Happy Anti-Federalist Day!

So, today is Constitution Day, a day to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution. Aptly, then, I’ve been reading John Ferling’s A Leap In The Dark, a history of the American Revolutionary period beginning in the 1750’s and ending with the peaceful transfer of power to Jefferson in the 1800 election. Over the last few days, I’ve been through the chapters on the battle to create and ratify the Constitution.

The book, which I recommend heartily, gives a strong human feel to the Revolution. Contemporary high-school history classes teach the Revolution as if it were a foregone conclusion, a natural progression of the transgressions by King George III on the colonies. In reality, it was always in doubt, and divergent factions within the colonies could have scuttled the Revolution at any point between the Stamp Act in 1765 and Yorktown.

Enter figures such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, two true radicals committed to independence. Adams in particular was masterful during the days of 1770-1773– a time with little new development from the Crown to cause popular outrage– when he worked to keep the situation simmering. His leadership in the Boston Tea Party directly forced the British hand into the Coercive Acts, likely the point of no return for both sides. Henry entered the national scene thereafter as a Virginian delegate to the First Continental Congress, and his alliance with Samuel & John Adams helped to win his fellow colonists towards independence rather than reconciliation.

The American Revolution was a truly incredible feat, both for having defeated the British and for having ushered in a society unlike any of those in old Europe. Gone were the days of imperial government, of a titular nobility, and of subservience to faraway central governments who could rule with a heavy hand over the individual colonies’ (now States’) matters. Under the Articles of Confederation, thirteen independent States worked to decide matters of importance to all, but with the ever-present assumption that each was– and ought to be– independent of the others.

But although commerce was booming, and the life of the average American in their respective States was improving, not all was well. The Congress (and several States) had racked up enormous debt to fight the war and were vulnerable to outside attack by the powers of Europe. The nature of a one-State-one-vote Confederation between northern mercantilists and southern agrarian planters allowed those European powers to divide-and-conquer to get what they wanted from our national policy.

Several people, such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, recognized that the Articles of Confederation were not working and needed to be revised. They understood that the American States were in jeopardy and would have trouble banding together against regional invasion if a change was not made. They were not, however, looking for a new central government with widespread power.

Enter James Madison, and his ideological cohort, Alexander Hamilton. “The Father Of The American Constitution” was sent as a delegate from Virginia to revise the Articles of Confederation, but he had other designs in mind. He wanted a national, centralized, sovereign government that would supercede the States, binding them into a singular entity. The “United States of America”, per his plan, would be more aptly described as the “United State of America”. He found himself with many like-minded souls at the convention (such as Hamilton) to “amend” the Articles. They moved far beyond the proposed revision of the Articles, and a completely new Constitution was written.

The battles between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was joined. The Federalists suggested that without a new Constitution, the States would become client-states of Europe, severely limited and unable to protect their own interests from the European monarch’s divide-and-conquer tactics. The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, saw the birth of a new government that would have the same sort of arbitrary and remote power against which they had just fought a war of Independence. Hamilton wanted a European-style government, destruction or complete subservience of the States, and widespread national powers. Patrick Henry disagreed:

If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things.

When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different.

Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object. We are descended from a people whose Government was founded on liberty.

Our glorious forefathers of Great-Britain, made liberty the foundation of every thing. That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their Government is strong and energetic; but, Sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation.

We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty.

But now, Sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country to a powerful and mighty empire.

If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your Government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together.

Such a Government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism.

The Liberty Papers bills itself as written by the heirs of Patrick Henry. Each contributor to this blog, of course, would have to determine for himself how much that description applies, but it is rather clear that the end result of the American republic was Hamiltonian, not what Henry would have wanted.

Much like Frost’s The Road Not Taken, the American Revolution was driven by radical men, blazing the path less traveled. The ratification of the Constitution was the true point at which the more conservative “governmental” members of the movement regained control and put it down the path well worn.

Today is a day to officially cheer the Madisonian/Hamiltonian vision of a great American empire, a vision today fulfilled by men like John McCain and the Washington set. Instead, I suggest you pause and ask yourself whether the Splendid government those men have produced is worth it. Ask yourself whether you would rather follow the path of Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, or of a man like Hamilton who worked tirelessly to enhance and increase the power of the central government. Today, I will be cheering the Anti-Federalists.

  • http://classyrev.blogspot.com Emily

    What a fantastic post! I will have to get a copy of that book.

  • http://none Steve

    It is instructive to receive such an interesting and envigorating thought piece. This may be the day that opens history’s strongest assault on the very document that is the indelible behest of the long-dead to an extraordinarily fortunate people. I believe we soon will learn whether the Law that shields, guides, and justifies us as a free nation may weather a test of proof from its ideological handmaiden, a seriously ill economy.
    We HAVE a republic, as Franklin noted, and his following remark: “If we can keep it” is as valid now as then. After a while, when the fog of out-of-balance capitalism disperses a little, perhaps we will see what is workable among the residue. I suspect we may find scapegoats and slick admen, actuaries and attorneys, and the weeping wounded alongside people who have no interest in Wall Street, and who will harvest their annual yield as usual. Only the audience will be different, and the need for nourishment unchanged (perhaps except for its expense).
    Constitution Day reminds us that, as Mother occasionally reminded: “Sometimes, we must accept things we don’t like.”
    One thing is for certain: If the Basic Law is as good as we brag to the rest of Humanity, we will find our way back to the future we hold in our dreams – and will proceed from there.
    Ever-cynical Mankind will look on, hoping the dream does not have have a surprise ending — as a nightmare.
    I don’t think it will be a monster dream, but I believe we, as a nation, may be sent to bed tonight, without supper.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    I think I’m probably more aligned with Madison, Jefferson, and (in some respects) Paine than Henry. I still view the U.S. Constitution as the best founding document in history with respect to life, liberty, and property (the problem has less to do with the Constitution than the fact it isn’t followed).

    Henry did raise some very good objections to the idea of a strong federal government, however. Much of his concerns have been realized in the 221 years since the Constitution’s approval by the convention. I do not for a moment believe that Madison et al would be happy with how incredibly huge the federal government currently is.

    I would also point out though, that had Henry had his way, the state of liberty today would probably be as bad, if not worse, than it is now (though this is something we could never know for sure). I think that Jefferson said it best: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This is true no matter how carefully a government is organized or however many checks and balances are put into place.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    The Constitution is a pretty good document. I would point out, though, that Madison and Hamilton both envisioned the end of individual state sovereignty. They wanted a national government that had wide-ranging powers that would allow such things as the federal government to flat out veto state laws, etc. Many of the positive features of the Constitution were wrought by those who were trying desperately to retain the powers and character of individual States while still centralizing some functions. As an example, Madison’s original plan asked for direct election of Senators, as well as for them to be apportioned via population rather than equally. He didn’t want the States to be a brake on the power of the central government. Hamilton, in my opinion, was even farther down the line. He was a national-greatness empire builder.

    In addition, the 9th and 10th Amendments, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, were pushed by the anti-Federalists and the Constitution likely wouldn’t have been adopted without an explicit Bill of Rights.

    Would liberty today be better or worse? I’m not sure. Some would argue that the Articles of Confederation would have made it impossible for us to fight off Europe or open the west, or even that it would have eventually led to wars of conquest between the States. We won’t know if that’s the case. We could have ended up like Europe, a collection of individual statist localities instead of a combined statist nation spanning ocean-to-ocean. Of course, now Europe has the EU, which seems to be attempting to follow the lead from Articles of Confederation to a more Constitution-like setup…

  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy

    Brad – Great post! Like Emily, I’m going to hunt down a copy of that book.

    Steve – I really need to question your use of the phrase “out-of-balance capitalism”. The cause of this entire mess we find ourselves in has been Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two entities of government whose mission has been to “un-learn” the lessons of credit and the Great Depression. To the extent that our capitalist system is ill and out-of-balance, it is so because we failed to heed the warnings of the Anti-Federalists.

    The right solution would be to now heed their advice and find away to transition to a post Fannie/Freddie economy. Sadly, with the two parties in charge now, this won’t happen. Of course, that’s another warning from the Founding Fathers we failed to heed…

  • Margaret

    “The Style of this confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America'”. – Articles of Confederation, Article I.

  • Mike

    Read “The Hologram of Liberty” for how Hamilton really screwed us.


  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    Thanks for the recommendation. I just read the link and I think I might need to pick that one up.