What is Anti-Federalism?
Dr. Peter Schultz
called the “Anti-Federalists” were, as most know, those persons who opposed the
ratification of the Constitution when it was proposed in 1787 to the thirteen
states. Among these persons were Patrick Henry in Virginia, Melancton Smith in
New York, and Mercy Warren in Pennsylvania. It is the purpose of this paper to
provide an overview of what the Anti-Federalists stood for and why they thought
the proposed Constitution ought not be ratified.
To begin at
the beginning and where most would agree, the AF were proponents of what has
been called “the small republic theory” of government. According to this
“theory,” perhaps most famously cast in its modern form by a Frenchman by the
name of Montesquieu, liberty could only be secured in small societies, i.e.,
geographically small societies. The reasons for this theory may be rather
easily stated in the following three propositions.
was thought that only in small societies would people voluntarily obey their
government. Second, it was thought that only in small societies could
governments be genuinely responsible to the people. And, third, it was thought
that only small societies could produce citizens, i.e., those kinds human
beings necessary for maintaining republican forms of government. It will useful
to consider each of these propositions to see what each meant or means.
the thought that only in small societies would people voluntarily obey their
government. This may be illustrated rather easily by contrasting life in small
towns and life in big cities today. In small towns, a police force is often
almost unnecessary, whereas in a city like Boston a police force is absolutely
necessary or indispensable. Some small towns in northeast Connecticut, for
example, don’t even have a police force and rely pretty much on state troopers
for their law enforcement, such as it is. I grew up in a small town in New
Jersey and I must say that mothers were far more important in maintaining order
than the police force there.
a city like Boston is inconceivable without a police force, and a rather large
and powerful police force at that. It is useful to consider what this means.
What we call “police forces” are in fact military institutions. Like the
military, the police wear uniforms, carry weapons, and are authorized to use
those weapons even if it means that someone might die. This is not to say that
there is no difference between the Boston police force and the U.S. Marines. It
is only to say that there are similarities that we often overlook.
Now, it is
important to note the implication of the Boston situation. Government in
Boston, maintaining law and order there, requires the presence of a military
force, whereas life in small towns does not. Hence, there is a “militarization”
that takes place in large cities, meaning not only a militarization
institutionally but also a militarization psychologically. It also means that
government in a city like Boston relies on force rather than consent to
maintain law and order, to maintain the peace. Everyone knows, moreover, that
militarization which leads to the use of force to maintain the peace and good
order of a society requires, inevitably, that personal liberties will be
compromised. There will be, necessarily and inevitably, less liberty in Boston
than in a small town. And, perhaps more importantly, force will be the glue
that holds the society together in large places whereas it is less necessary as
the social glue in small places.
force predominates then it is all too easy for fear to become another aspect,
perhaps even the key ingredient, of whatever it is that binds a society
together. And, of course, it is a question of what happens to human beings who
are governed by means of fear. It is even possible to wonder whether such
humans would be capable of self rule as they would always have to be controlled
by others who make them aware of “the fearful” stuff. And it would be advisable
under these conditions to have a government that struck fear into the hearts
and souls of those it is governing. Such a government could hardly be called
was thought that only in small societies could government be genuinely
responsible to the people. It is important to note at the outset that “genuine
responsibility” meant to the AF a government that adhered to popular opinion,
not a government that tried to mold popular opinion or lead popular opinion as
is so commonly said today. A genuinely responsible government was responsive to the people.
such responsiveness, the AF would rely on certain institutional devices,
especially short terms in office and strict term limits. This would help to
ensure that the people representatives would not lose touch with the people, as
so often happens with what we call “professional politicians.” Under an AF
scheme there would be no professional politicians and, hence, little chance
that politicians would get “out of touch.” Of course, for this to make sense it
is necessary to see that the AF had a different conception of what governments
should do than we have today. That is, if governments are to undertake large
social projects that seek to “re-form” society, then professional politicians
would be advisable. However, if governments are not to undertake such social
projects, then professional politicians are not necessary. The AF were fond of
arguing that “no great talents “ were needed in politics but, again, to make
sense of this argument, it should be kept in mind that it entails a very
different understanding of the proper scope of government than the one we have
today or than the one the Federalists had in 1787.
institutional devices were only part of the AF thought on maintaining a
genuinely responsible government. Also, they thought it necessary that those
who would be elected to office should be like the people they represent. That
is, the people representatives, together, should “re-present” the people in the
government. The government should look like, have a likeness with the people themselves. So, unlike today, when
Representatives and Senators are unlike the people they represent, in an AF
scheme government officials would reflect the people.
useful to emphasize that such a scheme would require a very different mindset
than the one that predominates today. Today it is thought that what might be
called an “elite” is best suited to the task of governing and, hence, we elect
those who we think are “better” than we are, at least in a socio-economic sense.
For example, it is quite common to hear a person praised for taking a
government position that requires an economic sacrifice on their part, whereas
it is implied that the wealthy are better suited for government than the less
well off, the middle or lower class people.
For the AF
scheme to work, a middle class society is necessary and by a middle class
society I mean a society in which people aspire to be middle class and think
that those in the middle class are “better” than either the lower classes or
the upper classes.
Hence, in such a society, the people would choose middle class people to
represent them. Only with such a mindset would those chosen to govern be like most
of those they represented.
AF scheme would then require a middle class society as its base. Such a society
would not then aspire to the creation of great wealth, either in individuals or
for society itself. And it might be fair to say that such a society would not
aspire to greatness of any kind, cultural, economic, militarily, or
politically. As it might be put today, such a society would not aspire to
“super power” status. For illustrative purposes, I might say that a middle
class society would aspire not to greatness but to goodness. It would seek to be good, not great. It would not
undertake projects, either at home or abroad, that sought to achieve greatness.
To be flippant about it, such a society would not aspire to “No Child Left
Behind” but, rather, to supply all children with the nurturing needed to be
decent. Education would not be seen as a ladder to “success” or “fame,” but
rather an arena where children would be taught not competition but caring. Or
it would not declare “a war on drugs,” a war that sought the eradication of
mind-altering and illegal drugs. Rather, it would seek to build the kind of
society in which such drugs would seem superfluous or irrelevant to the kind of
life style most people aspired to.
Anti-Federalists thought that it was only in small societies that the kind of
citizen could be developed who could support the demands of a republican
government and a republican society. Republican government demands that the governed
control the governors, which is only possible, as was intimated above, in
simple, close-knit societies with relatively simple, transparent governments. And
a republican society demands a kind of likeness among the people, the kind of
likeness that blurs the differences between the rich and the middle and lower
classes. This is why George Mason at the constitutional convention suggested
that the national government be empowered to pass “sumptuary laws,” that is,
laws that regulate such events as funerals or weddings in order to prevent the
few from making ostentatious displays of their wealth.
But there is
another aspect to republican citizenship as understood by the Anti-Federalists
which is perhaps best understood by contrasting it with the kind of citizenship
that was embraced by the progressives at the beginning of the 20th
century and which still carries a lot of weight today. That citizenship was to
be characterized by what might be called a “nationalistic fervor,” that is, an
intense nationalism that would create unity among the people. One might say
that the progressives sought to replace a “union” with a “nation.” In unions,
the parts retain their integrity while in nations, the parts are subsumed into or
consumed by the whole. In a nation, the parts become invisible or are
“disappeared.” In this view, citizens rally to the nation’s cause almost as one,
after being summoned by a “leader.” They are to “ask not what their country can
do for them but what they can do for their country.” Moreover, they pledge
their allegiance in schools everyday, while standing solemnly at attention while
listening to the national anthem. And those who won’t honor these rituals,
whether for religious reasons or not, are not considered citizens.
say, there is little room for such a galvanizing citizenship in small or
localized republican communities. Localized communities don’t have flags that
are revered and they don’t have anthems, unless of course one exists to
celebrate the local sports’ team victories. Moreover, as the purpose of
government and society is to achieve good, not to achieve greatness, “heroic
citizenship,” like the kind of “heroic leadership” that summons it, is not only
unnecessary; it is irrelevant. That is, it would not make sense for a mayor or
even a governor of a state to say: “Ask not what your country can do for you
but ask what you can do for your country!” The kind of citizenship that exists in small
republican societies is one that is vigilant with regard to government and
especially with regard to people of great ambition. Both phenomena are
dangerous and when combined are doubly so.
Anti-Federalism, understood as I have presented it above, will seem more than a
little strange to us today. That is to be expected because taking Anti-Federalism
and the Anti-Federalists seriously requires that we lift a veil that has shrouded our
vision for a long time. The Constitution of 1787 was ratified and it has, we
have been taught to think, worked well for more than 200 years. There is no
doubt that the founders, that is, the Federalists who wrote, helped ratify, and
helped implement, did some good work. But, and especially these days, there can
or should be little doubt that while the founders did good work, their work is
far from perfect. To understand why, it is more than useful to consult the
Anti-Federalists, as they were the dissenters in 1787 and 1788. And not only
were they dissenters; they were cleared eyed dissenters and, as such, they saw
just how defective the new political order might become. The veil had not yet
descended, the Constitution was not yet revered as it came to be revered, and
they were still in touch with a way of thinking politically that no longer is
visible. It behooves us to pay them some attention.