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Date: Thu, Sep 23, 2010


We Hold These Truths: Weekly Commentary & News Analysis from the Southern National Congress

Were the Anti-Federalists Wrong?

Wayne D. Carlson

In the great debates that occurred in each of the 13 Independent Republics, to consider the momentous question of rejection or ratification of the newly proposed Constitution in 1787, there were no small number of great and learned men that vehemently opposed, and warned George Mason – A Virginia Anti-Federalist against, the adoption of that document. History remembers them as the "Antifederalists". In Virginia alone, no less than "the trumpet of the Revolution", Patrick Henry stood opposed. George Mason, who is credited with writing the Virginia Bill of Rights which became the model for the Constitution’s, joined him in opposition. It was Richard Henry Lee that first presented to Congress, in June of 1776, the resolution that the thirteen "United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." He too, joined Henry and Mason in principled objection to ratification of the Constitution, as written. As editor Isaac Kramnick states in the introduction to The Federalist Papers, "In state after state, often only a handful of votes separated the pro-Constitution forces and the defeated opponents of the Constitution. In light of the growing centralization and tyranny of the Federal government today, perhaps it is high time we considered some of the arguments of those like Henry who said, "I smell a rat".

Professor Marshall L. DeRosa, in his 1991 "The Confederate Constitution of 1861:An Inquiry into American Constitutionalism", notes that the primary objection of those opposing this new Constitution, lay in its ambiguity concerning the "locus", or place, in which ultimate sovereignty resided. Sovereignty, of course, denotes supreme political authority, which the Antifederalists were anxious to preserve to their States.

Under the first Constitution called "The Articles of Confederation", there was no question where sovereignty lay. Article II expressly declared, "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence." John Adams would write, "No one thought of consolidating this vast continent under one national government." Indeed, each State had separate cultural, institutional, and religious traditions. Their unity had only been limited to their common connection to Britain and their common struggle to free themselves from her growing threats to their liberties. These "rebel patriots" were united in the belief that liberty could only flourish when government power was restrained. Yet, by 1787, most agreed that the Articles of Confederation needed revising so that the powers of the central government could be enlarged to deal with problems that were not being addressed under the current system.

The transfer of power from the States to the central government under the proposed Constitution failed to clarify the question of whether the States retained the reserved right to reclaim their sovereign powers in the event the people felt it in their best interests to do so. It was this ambiguity that prompted the Antifederalists to insist upon the adoption of a "Bill of Rights". The 10th Amendment, remember, declares that those powers not expressly delegated to the central government, nor prohibited to the States, were reserved to the States and the people. It seems pretty clear to me that this should have settled the question forever. The centrists and ultra Nationalists, however, chose to ignore this some 70 years later when a new generation of "rebel patriots" arose to throw off the threats to their rights and liberties. In failing, they nonetheless reminded us that a question settled by violence resolves nothing.

In reading the words of the Antifederalists we see that they feared that in seeking to correct the mistake of giving too much power to the State governments, under the Articles of Confederation, the "Federalists" were now making the same mistake by giving too much power to the Federal government. I would argue that history shows them justified in their fear. DeRosa noted that "The Antifederalists were convinced that it had been demonstrated, historically and theoretically, that free republican governments could extend over only a relatively small territory with a homogenous population and even among states this rule was evident, for the largest states were the worst governed."

M.E. Bradford in "Founding Fathers" identified the pro-Constitution (Federalist) forces as comprising four rather distinct groups. The first group, tending to side with the Antifederalists, felt that with the inclusion of a Bill of Rights there would be nothing to fear from the new government. The second group was motivated by fear. They were willing to trade their liberty for the promise of "security" and "peace". Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, in Massachusetts, had stirred a fear of social unrest in many. A third group made up of men of power and wealth saw the federal system as a means to enrich themselves further by using the powers of government to subsidize their business interests. They constituted the forerunners of America’s corporate welfare class. Finally, there were what Bradford calls "the everlasting glory" men, who saw for America a "manifest destiny" of commercial, financial, and military power. These were the forerunners of our arrogant, imperialist, and interventionist minions who now seek to extend their power globally.

Typical of the objections the Antifederalists posed would be the following from the Pennsylvania delegation to their States’ ratification convention. "The powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government, which from the nature of things will be an iron-handed despotism." I leave it to the careful student of history to render judgment upon the accuracy of the Antifederalists fears. Do we even understand the Federal System envisioned by the Founders? Can we distinguish between the Republic Benjamin Franklin claimed we’d established, and what we have become today?

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, understood by many to be the foremost political thinker and philosopher in American history, clearly stated the question the Federalists were afraid to broach and that we must continue to ask today. Calhoun said, "Stripped of all its covering, the naked question is, whether ours is a federal or a consolidated government; a constitutional or absolute one; a government resting ultimately on the solid basis of sovereignty of the States or on the unrestrained will of a majority; a form of government, as in all other unlimitedness, in which injustice, and violence, and force must finally prevail."

Participation in and submission to the Constitution was premised on the voluntary consent of the various States’ that ratified it. The founders promised us a government that would protect and preserve the liberties of the people and the prerogatives of the States. If it has now become the means in which they are now threatened, do we not have the moral obligation to insist that it abide by the conditions in the original compact? What remedy were the "rebel patriots" in 1776, and again in 1861, forced to adopt to preserve liberty? Are we any different?