What is Anti-Federalism?
Dr. Peter Schultz
Those 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.
First, it 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.
First is 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.
Of course, 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. 
Insofar as 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 “republican.”
Second, it 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.
To ensure 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.
But these 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.
It is 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.
Further, an 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.
Lastly, the 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.
Needless to 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.
No doubt, 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.
 Some will argue that in fact there is more liberty in large cities like Boston than in small towns and, hence, that is why people like living in large cities. In small towns, everyone knows everyone else’s business and, hence, there is less liberty. While this seems persuasive, it rests I think on confusing anonymity with liberty. Big city anonymity does offer more freedom than that found in small towns. But it is not clear that overall people are freer in big cities than small towns as is evident if one thinks of how children can live in small towns. Also, the constraints felt by adults in big cities, such as where they cannot go safely, are not insignificant and liberty must mean or include the freedom to move about as one wishes.
 “Better” did not mean for the AF innately better. It simply meant for the AF that those in the middle class were, because of their circumstances, more moderate, more “moral” than those in the other two classes. For example, those in the middle class have to work for a living and, hence, have less time and, by the way, less money to engage in activities that are, for want of a better term, “unproductive.” For the AF, living as middle class was a “better’” way to live than to live poorly or, and this is especially interesting, to live richly. In a genuinely middle class society, most would not want “to marry a millionaire” or to be millionaires.