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January 26, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Feds? The Anti-Federalist Papers

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution
edited by Herbert J. Storing
selected by Murray Dry from The Complete Anti-Federalist
Pp. 374. University of Chicago Press, 1985
First published 1787-8

13, Patrick Henry Street,
Republic of Virginia

Dear Caroline,

As an historian you may be interested to know that my son John has become fascinated by the crisis which followed the victory of the Confederation over the British. Of course, he wants me to pay for him to do a doctorate on the subject, claiming that it is much under-researched.

I must admit that I find it interesting myself. We all forget how close our continent was to subjecting itself to a new form of imperial government. Instead of living, as we do, in a Common Market Confederation of over a hundred free states stretching from the Arctic to the Antarctic, we would have been subject to some great mega-state which would have increasingly sought to dominate our lives. Virginians ruled from New York? I don't think so! Or from some awful purpose-built capital, a sort of American Canberra - even worse!

Had it been established I would imagine that such a state would have collapsed quickly into anarchy and perhaps civil war as the British and Russian empires have collapsed. The tariff question would have proved insuperable or perhaps the slave question.

And if it had survived then it is all too easy to imagine that New York or wherever would have become the new Rome, meddling in foreign wars and with its troops on the streets of everywhere from Baghdad to Tokyo and back again.

Still, I'm sure he'll have more fun studying that than becoming a tax lawyer, which is what his mother wants him to be and I'd be very grateful if you'd have a chat with him when a suitable moment arises.

Must go! The World Championship cricket match between Virginia and England is just about to start and I don' want to miss a single ball.

Love to all the family,

Your cousin,


Two profound logical difficulties arise in the assessment of the body of letters, speeches and essays which expressed opposition to the proposed constitution for the United States in the 1780s. If you favour project P you have a focus and can seek to justify it whether as near-perfect, good, best available, better than nothing etc. But if all you believe in is not-P then you need accept nothing and can believe anything. You can reject the constitution on the grounds of one little clause which nobody else cares about.

The second problem is more complex: it is that the major decisions in the collective story, even more than the individual story, are self justifying because they determine not only our success or failure, but our identity. We did it our way! We made war on Germany in defence of Belgium in 1914 so we come to define ourselves as the sort of people who defy Teutonic tyranny - even more, perhaps, than the man who chooses to be a doctor rather than an actor comes to believe that doctoring is both more secure and more rewarding than acting and shudders at the thought of how close he came to choosing wrongly.

History's losers become mere counter-factuals and can never be fairly assessed because we can never know how good the counter-factual world might have looked to the counter-factual people it would have produced.

Richard Henry Lee, one of the prominent anti-federalists, summed up the general attitude of the opponents of the constitution when he wrote:

It will be considered, I believe, as a most extraordinary epoch in the history of mankind, that in a few years there should be so essential a change in the minds of men. ’Tis really astonishing that the same people, who have emerged from a long and cruel war in defence of liberty, should now agree to fix an elective despotism upon themselves and their posterity.
This is quoted not from the book under review, but from Reason Papers No 7 (1981), "Antifederalism and Libertarianism" by Michael Allen (available at The reason is that the editor of the book takes a very cautious view of identity in a genre in which most people had a pen name. It seems extremely likely that "Federal Farmer" was Richard Henry Lee, but it has not been proved beyond doubt.

The commonest and most convincing theme of antifederalist writing is the concern with size. As "Agrippa" put it in his contribution to the Massachusetts debate on ratification (P. 246):
Our country is at present upon an average a thousand miles long from north to south, and eight hundred broad from the Missisippi to the Ocean. We have at least six millions of white inhabitants, and the annual increase is about two hundred and fifty thousand souls, exclusive of emigrants from Europe. The greater part of our increase is employed in settling the new lands, while the older settlements are entering largely into manufactures The new settlements, if all made in the same tract of country, would form a large state annually . . . . Such an immense country is . . . capable of yielding all the produce of Europe . . .
This population estimate is actually rather greater than most people's, but the error, if it is one, was constructive, because nobody was in any doubt that the colonies would continue to grow and expand, which they did.

It was very difficult to imagine how a republic would work in this context. As Melancthon Smith put it in his contribution to the New York debate (p. 354):
The world has never seen such a government over such a country. If we consult authoritie in this matter, they will declare the impracticality of governing a free people, on such an extensive plan. In a country, where a portion of the people live more than twelve hundred miles from the center, I think that one body cannot possibly legislate for the whole. Can the legislature frame a system of taxation that will operate with uniform advantage? Can they carry any system into execution? Will it not give occasion for an innumerable swarm of officers, to infest our country and consume our substance?
The authority most consulted was, of course, Montesquieu, whose argument that republics must remain small to survive seems to have been known to everybody, but even in ignorance of the Baron's writings one might ask the rhetorical historical question, Where was the precedent for a large and successful republic?

These were classically educated men, wont to give themselves pen names like "Agrippa" and "Brutus", and they were well aware that as Rome expanded and grew powerful it ceased to be a republic and moved closer to tyranny: post hoc ergo propter hoc. But even working it out for oneself from first principles the Montesquieuan analysis seems to ring true. How can a man seriously be said to represent others in the sort of proportions, the tens of thousands, required by the federal proposals and in circumstances in which the capital city may be a week’s journey away? Will these so-called representatives not turn into a Roman aristocracy, secure in their capital city and caring little for what goes on in the far periphery?

When a small republic passes bad laws or is taken over by its army or taxes too much you can move to the one next door - as the Swiss are said to do. But from a government which claims sovereignty over a whole continent there is no escape. And such a government must have a standing army if it is to fulfil its function. What is to stop that army intervening in politics as the Roman army did and as the New Model Army did in England?

The profound general objections to federal government are that it cannot be representative and that it will be no friend to individual liberty. There are many others, including some which seem quite trivial in retrospect: for example, a concern that, if not all states ratify the constitution, the status of the rights and obligations for the new federation under agreements made by the old confederation with friendly powers such as France and Holland will be unclear. They often take the familiar fork shape of institutional objections: either it will not work or it will work too well and be a threat to our liberties.

Putting the federalist arguments against the anti-federalist I find them roughly equal in logic, passion and scholarship. Up to a point! And that point is international relations: if you believe that there is any real threat to the American states from abroad or if you desire that those states are to become an important player in the world game (an aspiration often referred to here as "glory"), then the federalists surely win the day. But if you don't, their case is much less plausible. I submit that this distinction remains an important divide to this day between the store owners of West Virginia or the farmers of Iowa and the political class within the Beltway. The states might have been a Great Switzerland with citizen militias to deter any aspiring imperialist?

Before I began to read this I was assuming unreflectively that the antis were losers and just a footnote to history. But this is entirely wrong. They have a vast legacy from the ten amendments which constitute the 1791 Bill of Rights, which were created to appease them, through the Civil War to the existence of sentiments today which must be appeased by most election winners. They are still there on the websites and in the woods.

And I knew this already. I might not have read the book, but I have traversed some forty states, sat in bars and dined with wife's cousins' friends and friends' wives' cousins and listened to the guys who rail against "Big government" and its evil twin "Big business" and been told that California will definitely be an independent state by the end of the century. The anti-federalist tradition is still very much with us and it is relevant also to events in Europe, not to mention Indonesia, Australia etc. I can't say what the impact of the George W. Bush presidency has been on this tradition, but I can't believe he's done it any harm.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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