The Legacy of the Antifederalists

The Four Options of Antifederalism

It is helpful to consider four options when reflecting on the importance of the Antifederalists. They are 1) incoherent and irrelevant, 2) coherent and irrelevant, 3) incoherent and relevant, and 4) coherent and relevant. And which option we choose is in large part linked to a) how we define the Antifederalist project, b) how we interpret The Federalist and c) whether or not we are willing to retrieve the Antifederalists on their own terms or whether we see them as valuable in a quarrel over the American regime.

One way to define the Antifederalists is that they are those who opposed ratification of the unamended Constitution in 1787-1788. This definition might well make them lower case antifederalists or anti-federalists. The point is that they are both incoherent and irrelevant. A broader definition, one that reaches back to Montesquieu or to Aristotle introduces the possibility that they may be either coherent but irrelevant (Cecelia Kenyon) or incoherent but relevant (Herbert Storing). The upper case and hyphenated Anti-Federalist nomenclature is the preferred appellation for this approach. There is one last choice——the Antifederalists are coherent and relevant——and this suggests that we call them Antifederalists, upper case and non-hyphenated.

This fourth approach argues that their coherence and relevance is located in their basically American and new world character. They are neither Kenyon’s “men of little faith” nor Storing’s “incomplete reasoners,” and thus “junior founders.” Their thought is grounded in the American struggle for independence, draws strength from the colonial tradition, the natural rights tradition, and new state constitutions that emerged between 1776 and 1780. Their thought is moreover informed by the Articles of Confederation of the 1780s, matured by the debates over the creation and adoption of the Constitution, culminates with the adoption of the Bill of Rights and then bids farewell to its creative phase with the introduction of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. I encourage the reader to consider this broader, and basically American and new world, definition of the Antifederalist project.

The Antifederalist Reputation

This reputation of the Antifederalists as irrelevant, even proto-Calhoun, disunionists was shaped, in part, by Alexander Hamilton‘s observation in Federalist 1: “we already hear it whispered in the private circles of those who oppose the new Constitution, that the thirteen States are of too great an extent for any general system, and that we must of necessity resort to separate confederacies of distinct portions of the whole.” The response by the Antifederalist, “Centinel,” to Hamilton has been largely ignored: this claim of disunion, he said, is “from the deranged brain of Publius, a New York writer, who has devoted much time, and wasted more paper in combating chimeras of his own creation.”

James Madison‘s commentary in Federalist 38 was no doubt also influential in portraying the Antifederalists as incoherent. Madison asks: “Are they agreed, are any two of them agreed, in their objections to the remedy proposed, or in the proper one to be substituted? Let them speak for themselves.” But Madison does not “let them speak for themselves.” When the Antifederalists are permitted to speak for themselves, as Antifederalist Melancton Smith demonstrates, a remarkably coherent alternative emerges. “An Old Whig” makes the same point: “about the same time, in very different parts of the continent, the very same objections have been made, and the very same alterations proposed by different writers, who I verily believe, know nothing at all of each other.” This appeared six weeks prior to Federalist 38. When the Antifederalists are permitted to speak for themselves, a coherent and relevant account emerges.

The Federalist argues for checks and balances, especially against the legislature; the Antifederalists support term limits and rotation in office for all elected and appointed officials. But this is why Kenyon calls them irrelevant; they held to a scheme of representation that was outmoded even for 1787. By contrast, The Federalist argues that the representative needs a longer duration in office than provided by traditional republicanism in order to exercise the responsibilities of the office and resist the narrow and misguided demands of an overbearing and unjust majority. Because the Antifederalists were dubious that one could be both democratic and national, they urged less independence for the elected representatives. They claimed that practical experience demonstrated that short terms in office, reinforced by term limits, would be an indispensable additional security to the objective of the election system to secure that the representatives were responsible to the people. For the Antifederalists, a responsible representative——the essential characteristic of republicanism——was constitutionally obliged to be responsive to the sovereign people. Ultimately, the “accountability” of the representative was secured by “rotation in office,” the vital principle of representative democracy. This is the concept of the citizen-politician who serves the public briefly and then returns to the private sphere.

In Federalist 23, Hamilton describes the Antifederalist position as “absurd” because they admit the legitimacy of the ends and then are squeamish, even, cowardly, about the means: “For the absurdity must continually stare us in the face of confiding to a government the direction of the most essential national interests, without daring to trust it to the authorities which are indispensable to their proper and efficient management. Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions, but firmly embrace a rational alternative.” The Antifederalists, according to Hamilton, are mushy thinkers; they fuss over means rather than focusing on ends. Storing totally agrees: they should have focused on the ends of union and the (limited) role of the states in the accomplishment of those ends. The Antifederalists, according to Hamilton. and Storing, wanted union but argued against giving the union the means to secure the ends. They were absurd and thus they were incoherent. But there is more. According to Storing, the Antifederalists also avoided the hard and “ugly truth” of Federalist 51: the people can’t govern themselves voluntarily. This truth, says Storing, is something that the Federalists faced squarely.

Coherent and Relevant

Perhaps that the Antifederalists have a coherent understanding of federalism and republicanism——grounded in “democratic federalism” and “constitutional republicanism”——and that this coherent understanding is worth keeping alive in the twenty-first century because it addresses what ails the contemporary American federal republic. Antifederalist thought is the built-in American antidote for the ills of the American federal republic. In particular, the three other alternative explanations either read history backwards or import European or ancient categories to explain an American experience.

The Antifederalists are not primarily interested in the “good government” project of The Federalist or the “best regime” project of the ancients, or the “exit rights” project of the secessionists or many of the other projects invented by the various historical schools; instead, I suggest they are interested in the creation and preservation of free government. They remind us that free government means limited government, and thus the political project should be focused on limiting rather than empowering politicians. Antifederalist statesmanship involves an attachment to means, rather than an administration of ends. There is nothing absurd or incoherent about being fussy over the use and misuse of means because means are actually powers and the abuse of powers sets us down the slippery slope to old world tyranny.

The Antifederalists speak to those who have become increasingly disillusioned by the collapse of decentralized state and local government, the greater intervention by the federal government in economic matters, the blurring of the separation of powers, and the replacement of voluntary associations by government programs. The Antifederalists warn: beware the dangers of “democratic nationalism,” and “delegated constitutionalism.” These are warnings from within the very American System itself. They warn us that there is something morally corrosive about the exercise of political power and thus they remind us about the need for the rule of law. And they warn about the dangers of the Federalist temptation with empire abroad. The Antifederalists are not isolationists, men of little faith, or junior partners; they are “Antitemptationalists” with a message of liberty and responsibility that resonates across the centuries.

“On the most important points,” then, the Antifederalists were not only in agreement but their position was coherent and is currently relevant. They believed that republican liberty was best preserved in small units where the people had an active and continuous part to play in government. Although they thought that the Articles best secured this concept of republicanism, they were willing to bestow more authority on the federal government as long as this didn’t undermine the principles of federalism and republicanism. They argued that the Constitution placed republicanism in danger because it undermined the pillars of small territorial size, frequent elections, short terms in office, and accountability to the people, and, at the same time, encouraged the representatives to become independent from the people and the state governments. They warned that unless restrictions were placed on the powers of Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary, the potentiality for the abuse of power would become a reality. These warnings culminated in their insistence on a Bill of Rights which, in conjunction with small territory, representative dependency, and strict construction, they conceived as the ultimate “auxiliary precaution.”

The expression of discontent over the last fifty years about American politics has an ominous ring, revealing the widespread Antifederal mood in the electorate. Among the dramatic changes in recent American politics are the alarming alienation of the citizenry from the electoral system, the increased presence of the centralized Administrative State, and the dangerous consequences of an activist judiciary that openly thwarts the deliberate sense of the majority. These are all Antifederalist concerns about the tyranny of politicians. The term limits movement of the late twentieth century demonstrates that the Antifederalist message——keep your representatives on a short leash, otherwise you will lose your freedom——still resonates with the American people, because Antifederalism is very much part of the American political experience.

When we hear the claim that our representatives operate independently of the people, and that the Congress fails to represent the broad cross-section of interests in America, we are hearing an echo of the Antifederalist critique of representation. When we hear that the federal government has spawned a vast and irresponsive administrative bureaucracy that interferes too much with the life of American citizens, we are reminded of the warnings of the Antifederalists concerning consolidated government. They warn that, in effect, executive orders, executive privileges, and executive agreements will create the “Imperial Presidency.” And they warn that an activist judiciary will undermine the deliberate sense of the majority. The criticism that Americans have abandoned a concern for their religious heritage and neglected the importance of local customs, habits, and morals, recalls the Antifederalist dependence upon self-restraint and self-reliance. When we hear a concern for the passing of decentralization——old time federalism——we are hearing the Antifederalist lament.

The Antifederalist project calls for a rejuvenation of interest in Antifederalist “democratic federalism” and “constitutional republicanism.” Since American politics is often a debate over the possibilities and limitations of the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, federalism, and representative government, it is vital that the potency of Antifederalist political analysis be restored. If the electorate has “lost faith” in the responsibility of the representatives in every branch of government, then the very concept of representation undergirding the country is in crisis. What is the solution? If no one cares either about the question, or the solution, then America is perhaps doomed to go the way of previous great regimes, and the experiment in “republican government” is exactly what opponents through the centuries have predicted it would be: a complete failure thus proving that the human race is incapable of being governed other than by force and fraud.

Antifederalist political science advocated concentration of the power of the people and eliminating temptations for the concentration of power in officeholders. The heart of their method was to propose a scheme of representation that safeguarded interests and avoid the clashes of factions. This called for certain homogeneity of interests, as opposed to the Madisonian encouragement of diverse interests. The latter approach they rejected as unnecessary and dangerous. They placed their faith instead in the virtue of “middling” Americans——a virtue that was not informed by ancient Sparta or even ancient Rome but by the modern doctrine of personal self-reliance——coupled with holding their representatives “in the greatest responsibility to their constituents.”

The Antifederalists viewed the Constitution as creating mutually independent sovereign agents. They argued that such independent rulers would “erect an interest separate from the ruled,” which will tempt them to lose both their federal and their republican mores. The Antifederalists concluded that unless executive power was yet more limited, representation more broadened, presidents and senators made more responsible to the people and the state governments protected—unless the arrangement was significantly modified——the proposed regime would necessarily destroy political liberty by destroying the sovereignty of the people, the litmus test of republicanism. As an expression of this “constitutional republicanism,” they insisted on a Bill of Rights as a declaration of popular sovereignty.

In conclusion, the Antifederalists warned about the tendency of the American system toward the consolidation of political power in a) the nation to the detriment of the various states, and b) one branch of the federal government at the expense of the separation of powers. They warned about c) the corrupting influence that political power has on even decent people, whom decent people elected into office, and d) that the rule of law has a privileged position in republican government. They also anticipated the idea that e) all politics is——or should be——local and thus particular attachments rather than abstract ideas matter in the preservation of a liberal political order.

Contents

Timelines

View timelines of the 1787-1788 “out-of-doors” debates in newspapers in pamphlets during the ratification of the Constitution.

Biographies

Learn about the key figures in the Federalist and Antifederalist debate over the proposed Constitution.

View Feature

The Federalists

Read Gordon Lloyd’s introduction to the Federalists who supported the Constitution as well as his essential Federalists.

The Antifederalists

Read Gordon Lloyd’s introduction to the Antifederalists who opposed the Constitution as well as his essential Antifederalists.

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org