portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article creative oregon & cascadia

political theory

The Anit-Federalists Had It Right

A little history
With the end of the Revolutionary War, the colonists were free of British tyranny. Now that they were free from British control, the majority of the colonists wanted small democratic governments within the states. However, the system was failing. The country was in debt, and people needed to get paid. A large republican government was the proposed solution to this problem in the constitution. The problem with adopting the constitution is that it was written in secrecy. Now all of this sudden people are supposed to vote on it? That's not fair. The questions at hand were how big were the governments' powers to be, and how will the government protect peoples' rights? These were two of the main areas of concern debated by each side.

The federalists were those people who supported the new constitution. These people were for; big national government, taxes, executive, legislature, judicial branches, inter-state trade, a standing army, and assumption of state debt. These people tended to be rich and big land owners or merchants with a vested interest in stable trade and keeping their wealth. Bankruptcy laws were weak, which created a problem for merchants and industrialists. They were afraid of anarchy and loosing their money. The federalists were afraid of debate over the constitution, and people thought they were playing dirty.

The anti-federalists were the opponents of the proposed constitution. They were worried about tyranny by government which the proposed constitution did not provide against. They thought that a concentration of power meant the end of liberty, freedom, and state sovereignty. They were more conservative, and afraid of the size of the new proposed national government. They thought the powers of federal government should be limited, and republics could only exist in a small territory. These people tended to be farmers and the lower class. They could loose their land with new, stricter bankruptcy laws. The government is not supposed to take your property away; it is supposed to protect it for you. "Thirdly, the supreme court cannot Justly take from any man, any part of his property without his consent, in person or by his Representative." (The Rights of the Colonists, Samuel Adams, p.47) The anti-federalists had a great deal to fear in adopting a constitution in which the idea of community and sovereignty was to be taken over by a strong republican government, separate from the state. Their fears were genuine, and I am not the kind of person to side with the political elite. This is why I will argue the side of the anti-federalists.

The anti-federalists saw the proposed constitution as threats to rights and liberties won from England. In the Revolution, these people fought for states' rights, not a national government. People had experienced at first hand an example of government tyranny and had fought a war against it. It could have seemed that America may have been trading one group of political elites for another. Americans were scared and did not trust a big national government. Although both parties were for free government and free markets, the anti-federalists were relying upon lessons in history that seemed to tell a story that free government could only function in a small territory where people have common interests. The federalists saw one nation, sovereign republics joined together.

The anti-federalists did not want to abandon the articles of the confederation which stated that sovereign power lies within each state, and the role of the government was limited. If each state was to be governed by a large republican government, could small states or regions be treated unfairly and under-represented? Sure. There were unavoidable dangers in a distant government. One section could be dominating the whole country. Clashes of political and economic interests by different sections of the nation were possible. There was a fear of sectional politics. A large, distant republic would be too far for people to participate in public affairs. It wasn't government they feared, but a corrupt and detached government.

Privacy and protection of property from the actions of government must have been on the minds of the farmers. To the colonists, property meant more than just land. It meant the right to earn a living. How could they be protected from the government taking these things away? The Bill of Rights was added to the constitution and provided a solution to many of these fears. Many states' constitutions already had a Bill of Rights; the proposed constitution however did not. One of the biggest problems with the constitution, stated by the anti-federalists, is that it did not contain a Bill of Rights.

The anti-federalists thought the states would no longer matter. "If the several states in the Union are to become one entire Nation, under one Legislature, and Powers of which shall extend to every Subject of Legislation, and its Laws be supreme & controul the whole, the Idea of Sovereignty in these States must be lost." (Letter from Samuel Adams to Richard Henry Lee (1787)) In the federalist view, local was replaced by national. They argued that the constitution would create a new kind of government. In The Federalist No. 39, Madison says that states would not be irrelevant. Instead, states and national government would be different, with different layers. The states would be tied together by the government under this new republic. "they have framed a national government, which regards the union as a consolidation of the states." (The Federalist No. 39, Madison, p.192)

In The Federalist No. 10, Madison talks about "factions". A faction is a group that puts their own common good ahead of society's interest. "By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." (The Federalist No. 10, Madison, p.43) Laws in the interest of dominant groups could be imposed upon minority groups against their will. How can you keep factions from dominating and tyrannizing others? He states that if we remove the causes of factions, we lose liberty, which is worse than factions. So we have to control the effects of factions. "The causes of factions cannot be removed; and that relief is only sought in the means of controlling its effects." (The Federalist No. 10, Madison, p. 45) Our only choice is then to enlarge the republic and government. The advantage of a large republic, he argues, is that it permits majority rule while discouraging majority faction. This new type of government would tie the states together and protect the liberties of the majority, and also protect minorities from the oppression of the majority. Different factions and interests would negotiate their differences. Then we would be one large faction, or no faction. This takes us back to tyranny. Who controls the faction, and where is it located? Also, what happens when the government becomes too large? It becomes less accountable. When you remove power and money from a democratic government in the community, the strong republican government in a distant place becomes less accountable and will be more of a tyranny.

Both the federalists and the anti-federalists wanted a government based on elected representatives. However, the anti-federalists thought that these representatives should be held accountable to the communities that they represent. I think that national government can be too distant from local communities to understand people's particular needs. Also, national government can sometimes be too involved with local affairs which it knows little about. How can a strong republican government govern states when each state is different with different needs? What are the rules when it comes to placing a tax on one group of citizens, and giving money to another? Shouldn't the state decide on these types of matters?

The separation of the executive and legislative branches of government is necessary to protect people from tyranny. In The Federalist No. 47, Madison discusses that each branch of government is not completely separate and distinct in each of the states. "It is but too obvious that in some instances, the fundamental principle under consideration has been violated by too great a mixture, and even an actual consolidation of the different powers." (The Federalist No. 47, Madison, p.249) In The Federalist No. 51, Madison says it is necessary to divide up the legislative branch because it has more power than the other two. "divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit." (The Federalist No. 51, Hamilton or Madison, p.2)

The anti-federalists feared the courts could have been dominated by the aristocrats because judges were not elected, they were appointed. Although the judges were not elected, you could elect the people who pick the judges. The debate over the courts was settled by allowing "trial by jury". Juries allow the public to be the protectors of each others rights. This was debated by The Pennsylvania Minority. "That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, trial by jury shall remain as heretofore, as well in federal courts as in those of the several states." (Dissent of the Pennsylvania Minority, p.133) Richard Henry Lee also said this was important in one of his letters. "The trial by jury is important... .It is essential in every free country, that common people should have a part and share of influence, in the judicial as well as in the legislative department." (Letters from a Federal Farmer, Richard Henry Lee, Letter IV, p.140) Juries however all not full proof for protecting each others rights. History has shown us that juries have done terrible things. Convicting innocent men and sentencing them death. They also exonerate guilty men so they can commit worse crimes later.

Man is motivated by self interest. James Madison's assumption in human nature is that people are greedy, and will do whatever they can to better their life, power, and situation. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." (The Federalist No. 51, Hamilton or Madison, p.1) The anti-federalists were suspicious of men in power, and thought they could not be trusted. Too right! It is a fact that people in power abuse their authority. Not all, but some. He argues that we are freer with a large government with greedy leaders. The powers in the branches of government are mitigated. But what happens when these people are making our laws?

What if the states wanted to retain their sovereign powers? They couldn't. Since so few people were voting (1 out of 10 people), the difference on adopting the constitution could not have been much. Elections were not sufficient enough to keep elected officials accountable. If power and sovereignty remained with the states, this would have most definitely have had positive and negative effects on society. The Civil War may have been avoided, and other wars could have come from this, as well as economic impacts on the states. It's surprising how vital that debate over 200 years ago has remained with us so we can understand our system of government. The states are always battling with the federal government, especially here in Oregon, where the federal government doesn't always recognize state laws that have been passed.

The intimacy between the people and their elected representatives in a small democratic community is impossible in a large republic. Also, in a large republic, the number of representatives is lowered, so the influence each voter has over his representative is lessened. A large government is more of an impersonal system. The middle and lower classes of society would not be elected to government. This still holds true to some degree today, when it comes to being elected to the government. People could know little about their representatives while laws become more complex. They become less accountable. Government officials could be making the rich richer, and the poor poorer, while falling into the hands of private interests.

History has taught us a lesson; the government must be checked and balanced, it does not always know what is best for each individual, and it is impossible to keep government officials accountable 100% of the time. The United States is a big government, maybe even too big to be governed by a single government. In a large population, like America, citizens do not always get their voice heard. Wouldn't a central, local government, with local officials be better to decide on matters and concerns of the community and state?
thanks for posting 05.Apr.2004 13:28


this is a good topic for conversation. unfortunately the power of the federal government and the executive branch have gotten out of control in recent decades. but it is nothing new, look up McCulloch v Maryland, 1819. this is the supreme court decision that effectively eliminated the 10th amendment by appropriating federal authority to "all areas except those specifically denyed it by the contitution." that would seem to me to completely go against the 10th amendment, but john marshall thought otherwise. could have been a much different country...

NOICE 21.Jul.2005 11:20