Some Anti-Federalist Thoughts
November 2, 2014
Although it isn’t often that I devote some space to the Anti-Federalists, I will do so this evening, as I am reading a book entitled A Revolution In Favor of Government by Max Edling. It is a pretty good book but has some shortcomings when it comes to its presentation of the Anti-Federalists.
On the good side, Edling reproduces this poem, from the South Carolina Gazette, published I suspect some time in the 1790s or so.
“The British armies could not here prevail,
Yet British politics shall turn the scale;
In five short years of Freedom weary grown
We quit our plain republics for a throne;
Congress and President full proof shall bring,
A mere disguise for Parliament and King.”
Edling also gets some of the Anti-Federalist thinking, to wit: “…the world was locked in a conflict between power and liberty. Only two actors were cast in this drama: the rulers, who were the agents of power, and the ruled, who were the agents of liberty. Power was regarded as by nature expansive and aggressive, with an inherent tendency to encroach on liberty. … The people had to keep up a constant watch on the actions of their rulers. This was so much more important, as power made inroads on popular liberty only gradually, at an almost imperceptible pace, rather than by bold and open actions.” [Pp. 40-41]
This is all correct, as far as it goes. And it leads Edling to emphasize that these thoughts led the Anti-Federalists to oppose the newly drafted constitution because it created a potentially powerful government that would be far away and beyond the control of the people.
But what Edling, like others, misses is that the Anti-Federalists were not just partisans of a certain kind of government but they were also partisans of a certain kind of society, what we could call “a middle class society.” And for the Anti-Federalists, a middle class society was not only one where most people were middle class but where most aspired to be middle class. Of course, no one wants to be poor; but also the Anti-Federalists saw problems with a society in which people would aspire to be upper class, in their language, “aristocrats.” In other words, far less than the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists were leery of “the ambitious,” those few who, in Hamilton’s words, “love fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” In fact, the Anti-Federalists may be characterized as desiring to create governments which would not be appealing to “the ambitious” because their governments, being simple and of sharply limited power[s], would not provide the kind of stage “the ambitious” needed to satisfy their desires for fame and even immortality.
It is in this light that the Anti-Federalists’ case for simple, local, and limited governments should be understood. It is a part of their desire to create or preserve the kind of society, a middle class society, they thought best. Even the conflict between the few and the many should be understood in this way, with the Anti-Federalists being opposed not to any elite but only to those elites, again in their jargon, “the aristocrats,” distinguished by “ambition,” especially great ambition. An Anti-Federalist elite would be "local" rather than national, it might be said, so long as it is remembered that the issue is dealing with ambition.
A federal political arrangement, as “federal” was understood in 1787, was a political arrangement composed of small stages, so to speak, where small dramas would be played out. A national political arrangement would be composed of one big stage, where large dramas – or what look like large dramas – would be played out. In the latter, those who are most ambitious would pursue a national reputation, and would not be satisfied with a “local” reputation because it would not satisfy their love of fame. In the latter, those without national reputations would be, as it were, non-existent or invisible.
To “work” well, a national political arrangement would need characters with national reputations and such characters would have to be “produced” in one way or another. And if securing such a reputation could be done by manipulating public opinion, or if they could be bought, then it would come to pass that such persons would be less substantial than their reputations implied. Great powers would be given to people whose substance, whose character was suspect. This is, in part, what lay behind the Anti-Federalist rhetoric that seems so “negative” to us today. As Edling put it: “the Anti-Federalist argument was characterized by ‘extreme negativity.’” [Edling, p. 31]
A federalist scheme does not need such characters given that it is a scheme that creates simple, local, and limited governments, or small stages whose “actors” would play and be expected to play small roles in small dramas. And while such a scheme does not hold the promise of excitement promised by a national scheme, it might just be a scheme that is within the capacities of most human beings. I can, of course, think of worse things.