation with Jefferson he stated quite candidly: “The present government is not that which will answer the ends of society by giving stability and protection to its rights. It will probably be found expedient to going to the British form.” So, that was always his obsession, but he thought that this plan was a good step towards centralization and consolidation and that’s why he defended it and signed it. The Anti-Federalists were exactly correct in their allegations, otherwise Alexander Hamilton would have never signed such a plan.

Elbridge Gerry said: “The Constitution has few if any Federal features, but it is rather a system of national government.” Luther Martin said: “The party at Philadelphia wished to abolish all State governments and to bring forward one general government over this extensive continent of an monarchal nature.” The citations could go on for hours, but this is really the most voiced recrimination of the Anti-Federalists. Only through despotism could the States be brought under one single government as consolidation pervades the whole Constitution. Now the Anti-Federalists found especially ominous the power of Congress to tax and the power of Congress to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. National control of commerce they thought to be very dangerous and a threat to the prosperity of the States. This was a big objection they had and George Mason, in his reasons for not signing the proposed Federal Constitution, pointed out the fact that the eight Northern States could actually band together in order to destroy and bring economic ruin to the five Southern States, which is exactly what starts to happen about forty years later with the continually increasing tariffs and so on. So, the restrictions upon Congress they believed to be laughable, since Congress itself would determine what was necessary and proper in order to exercise its delegated powers, and by virtue of the Supremacy Clause, Federal laws would prevail over State laws and even State constitutions. The Federal government also had the power of the sword in addition to the purse and commerce. The Constitution actually provided for a standing army, something the Anti-Federalists absolutely hated. Luther Martin called it: “That engine of arbitrary power which has so often and so successfully been used for the subversion of freedom, the standing army.”  Congress was also given the power to command the militias of the States in order to break insurrections and repel invasions and they objected a lot to that because they said Congress could actually take a citizen of a State and place him on duty in the remotest part of the Union and keep him in service as long as they thought proper. Tell me what happened. Right now, it’s the remotest parts of the world. In those times it seemed incredible to send someone to another part of the Union. Right now, it’s Iraq and Afghanistan. So, the proposed Constitution was going to transform Congress from a Confederal debating body to a legislative assembly of substantial and unclearly defined power. That was what they had to say about Congress. And of course, they hated the powers given to the President, which were even worse. They said he was an elective king in substance and he would be able to become a king in name and, if he chose so he would be able to perpetuate the kingship in his family. Guess what happened? A Federal judiciary also presented a threat to the liberties of the people and it would eventually absorb and swallow up all the State judiciaries. There was no trial by jury, they contended, in Federal courts as far as civil rights cases were concerned, and even in criminal cases before the Supreme Court.

It is clear that, given all this criticism of the proposed Constitution, the least they could ask for in was the approval of the Bill of Rights, so they started to call for it. Since, as Patrick Henry put it: “By transforming the Confederacy into a consolidated government, rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges are rendered insecure if not lost.” So, there was this big call for the Bill of Rights. There are a lot of scholars that still believe that the Bill of Rights is dangerous. There’s Forrest McDonald, who wrote a great article about the Bill of Rights that said it was unnecessary and potentially very dangerous. Well, they wanted it. Like all Americans, the Anti-Federalists were obsessed with freedom of the press. This is one thing I’ll never understand, this obsession with freedom of the press. I was in Thailand some years ago with a friend of mine and we were talking about the political situation over there which is really terrible. A lot of people go there for easy sexual affairs and they certainly do not care too much about it, but it was really terrible, and then this guy says: “Well, at least they have freedom of the press.” He was not kidding. He was serious. His only problem was that he’s from Iowa. I mean what good is it for you if you’re put in jail, tortured, beat up by the police, all your property’s gone and then you have this idea that at least you can write to a newspaper and maybe they’ll publish the story? I mean, what is this obsession, this idea that the first, most important freedom is freedom of the press? I believe that the freedom of life, liberty, property, are the real freedoms. Anyway, the Anti-Federalists were concerned about freedom of the press and it was not secured according to them. Most of them also believed that there was no actual separation of powers and they quoted Montesquieu on that. He, of course, wrote The Spirit of Laws and you might know that in The Spirit of Laws he never talks about the division of powers. He just says the powers should be separated and balanced. That’s his idea. His idea separation of power was actually England, which was pretty ridiculous because there was no country on Earth with this less separation of power than England where you have the Prime Minister who’s actually the leader of the House of Commons. There’s no difference between the executive power and the legislative power in England. But anyway, they kept quoting Montesquieu a lot.

As far as political theory goes, no other matter was more important to the Anti-Federalists than the small republic theory. That was really the core of all political theory of the Anti-Federalists. So, they argued over and over again that a single government spread over such an incredible amount of land could not possibly be republican, meaning controlled by the people and based upon their consent, and that went along the classical political theory from ancient Greece to Montesquieu. The Anti-Federalists argued that republican government and liberty could be maintained only in small and homogeneous republics. They just thought it was impossible otherwise. They didn’t buy Federalist Number 10. So, Patrick Henry admonished his fellow citizens to be true to their old-fashioned faith. America is not to be like the other nations, those nations who had gone in search of grander power and splendor and had been victims of their own folly. While they acquired the visionary blessings, they lost their freedom. The small republic theme is the hardcore theme against the empire. Either you go for the small republic or sooner or later you’re going to build an empire. Guess what happened? Actually, they said that if we admit this consolidated government it will be because we like a great splendid government. Some way or the other, we must be a great and empire. We must have an army, a navy, a number of things. As Henry famous said: “When the American spirit was in its youth the language of America was different; Liberty, sir, was then the primary object.” The proposition on which Henry rested his assertion was that liberty was possible only in a small republic. George Mason said: “There never was a government over a very extensive country without destroying the liberties of the people,” and this is really the most coherent view and distinctive view of the Anti-Federalists. This was actually the capital objection. Their case rested on various arguments. Let’s try to analyze at least one of them.

The central issue involved the way in which popular control of law-making could be given effect. Sometimes it is said that the Anti-Federalists were for direct democracy like Rousseau. It’s not true. It’s not true at all. In all the seven volumes of the Storing Collection, good old Jean-Jacques, the father of all tyrants, is named only once and not for the Social Contract, but for his Confessions. They were not influenced by Rousseau at all and they just accepted the idea of representation and Brutus praises legislation by representatives pretty much as Madison does. They just thought it was the only practical mode of representing the will of the people. You had to have your representatives. But they didn’t concur with Madison that representation was the tool to extend the republic and preserve freedom at the same time. The Anti-Federalists disagreed with Madison’s thesis that the principle of representation permitted the extension of the republican form of government over a seemingly unlimited expanse of territory. According to them, for representation to be compatible with liberty, it had to be full and fair representation of the people and such a kind was possible only in a small republic. It was not enough for the representatives to be responsible to the people. They should bear the strongest resemblance to the people, so they should really look alike and unless they were a true picture of the people, they would not be able to sympathize with them in all their distresses. They thought an extended republic was going to make government much less accountable to the people by disconnecting elected officials from the people they were supposed to represent. Imagine that you have 5,000 people that elect one person. Well, he’s going to know all these people and is going to feel something for them, going to know their likes, dislikes, needs, wants, and preferences. Now imagine there are 500,000 people voting for one person (like it is now). Go write your congressman and try to get a connection with him.

The Anti-Federalists also thought that if it was a big district, then only the rich and famous could get elected, while in a small district another talent could come up and probably a lot more people from the middle classes could also get in. They didn’t mind rich people at all, but they said this should be proportionate to the population represented. Actually, it’s really incredible that the Anti-Federalists – for the last time in the history of the West – discussed a lottery, the idea that you just come up with a lottery and elect people not by elections, but by lottery, because they were obsessed by the idea of fair representation and kind of equality, and what better equality can you imagine between the electors and the elected than a lottery? The thing is this idea was the classic procedure of ancient Greece and the poleis as you know. (The singular is polis. The plural is poleis). And then it was talked about again in the Italian republics of the Middle Ages and it was a practice in Venice, at least among the patricians. When there were like five or six people and they could not decide on the office, they’d just come up with a sort of lottery and decide who was elected by random chance. That was the only good way for them to choose. The last one in Europe to talk about this thing and to actually argue in favor of random choice or lottery was Guicciardini, the famous friend of Machiavelli, who was actually a pretty important political thinker too. And after that you have the Anti-Federalists and then it’s gone. Nobody else will talk about this thing at all, but the thing is if you do elect someone, you’re going to create an elite. An elite that in due time is going to feel very different from you and is going to feel that you are pretty much their subject and of course you all know that they word elite comes from the Latin word eligere, which means “to select.” And so, when you do select someone, you already create an elite and it’s really in the root of the word.

Another argument in favor of the small republic was virtue. I’ll make it very simple and very short because I’m going to run out of time, but virtue was very important to them. What is virtue? They understood virtue to be the difference between private interests and common interests, I don’t like to talk about the common good and they didn’t talk about the common good too much, but anyway, there are some private interests that may go against the common interests. And in an extended republic the difference is greater. Sometimes there is a big gap between the private interests of the people and the common interests because it’s big, because not all interests are represented in a big place like the United States. So, if the interests are not there, the common policy that comes up is really very far away from the private interests of the citizens, so virtue is difficult, because you have to give up a lot because the gap between private and common interests is (or at least tends to be) very large. They said in a small republic the people know each other and the different interests are represented because it’s small, and at least every interest has a representative, so the gap between private interest and public interest is smaller so it’s easier to be virtuous in a small republic. It’s simply easier because there’s not such a big gap, not such a large difference between what they want from you and what you would like to do as a private citizen. So, in a certain sense, the case for the small republic rested also on this. It was a lot easier for citizens to be good in a small republic because politics and political decisions were not going to be exactly against your private interests. Eliminating conflicts of interest means that virtue is much, much easier to practice. Of course, they also talked about religious beliefs and so on.

Patrick Henry challenged those who wanted a powerful and mighty empire when he said: “Go to the poor man, ask him what he does, he will inform you that he enjoys the fruits of his labor under his own fig tree with his wife and children around him in peace and security. Having all this, what use has he for an army and a navy?” So, in a certain sense, their vision was for a different America. It wasn’t a rural thing, pastoral thing, or so on. It was against empire. It was against the idea of building a new Europe. That is really exactly what they were. They wanted a real break from European habits and customs and they didn’t get it. So, they were really against this empire building frenzy, they could really project and see it. They were also classical liberals as you can imagine, and they wanted to limit the government as much as possible. “Energetic government” was really the mantra, the code word that the Federalists and those like them used in the hope that, if they repeated it often enough, it would induce the people of the various States to accept the principle of centralization. “Energetic government.” Thomas Jefferson wrote from France to James Madison: “I’m not a friend to a very energetic government, it is always oppressive.” Very simple. Very clear. He didn’t like all this talk about energetic government. And there was one guy, I never found who this is, but…I guess he was from Philadelphia, and he stated that there was only one thing in which government should be efficient and energetic: the protection of the people and the enjoyment of liberty, life, and property. Securing those rights from domestic and foreign violence. So, they certainly didn’t buy the “energetic government” argument. There’s a great article in the journal Libertarian Studies from 1994. It’s call “The Political Economy of the Anti-Federalists,” and it shows they were against a lot of taxation, deficits, and so on. They really hated the idea that the members of Congress could vote their own salaries. Of course, an amendment was passed a few years ago that limits this possibility, but they just thought it was a crazy thing. One of the Anti-Federalists said: “No wise householder will let her servants make a lot to fix their own wages, nor will any wise community give a greater liberty to the ruling servants of the state.” He was saying “her servants” not because he was politically correct, but it was because he was referring to a woman. Women usually took care of the servants and domestic affairs. There was a lot of talk in those times that this new plan and the Constitution was going to get the United States out of debt. It was just a magic thing. They just come up with this plan and we’re going to forget the debt which is a big problem.  But again, Patrick Henry said: “Will the adoption of this new plan pay our debts? No nation ever paid its debts by a change of government without the aid of industry.” Also, the idea of a Federal city created for the sole purpose of being the seat of government was troublesome to the Anti-Federalists. While most cities, they said, grew naturally and organically and become centers of industry and wealth, this new town would only produce taxes and regulations and attract rascals from all over the country. Well, tell me if they were wrong on that point!

What is the Anti-Federalists’ place in the American political tradition, especially the Southern decentralist tradition? Well, all the points that they made were actually taken up by the people we respect, cherish, and revere the most. Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Constitution as if the Anti-Federalists and not their enemies had framed it. He never said it explicitly, that’s pretty clear. The Kentucky Resolutions were Anti-Federalist in their very nature. Then, of course, you have John Taylor, who, in New Views of the Constitution, which was published in 1823, attacks the consolidating tendency of the Constitution using Anti-Federalist themes and writings. Then you have Thomas Cooper’s Consolidation in 1824 which is a very assertive Anti-Federalist statement. In all this period, the rivals of Joseph Story and John Marshall found a lot of arguments from Anti-Federalist writings (the ones that were then available). There were a lot of reprints even in the beginning of the 1800’s. If you think about it, Calhoun himself could be linked to Anti-Federalist themes, although he always saw himself as the heir and the corrector of Publius. He was conversant in discourse against The Federalist. That’s a very odd thing about Calhoun, but he just thought that The Federalist was the authority on the Constitution. A person who gave the Anti-Federalists all the credit that they really deserved was Martin van Buren, the most libertarian American President after Jefferson in my opinion. During the nullification period he was against John Caldwell Calhoun, but he recognized the importance of Anti-Federalist ideas to American political culture. And so, Martin Van Buren wrote a book called Inquiry into the Origin and Course of Political Parties in the United States, and it was published the first time in 1867, but it was written much earlier. Van Buren said that they lost in a certain sense, but that ultimately the Anti-Federalists had won the battle for the American soul. In my opinion, there’s not a single American soul or American mind, so the political legacy that was described in terms of “liberal democracy” and “consensus” by many scholars over the last century is really a myth. Tensions and conflicts are part of the American tradition and the Anti-Federalists represent the dissenting voices during the battle for ratification. If there are people that are still willing to resist the centralizing tendency of American life, they should look to the Anti-Federalists for inspiration. They should consider them the real Founding Fathers.

Marco Bassani

Marco Bassani is professor of history of political theory at the University of Milan.

One Comment


    Bassani’s exposition of the anti-Federalists was fabulous. He hit all the points I remembered from reading the anti-Federalist papers.

    There is one very important factor that neither the anti-Federalists, nor Bassani, addressed. That is the advantage that a central government has in case of a conflict with an external enemy. The Federalist papers made this very point, citing the Amphictyonic League of Greece. A confederation without the power to coerce cannot allocate resources effectively in time of threat. Closer to home, this is exactly what happened to the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis couldn’t compel help from the Confederate states, while Lincoln simply took what he needed. So, there is the argument that while a central government may deteriorate into tyranny, a weak confederation is subject to conquest by external enemies.

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