The Anti-Federalists Were Right

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“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

~ James Madison, Federalist No. 45

History has shown this statement to be either wishful thinking or a deliberate falsehood. Regardless of which opinion you hold, the Anti-Federalists were right. They correctly predicted the unlimited power of a consolidated government under the Constitution. Not only were the Anti-Federalists right to a degree that they could never have imagined; I seriously doubt that the Federalists could have envisioned or would have approved of their new government becoming the monstrosity that it now is.

The U.S. Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787. Nine states were needed to ratify the new Constitution. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state, and the Confederation Congress began making plans for the transition to government under the Constitution. Virginia ratified the document on June 25, 1788, and New York followed on July 26, 1788. On March 4, 1789 — 218 years ago yesterday — the new Constitution took effect, replacing the Articles of Confederation that had been in force since 1781. North Carolina did not ratify the Constitution until November 21, 1789, and Rhode Island not until May 29, 1790.

Although the arguments of the Anti-Federalists against the new Constitution were numerous and varied, there is one thing that underlies them all: The danger to liberty from a strong central government.

The term Anti-Federalists is a misnomer. A federal government is a decentralized government. Yet, those who called themselves Federalists wanted a stronger central government. Writing in the (Baltimore) Maryland Gazette in 1788, an Anti-Federalist who called himself “A Farmer” clearly recognized this abuse of language:

There are but two modes by which men are connected in society, the one which operates on individuals, this always has been, and ought still to be called, national government; the other which binds States and governments together . . . this last has heretofore been denominated a league or confederacy. The term federalists is therefore improperly applied to themselves, by the friends and supporters of the proposed constitution. This abuse of language does not help the cause; every degree of imposition serves only to irritate, but can never convince. They are national men, and their opponents, or at least a great majority of them, are federal, in the only true and strict sense of the word.

The question is a simple one, as stated by the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” in his first essay in the New York Journal in 1787:

The first question that presents itself on the subject is, whether a confederated government be the best for the United States or not? Or in other words, whether the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic, governed by one legislature, and under the direction of one executive and judicial; or whether they should continue thirteen confederated republics, under the direction and controul of a supreme federal head for certain defined national purposes only? This enquiry is important, because, although the government reported by the convention does not go to a perfect and entire consolidation, yet it approaches so near to it, that it must, if executed, certainly and infallibly terminate in it.

To put it briefly, the Anti-Federalists concluded that the Constitution granted too much power to the federal government.

“Cato” wrote a series of letters that appeared in the New York Journal between September 1787 and January 1788. This is from his third letter:

The recital, or premises on which the new form of government is erected, declares a consolidation or union of all the thirteen parts, or states, into one great whole, under the form of the United States, for all the various and important purposes therein set forth. — But whoever seriously considers the immense extent of territory comprehended within the limits of the United States, together with the variety of its climates, productions, and commerce, the difference of extent, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and politics, in almost every one, will receive it as an intuitive truth, that a consolidated republican form of government therein, can never form a perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to you and your posterity.

“Centinel” wrote a series of letters that appeared in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer in late 1787 and early 1788. Here are selections from his eleventh, twelfth, and sixteenth letters:

If anarchy, therefore, were the inevitable consequence of rejecting the new constitution, it would be infinitely better to incur it; for even then there would be at least the change of a good government rising out of licentiousness.

That investigation into the nature and construction of the new constitution, which the conspirators have so long and zealously struggled against, has, notwithstanding their partial success, so far taken place as to ascertain the enormity of their criminality. That system which was pompously displayed as the perfection of government, proves upon examination to be the most odious system of tyranny that was ever projected, a many headed hydra of despotism, whose complication and various evils would be infinitely more oppressive and afflictive than the scourge of any single tyrant.

The new constitution instead of being the panacea or cure of every grievance so delusively represented by its advocates will be found upon examination like Pandora’s box, replete with every evil.

The “Federal Farmer” wrote for the Poughkeepsie Country Journal in 1787. His letters were soon afterward published in pamphlet form. This is from his first letter:

The plan of government now proposed is evidently calculated totally to change, in time, our condition as a people. Instead of being thirteen republics, under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government. . . . Whether such a change can ever be effected, in any manner; whether it can be effected without convulsions and civil wars; whether such a change will not totally destroy the liberties of this country — time only can determine.

Like those of Centinel, the essays of an “Old Whig” appeared in Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer in late 1787 and early 1788. This is from his second essay:

The new constitution vests Congress with such unlimited powers as ought never to be entrusted to any men or body of men.

The essays of an unknown Anti-Federalist who used the name of “John DeWitt” were published in the Boston American Herald in late 1787. This is from his third essay:

Upon an attentive examination you can pronounce it nothing less, than a government which in a few years, will degenerate to a compleat Aristocracy, armed with powers unnecessary in any case to bestow, and which in its vortex swallows up every other Government upon the Continent. In short, my fellow-citizens, it can be said to be nothing less than a hasty stride to Universal Empire in this Western World, flattering, very flattering to young ambitious minds, but fatal to the liberties of the people.

The “Impartial Examiner” wrote essays for the Virginia Independent Chronicle in 1788. This is from his first essay:

But surely, when this doctrine comes to be applied to the proposed federal constitution, which is framed with such large and extensive powers, as to transfer the individual sovereignty from each state to the aggregate body, — a constitution, which delegates to Congress an authority to interfere with, and restrain the legislatures of every state — invests them with supreme powers of legislation throughout all the states — annihilates the separate independency of each; and, in short — swallows up and involves in the plenitude of its jurisdiction all other powers whatsoever: — I shall not be taxed with arrogance in declaring such an argument to be fallacious.

Patrick Henry (1736—1799) made several speeches against adopting the Constitution in the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788. This is from his speech of June 5:

Here is a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain. It is as radical, if in this transition, our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the States be relinquished: And cannot we plainly see, that this is actually the case?

This is from his speech of June 9:

A number of characters, of the greatest eminence in this country, object to this government for its consolidating tendency. This is not imaginary. It is a formidable reality. If consolidation proves to be as mischievous to this country as it has been to other countries, what will the poor inhabitants of this country do? This government will operate like an ambuscade. It will destroy the state governments, and swallow the liberties of the people, without giving them previous notice.

And then there is the aforementioned Brutus; once again, from his first essay:

It is true this government is limited to certain objects, or to speak more properly, some small degree of power is still left to the states, but a little attention to the powers vested in the general government, will convince every candid man, that if it is capable of being executed, all that is reserved for the individual states must very soon be annihilated.

Those in the Pennsylvania ratification convention who objected to the proposed Constitution published The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania to Their Constituents in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser on December 18, 1787. Here are four pertinent selections:

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 banded despotism, as nothing short of the supremacy of despotic sway could connect and govern these United States under one government.

The new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states.

The legislative power vested in Congress by the foregoing recited sections, is so unlimited in its nature; may be so comprehensive and boundless its exercise, that this alone would be amply sufficient to annihilate the state governments, and swallow them up in the grand vortex of general empire.

The powers vested by this constitution in Congress, will effect a consolidation of the states under one government, which even the advocates of this constitution admit, could not be done without the sacrifice of all liberty.

The Anti-federalists were right. We don’t need to return to the government of the Framers of the Constitution, we need to return to the government that the Framers destroyed. And furthermore, Constitution or no Constitution: The centralization of power is always a great evil.

All quotations from the Anti-federalists are taken from Regnery edition of The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches, edited by Bruce Frohnen.

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