What is Federalism?
Dr. Peter Schultz
Having raised the question, “What is Anti-Federalism,” it seems necessary to raise the question above, “What is Federalism?” That is, what were the Federalists for?
Here we enter a thicket from which we might never emerge if we were to try to figure out and summarize the views that have been attributed to the Federalists. As the victors in the debate over the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the Federalists have garnered much more attention than the Anti-Federalists, as is always the case with winners and losers. Moreover, because they were the victors, their cause was victorious as well and, hence, people use them to support their various causes as they can provide a kind of imprimatur for these causes.
So to avoid this thicket, I will not be spending time reviewing the various interpretations of the Federalists and their cause. Rather, I will move into what I think their cause was, paying attention to points of intersection between them and the Anti-Federalists.
If the Anti-Federalists may be said to be partisans of “small republics,” the Federalists may be said to be partisans of “large republics.” Or as James Madison argued in Federalist #10, they were proponents of “a large, commercial republic.” So it may first be asked, What was the problem(s) with small republics and how was or were these addressed by the creation of a large republic.?
Most importantly, the problem with small republics may be called “the tyranny of the majorities.” That is, it was thought that in small republics, majorities could form rather easily and because in a republic the majority legitimately holds power, then once formed these majorities would prove to be oppressive. One advantage of a large republic, perhaps even the advantage of such a place, is that it is more difficult for such majorities to form. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, a “multiplicity of interests” necessarily spring up in large and complex societies making it more difficult for “a permanent majority” to form. Emphasis should be placed on the word “permanent” because, of course, for anything to get done in a republic majorities would have to form. However, in a large, complex, and economically developed society, these majorities would most likely be temporary, coalescing in order to pass a particular piece of legislation, to endorse a particular policy and then disappearing.
Moreover, because these majorities were temporary, it was thought that there was a likelihood that they would actually come to agree on something that was very close to or resembled what might be called the “common good.” Of course, no particular group was interested in the “common good” but because of the negotiating that would be necessary to form working majorities, it was thought that something resembling the “common good” would emerge from the political arena. At the very least, the rights of minorities would not be compromised given the absence of a permanent majority.
However, it must be said that there is more to the appeal of a large, commercial republic than reducing the possibility of majority tyranny, an appeal reflected by the character of the government created by the Constitution. A large, commercial republic was also appealing because such a republic would be able to rival monarchies in terms of greatness, in terms of what was called in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere “a great empire.” To create such an empire, a powerful, complex, and central government was needed. Simple government controlled by “simple” – read “middling” – persons would no longer suffice. A government that merely reflected the middling majority would need to be replaced by a government composed of representatives who represented a refinement of those of the middle class. Moreover, these types of representatives should be permitted to govern for long periods, to be professional politicians for the same reasons that these types were allowed to populate other professions, their superior talents. Unlike the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists did not aspire to “sameness” or “likeness” in their representatives.
And of course such a republic must have a government that is composed of offices of great powers and much prominence. For example, there might be an office fit for the greatest man of the day, just as the presidency is often said to have been created with George Washington in mind. If such an office then helped make its occupant the greatest man of the day, the nation’s leading man accompanied by “the First Lady,” that would be fine as well. After all, it is not possible to have a government capable of doing great things without great offices and great men to occupy them. The greater the office, the more it would appeal to those men who are driven by, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “the love of fame, the leading passion of the noblest minds.” Men of noble minds want to do noble things and a government of great offices is the only way to make such doings possible.
So whereas the Anti-Federalists argued that “no great talents” were necessary in a government, the Federalists did not. It is important though, to do justice to both sides in this debate, to recognize that neither argument is persuasive absent a consideration of the appropriate ends of government. If the wish is to have a government do great things, to remake society in significant even basic ways, then it is indispensable to have “great talents” in the government. It takes “great talents” to do “great things.” On the other hand, if the wish is to have a government that does not seek to do “great things,” that seeks to do, say, “good things,” then it is not necessary to have “great talents” in the government. In fact, as the Anti-Federalists liked to point out, such men would be dangerous, as great men with great ambitions always are.
So at bottom then, the differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, the differences between what we call “small republics” and “large republics,” come down to differences over the appropriate ends of government. And it might even be said that these differences come down to differences over whether governments – and of course human beings – should seek greatness, to do great things, or should seek goodness, to do good things. If the wish is to pursue greatness, then a great government, composed of great offices filled with great human beings, is absolutely essential. However, if the wish is to pursue goodness, then a simple government, composed of simple offices filled with simple human beings, is absolutely essential.
The Federalist had, it has been said by the leading authority on the Anti-Federalists, the more powerful argument. Such would seem to be the case. The appeal of greatness, of doing great things, perhaps even as a recent president thought, of ridding the world of evil, is about as seductive an appeal as is imaginable. To do great things, to do the greatest thing, to create, would appear to be almost god-like. To conserve, on the other hand, as even Lincoln pointed out, pales by comparison. But while the argument for greatness is more powerful, we may wonder if it is better. The more powerful arguments are such because they appeal to our passions, while the better arguments, although weaker, appeal to our reason. And so it is worth wondering whether, even though the Anti-Federalists made the weaker argument, they did not also make the better argument. They would not be the first example of human beings trying “to make the weaker argument appear stronger.”
 That this argument makes some sense, think of the areas where something very much like a permanent majority exists in the United States, viz., race, and then think the oppression of and what great effort it took to overcome the oppression of the minority race.
 See Herbert J. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For.
 See Lincoln’s speech “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”