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.