It is often said that history is written by the victor. Since the Federalists were able to get the all thirteen states to ratify their proposed Constitution, it only makes sense that their justifications for ratification were made easily and publicly available. But what did their opponents have to say? As a friend of mine likes to incessantly point out, “There are always two sides to every story.”
Far from preventing balkanization amongst the newly christened American people, Philanthropos argued that ratification of the Constitution will actually cause it. He claimed that the Virginia constitution was better designed to secure liberty than the proposed federal Constitution, at least without proper amendments before ratification [Anti-Federalist Paper #7]. John Mercer feared that the US Senate’s Article 2, Section 2 power to ratify the President’s treaties was “of a nature most liable to abuse.” Mercer was alarmed that this power will “tempt the avarice and ambition of men to a violation of the rights of their fellow citizens, and they will be screened under the sanction of an undefined and unlimited authority,” thus generating competing factions [Anti-Federalist Paper #60]. Perhaps most revealingly, the Federal Farmer thought that a consolidation of the states would inevitably create a hegemonic two-party system [Anti-Federalist Paper #37].
One of the biggest contentions between the Federalists and their Anti-Federalist opponents was the preferability of a confederacy over that of a federated republic. Centinel points out that the Articles of Confederation failed because there was no enforcement for the collection of impost taxes [Anti-Federalist Paper #21]. Candidus proposed a 7 point plan in amending the Articles, which he claimed would negate the necessity for a Constitution in the first place [Anti-Federalist Paper #22]. Montezuma satirically implied that the Federalists already knew that the Constitution dangerously centralized power:
“We have for some time considered the freedom of the press as a great evil – it spreads information, and begets a licentiousness in the people which needs the rein more than the spur; besides, a daring printer may expose the plans of government and lessen the consequence of our president and senate – for these and many other reasons we have said nothing with respect to the ‘right of the people to speak and publish their sentiments’ or about their ‘palladiums of liberty’ and such stuff. We do not much like that sturdy privilege of the people – the right to demand the writ of habeas corpus. We have therefore reserved the power of refusing it in cases of rebellion, and you know we are the judges of what is rebellion…” [Anti-Federalist Paper #9]
Cato judged that limited government must also be geographically small, thus negating the utility of a consolidated federal republic [Anti-Federalist Paper #14]. Brutus considered the “Necessary and Proper” clause under Article 1, Section 8 to be indicative of a centralized, not dual, system of federalism [Anti-Federalist Paper #17]. Centinel didn’t think that a separation of powers could be achieved under the proposed Constitution [Anti-Federalist Paper #47], and neither did Leonidas [Anti-Federalist Paper #48]. Artisocrotis went to far as to ridicule the Philadelphia Convention:
“From these remarks, I think it is evident, that the grand convention hath dexterously provided for the removal of every thing that hath ever operated as a restraint upon government in any place or age of the world. But perhaps some weak heads may think that the constitution itself will be a check upon the new congress. But this I deny, for the convention has so happily worded themselves, that every part of this constitution either bears double meaning, or no meaning at all; and if any concessions are made to the people in one place, it is effectually cancelled in another – so that in fact this constitution is much better and gives more scope to the rulers than they durst safely take if there was no constitution at all.” [Anti-Federalist Paper #51]
Deliberator contemplated the implications of Congress’ enumerated powers as being too much [Anti-Federalist Paper #44]. Alfred urged everyone to read their respective state constitutions, which he, like Philanthropos, thought sufficiently defended their liberties [Anti-Federalist Paper #16]. To round out this mere sample of oppositions to a consolidated government, Amicus plead for the power of a popular recall against elected legislators [Anti-Federalist Paper #53].
Like the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists were conflicted regarding the “peculiar institution” of race slavery. An anonymous writer illustrated the superfluousness of the Federalists’ twenty year plan to gradually eliminate the importation of slaves by mentioning that Rhode Island’s General Assembly already legislated that all blacks born after March of 1784 “are absolutely and at once free,” in addition to immediately and permanently halting any more importations [Anti-Federalist Paper #15]. Unfortunately, Cato and A Georgian thought that representation should only be apportioned by the number of free inhabitants in a community, or by the states themselves, respectively [Anti-Federalist Paper #54].
Having just secured their Liberty by defeating the British Empire victoriously during the American Revolutionary War for Independence, the colonists were still very much cognizant of the dangers accompanying a standing army. Patrick Henry rebutted the Federalist claim that the proposed federal government would require a standing army in order to curtail the potential emergence of foreign invasions, internal rebellions, and Indian wars; he saw such justification for war preparations as just mere Federalist propaganda [Anti-Federalist Paper #4]. Brutus asserted that since the Congress is not subject to removal by the various state legislatures, and the requirement for raising such a standing army is much less stringent than under the Articles of Confederation, then this provision of the Constitution enabled too much power to the Congress and thus was inimical to the principles of Liberty [Anti-Federalist Paper #24]. Dangerous is this arrangement of power, Brutus argues, for:
“The liberties of the people are in danger from a large standing army, not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power, which they may see proper to exercise; but there is great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of the government, under whose authority they are raised, and establish one [rule] according to the pleasure of their leaders.” [Anti-Federalist Paper #25]
Philadelphiensis expressed a deep suspicion that the President was in effect an elective King of the very worst sort, in that the most decrepit traits of both kinds of government agents are present without the benefits of either. Since he is the Commander-in-Chief of a standing army, the President’s power is not limited, thus contradicting the very foundation of republicanism itself [Anti-Federalist Paper #74].
Americans had a deep and abiding hatred of taxes and government intervention in the free market throughout the revolutionary period. Cincinnatus thought it was foolhardy to rely on the public credit to pay off (without using specie) debts incurred during the Revolution as this might yet cause another rebellion [Anti-Federalist Paper #12]. Patrick Henry declared that concurrent taxation (that is, both state and federal tax collection) is at odds with American liberty [Anti-Federalist Paper #34]. Cato Uticensis hated excise taxes, going even so far as calling them “those instruments of tyranny,” and he asked, in a tone of righteous indignation, whether any of his fellow Virginians would ever live to see the day where a government, other than the Virginian General Assembly, would ever impose a direct tax in Virginia [Anti-Federalist Papers #30, 31]. The Federal Farmer asserted that direct taxation was inherently not representative at all [Anti-Federalist Paper #39]. Agrippa argued that the Interstate Commerce clause was in fact an unlimited power of Congress [Anti-Federalist Paper #11].
Converting the many and sundry local militia units into a standing army was an alarming worry for the Anti-Federalists. A Democratic Federalist objected to the centralization of the militia [Anti-Federalist Paper #29]. Similarly, A Federal Republican stated the obvious that standing armies, such as consolidated militias, would be used to stifle revolts [Anti-Federalist Paper #8]. It would sadly appear to be the case that this concern was well founded, as was manifested only a few years later during the Whiskey Rebellion.
Probably the issue most dear to the Anti-Federalists was their common request for a bill of rights, as a way of offsetting the most egregious aspects of the Constitution quickly and simply. A Farmer argued that such a bill of rights would limit the amount that congressmen would be able to borrow on the credit of the United States [Anti-Federalist Paper #13]. Luther Martin warned that jury trials would become lost under the proposed composition for the federal judiciary [Anti-Federalist Paper #83]. Brutus suggested that the lack of a bill of rights, which would enumerate limits on government power against individual citizens, might very well be indicative of a massive power grab by the Federalists [Anti-Federalist Paper #84].
Related to the key issue of ratifying a bill of rights alongside the proposed Constitution was the attitude of “take this or nothing” by the Federalists, and how this affected whether the Constitution should incorporate previous (pre-ratification) amendments, or whether the Anti-Federalists should just wait to pass subsequent (post-ratification) amendments. An Old Whig commented on the Article V power of holding constitutional conventions, saying:
“If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter. The greater the abuse of power, the more obstinately is it always persisted in.” [Anti-Federalist Paper #49]
Similarly, both A Countryman and A Plebian remarked that there was no need for alarm (as the Federalists were trying to stir up), and that there was plenty of time to reflect and adjust the details of government as needed without having to reinvent the wheel [Anti-Federalist Papers #38, 85].
Unmitigated reverence for the Constitution should be tempered by the incredible powers granted unto it. For instance, would you initially sign a contract with the mere promise that sometime later, you might be able to negotiate on some of the terms (that you already agreed to) a little bit? Wouldn’t it make more sense to get it right the first time and tailor the details of the contract before you sign it, even if it ends up taking a lot longer than if you had succumbed to the intimidation tactic of “take this or nothing?” If it weren’t for the Anti-Federalists, there would be no Bill of Rights, and I think our current situation would, more likely than not, be much worse than it already is without that finger in the dike. Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Bill of Rights only protects your liberty so long as the judicial branch happens to agree with you, which is not too often these days.
The Anti-Federalist Papers, written by fifty some-odd pseudonym’d and publicly known authors, were truly the voice of colonial America. I found Morton Borden’s arrangement of the 85 most important essays and essay segments to be the most accessible, without having to delve into the multi-volume Herbert Storing archive (there is also The Anti-Federalist Papers (Special Edition) available for free download as an alternative format). Overall, I must insist that every dissident who can spare a week or two read these essays, for they are intrinsically more significant than The Federalist Papers, especially for understanding what needs to be altered during the Constitutional Compliance Convention that will hopefully take place in the later stages of restoring constitutional government.