The Legacy of Anti-Federalism

A review of The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 by Saul Cornell (University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

The Anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution have not fared well among American historians and political , scientists. Nothing reveals more starkly the near-complete disinterest in Anti-Federalist thought than a bibliographical check of books and essays on the Constitution and the American political tradition published since the late nineteenth century. With the exception of Jonathan Elliot’s Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Constitution (1836), which contains an assortment of letters and speeches by some of the Anti-Federalists in nine of the State ratifying conventions, and Paul Leicester Ford’s limited selection of Anti-Federalist tracts in his Pamphlets on the Constitution (1888) and Essays on the Constitution(1892), only a handful of Anti-Federalist writings have been available to the modem reader; and scholarly studies of the Anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution have been virtually non-existent.

The noted historian, Cecelia M. Kenyon, probably spoke for most of her profession when, in a highly touted article published in 1955, she dismissed the Anti-Federalists as misguided provocateurs, or “men of little faith,” who opposed the national democracy that had become the quintessential feature of American government, the assumption being that they deserved to be relegated to obscurity. The Other Founders: An... Saul Cornell Best Price: $8.67 Buy New $32.13 (as of 08:45 EDT - Details)

It is not difficult to understand why these “enemies of the Constitution” were often maligned as curious misfits. Americans love an underdog, but not a loser. In the struggle over the adoption of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were defeated in every State ratifying convention except North Carolina’s—and after a second convention they lost there too. Then they promptly vanished from the American political scene, never to be seen again. The possibility that such a spasmodic event as Anti-Federalism could have exerted any lasting influence on the American political tradition seemed remote indeed. Added to this, their ideas and insights, even their prophesies, most of them scattered in old newspapers and recondite pamphlets, were soon forgotten. Lacking the organization and leadership of their opponents, the Anti-Federalists failed to produce a political or constitutional treatise that could match the appeal and substance of The Federalist. When Ford published his modest collection of Anti-Federalist Pamphlets on the Constitution in 1882, there were already twenty-nine editions of The Federalist extant, the first dating all the way back to 1788. To appreciate the original meaning and purpose of the Constitution, and virtually every clause in it, generations of Americans had worshiped The Federalist like hot gospel. But who was reading the blasphemous essays of “Brutus,” the Letters of a Federal Farmer to the Republican, or any of the other Anti-Federalist writings on the Constitution that contradicted the sacred text of St. Publius? Pamphlets on the Const... Paul Leicester Ford Best Price: $24.77 Buy New $19.95 (as of 05:00 EDT - Details)

What really doomed Anti-Federalism, however, was the doctrine of States’ Rights that sprang from it. This was not evident at first, for the Anti-Federalists emerged from the struggle over ratification with a commitment from the Federalists to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. As the defenders of State sovereignty, strict construction, and decentralization, the Anti-Federalists achieved these ends, and more, in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted. Though its original purpose has been grossly distorted over the years, particularly by the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights was understood at its inception as a States’ Rights document, one that assured the States that they would continue to exercise exclusive jurisdiction, as they had under the Articles of Confederation, over most civil liberties disputes between a State and its citizens.

But the Bill of Rights was the only victory of the Anti-Federalists in their campaign to clarify and limit the new Federal power—achieved, ironically enough, after they had disbanded and gone home. All of the other States’ Rights doctrines they espoused were ultimately trampled to death on Civil War battlefields, repudiated by the Supreme Court, or denounced by Congress as a subterfuge for the protection of slavery or racial segregation. Judged by their record of success in American constitutional history, the Anti-Federalists, it would seem, have been thoroughly discredited by their relationship to States’ Rightists, and have about as much stature and relevancy as the Anti-Masons.

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