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Remembering the Anti-Federalists Rightly

For most of American history, Anti-Federalists, those opponents of the Constitution, played the role of the loser. The attention received from scholars castigated them as “men of little faith,” arch-conservatives troubled by the rising democratic tide of American politics. Among the only credit they received came from their calls for a bill of right. Beginning in the late 1970s, Anti-Federalist fortunes start to shift. The first glimpse of this change came with Herbert Storing’s collection of Anti-Federalist writings. Storing’s slim, but compelling, essay opening the collection, What the Anti-Federalist Were For, revealed how their opposition to the Constitution stemmed from serious philosophical concerns and differences with their Federalist counterparts, and not just obstructionism or pro-slavery partisanship. Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in American History (1999) took Storing’s findings a step further by exploring the social background of Anti-Federalists, and, more importantly, tying their political thought and opposition to the American tradition of resisting centralized authority. Finally, in 2011, Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution placed the Anti-Federalists (a term she avoids using) at the center of her story. For Maier the Federalists secured victory in the ratification conventions through political maneuvering rather than through the inherent force of their arguments. This made Anti-Federalists and their arguments once again relevant for scholars as anti-Federalist criticisms were not addressed forthrightly in the debates and thus not really vanquished.

Despite these shifting fortunes, there remained no single, comprehensive treatment of Anti-Federalists’ political thought. Michael J. Faber and his An Anti-Federalist Constitution: The Development of Dissent in the Ratification Debates has changed that. Building on the works of Storing, Cornell, Maier, as well as his earlier work on the Federalists, Faber argues that a combination of disorganization and tactical missteps forced the Anti-Federalists to transform their political thought from one aimed at broad opposition to working to secure changes to the Constitution.

Phase One: The Three Strands of Anti-Federalist Thought

Faber, an assistant professor of political science at Texas State University, San Marcos, characterizes the initial wave of Anti-Federalist opposition as lacking coherence, with a myriad of arguments leveled simultaneously. Within the chaos, however, Faber identifies “three related but distinct strands of political thought.” He calls these strands Rights Anti-Federalism, Power Anti-Federalism, and Democratic Anti-Federalism.

Of the three, Rights Anti-Federalism proved the “most rationally developed and cogently argued.” Rights Anti-Federalists maintained that, with the Constitution’s conspicuous lack of a bill of rights, tyranny became an inevitability. Only by protecting rights at that moment when they seemed threatened by the proposed Constitution, could this slide into tyranny be overcome. Thus, Rights Anti-Federalist called for either outright rejection of the Constitution or a Bill of Rights to be amended to the document.

Power Anti-Federalism, as its name suggests, feared the immense power granted to the central government. They believed that the Constitution’s powers should be well-defined and limited only to those issues clearly national in scope, such as war and peace. Yet the scope and ambiguity of the Constitution’s powers, particularly over the judiciary, standing armies, and taxation, which Faber believes Anti-Federalists considered “the most grievous example of a power too extensive,” suggested that the Framers sought to “consolidate” the union of sovereign states into a centralized nation.

The final strand, Democratic Anti-Federalism, while boasting fewer adherents than the other two groups, was “well-represented in the first wave of essays.” This group typically argued that the Articles did not need replacing since state governments remained answerable to the people of those states. At the heart of Democratic Anti-Federalism was their fear that this new government, with only one element—the House of Representatives—being directly elected by the people, squinted towards aristocracy and undermined the Revolution’s support of popular sovereignty.

These strands of Anti-Federalist thought, Faber contends, also shared distinct but not exclusively sectional allegiances. The stronghold for Rights Anti-Federalism resided in the southern states. Faber explains why the slave-holding South as a bastion for Rights Anti-Federalism may not be as odd as it first appears. With its culture, political power, and “economic ideal” rooted in plantation owners “who exerted substantial power of their property,” southern landowners wanted assurances that the Constitution would respect their property rights. Without these assurances, many southern plantation owners feared the Constitution’s ambiguous powers endangered the institution of slavery, and, with it, their economic and political power.

Power Anti-Federalism, by contrast, found its firmest foothold in the northeast. Many northeastern Anti-Federalists feared that the potential of a centralized nation which would control the states threatened the autonomy of the town governments. This trepidation explains why so many Power Anti-Federalists called for local towns retain the authority to issue instructions to their national representative. Democratic Anti-Federalism, with its calls for a government responsive to the people and its suspicion of distant governments, had its center in western communities such as Kentucky.

Phase Two: The Ratification Debates

The bulk of An Anti-Federalist Constitution concentrates on Anti-Federalists’ writings and political maneuvering during the state ratification debates. Traditional examinations of the ratification contests often isolate those debates, treating each one independently from the other. Faber, however, follows the chronology of the debates as they happened. This approach produces a somewhat disjointed and, at times, difficult-to-follow narrative, as Faber skips from state to state and argument to argument before settling into chronological chapters on individual debates. Faber’s decision to contextualize the debates, however, pays dividends. It allows him to demonstrate, debate by debate, how the Anti-Federalists shifted the nature of their dissent from outright opposition to demands for amendments.

This contextual approach also permits Faber to examine neglected or forgotten Anti-Federalists. A great example is the Virginia essayist Senex, who, although publishing only one essay, ranked as “the most convincing oracle of both moderation and Rights Anti-Federalism in Virginia.” Incorporating these neglected opponents does offers readers a more comprehensive understanding of Anti-Federalist thought. For Faber, these forgotten Anti-Federalists deserve as much credit for transforming Anti-Federalist resistance to the Constitution as do more notable ones such as Federal Farmer or Brutus. Faber may be correct on this point, but he offers little evidence that these minor Anti-Federalists ever influenced the debates in any meaningful way. Considering that many of these minor writers published only one essay, often in low circulation newspapers or without reprint in other publications, leads one to wonder if their influence was more prominent to their contemporaries’ thought or to Faber’s.

Nevertheless, Faber’s painstaking reconstruction of the debates reveals the tactical mistakes and victories, missed opportunities for victory in New Hampshire and Maryland, the evenly matched contests of Virginia and Massachusetts, how Anti-Federalists snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in New York, and the Anti-Federalist victories in North Carolina and Rhode Island. With each step, Anti-Federalists increasingly responded to early Federalist victories by abandoning their scattershot opposition in favor of more focused arguments for amendments to the Constitution. This transformation peaked with the Virginia, New York, and North Carolina conventions.

By the time those conventions convened, the Constitution’s ratification was secured. The high drama of those debates did not center on acceptance or rejection of the Constitution but turned “to the prospects of trying to shape rather than resist the new government.” In the end, the legacy of the Anti-Federalists rests on the notion that while they “could not keep the republic, they at least perhaps avoid tyranny and live their lives in peace. In this effort, the Anti-Federalists succeeded more admirably than perhaps even they thought.”

Interpretative Problems

Faber’s distillation of Anti-Federalist thought into three strands and his argument for their sectional distinctions creates interpretative problems. Despite offering scholars a shorthand for untangling the varied and often repetitive arguments made by the Constitution’s opponents, those three strands lack the clear delineation and sectional distinction Faber suggests. Too often, the distinctions appear forced. As a case in point, Faber quotes William Grayson saying that “In the first place I think liberty a thing of too much importance to be trusted on the ground of implication: it should rest on principles expressed in the clearest & most unequivocal manner.” Faber labels this passage as an expression of Rights Anti-Federalism, but since it deals explicitly with the ambiguous nature of Congressional power, he could just as easily have designated it as Power Anti-Federalism.

The same holds for his sectional differences. While Faber does eschew of Saul Cornell’s socio-economic explanations in favor of political reasons for the sectional distinction, nevertheless, the strands of thought and sectional distinctions he claims exists disappear in favor of a general exploration of Anti-Federalist positions. Faber even admits throughout that “these three strands did not remain separate” or that while New York Anti-Federalists adhered to Power Anti-Federalism, “there were Rights Anti-Federalist appeals” as well. One could go on, but Faber’s numerous admissions suggest that he strains too hard to find distinctions. A reason for these strained distinctions comes from the implicit suggestion that if a writer is talking about liberty, he must be a Rights Anti-Federalist; if state sovereignty it must be Power Anti-Federalism; and popular support means Democratic Anti-Federalism. This overlooks how Anti-Federalists feared consolidation above all other issues precisely because the loss of state sovereignty equated to the loss of both liberty and popular government.

These interpretative problems present themselves most clearly in Faber’s counter-factual account of what an Anti-Federalist Constitution would have looked like had they written the document. Guided by the framework of the Constitution, Faber’s imagined “Anti-Federalist Constitution” includes a “We the People of these Sovereign States” preamble, a declaration of political principles similar to Revolutionary state constitutions, and revisions to Congressional authority including the elimination of the power of taxation. Although Faber may have designed this counter-factual exercise as a teaching tool—he does not say—the entire section remains, at best, ancillary to his thesis. At worst, it further undermines the book’s contention for the various threads and sectional differences that constitute Anti-Federalist thought. For the Anti-Federalist Constitution to take shape as he believes it would have, the distinctive elements of their thought had to be less distinct and more fluid across sections than Faber claims.

If these interpretative problems are kept in mind, An Anti-Federalist Constitution is a work worth consulting. Faber does provide a new and convincing account that Anti-Federalists supported a bill of rights only after recognizing the failure of their general opposition. The discussion of Anti-Federalists’ general political thought, with its inclusion of lesser known writings, offers a deeper and more nuanced account of their political thought than any previous work.

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