The Anti-Federalist Problem and Promise
The most insightful of the Anti-Federalists understood that the debate over the proposed constitution was a debate over ends, not means. That is, they understood that “The Federalists [were] using an argument about means to enlarge the ends of government, shifting their gaze from individual liberty to visions of national empire and glory.” [Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For, p. ]
The Anti-Federalists’ problem was that their end, individual liberty, was inadequate in opposing the Federalists’ desire for a great nation. Individual liberty cannot withstand claims made on behalf of society or the people. Whenever individual liberty is pitted against the common good, individual liberty will lose, as even the Anti-Federalists understood when it came to national defense. Common interests always trump individual interests, including individual liberty.
The Anti-Federalists needed then a way to define the common good that was better than those visions of empire and glory embraced by some Federalists. And this they did not have access to because, among other things, they did not think through their preferences for a homogeneous, middle-class republic. What does such a republic point toward and how it is different than or an alternative to the Federalist version of republicanism?
Homogeneous and middle class point toward a republic where people are alike and where people don’t aspire to be distinguished or superior. In such a republic, for example, education’s goal wouldn’t be separation or “elevation” according to “merit,” but rather to create a homogeneous, like-minded, people. That is, the goal of education would not be, ala’ Jefferson, the creation of an aristocracy, natural or otherwise, but rather creating a community.
And the Anti-Federalists never really did get to the point of seeing community as the proper end of politics, in large part because they, like the Federalists, were seeking success in terms of being a modern nation. Modern nations are built of acquisition, of land, of wealth, of power, whereas communities require cultivation and caring. Cultivation and caring are alternatives, create alternative “lifestyles,” to those created by an ethic of acquisition and exploitation. And it is less than clear that nationalism is compatible with cultivation and caring.
Despite their limitations, the Anti-Federalists point toward an alternative republicanism than the republicanism of empire and glory espoused by some Federalists. It is, of course, the latter that has defined the United States throughout its history, for better and worse. But that need not obscure the fact that at the second founding there were two competing, alternative visions of republicanism, not “large” versus “small,” not even “national” versus “confederal,” but rather communal versus imperial. Would many deny that at the very least emphasizing the communal alternative, perhaps in the form of “a kinder, gentler nation,” would improve our politics and our society?
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