In response to: The Constitutional Liberty of the Antifederalists
Gordon Lloyd has spent much of his career studying the Founding period. One of the many fruits of his diligent work has been his four excellent websites designed to teach the Philadelphia Convention, the Federalist-Antifederalist debates, the Ratification Conventions, and the Bill of Rights to students. To say that Lloyd knows the Founding well is an understatement. In his essay, Lloyd argues that a return to the thought of the Founders, who envisioned a federal republic, is a potential solution to confronting the Neo-Progressives who promote a national democracy, a “centralized Administrative State,” an imperial presidency, and an activist judiciary. He notes, however, that the usual parsing of The Federalist will not suffice because the current problem is “actually a perversion of the good government-good administration teaching” of that work. Instead he offers the Antifederalists, which, in contradistinction to much of the historiography on the Founding, he construes as a coherent group. “My Antifederalists,” Lloyd writes, “are a composite of Agrippa, Brutus, Cato, Centinel, Federal Farmer, Old Whig, Plebian, and Melancton Smith.” Antifederalism, for Lloyd, reminds Americans “that free government means limited government.” They demonstrated that “the form of government and the means by which power is exercised matter when we are talking about securing the blessings of liberty.” Given Lloyd’s stated political goals, reviving the Federalism of the ratification conventions rather than Antifederalism would better serve his agenda.
As Lloyd indicates many scholars, especially those sympathetic to certain Antifederalist concerns, have noted that the Antifederalists carry an undeservingly bad reputation. Their reputation cemented their place in the narrative of American history as losers. During the nineteenth century nationalists sometimes called their opponents Antifederalists, especially when these opponents cited state sovereignty, states’ rights, or an attachment to a view of the United States as a confederation of states. By labeling these ideas as “antifederal,” the nationalists condemned them to the failed past, to a Lost Cause. The Antifederalists lost. Thus their ideas lost as well. Anyone who revives these ideas is invoking failed doctrines that had been tried, proved wanting, and were replaced by the far-sighted nationalists who wrote and ratified the U.S. Constitution. By definition, then, the real Americans – the ones that matter today – are the nationalists who wisely foresaw an immensely powerful federal government that could advance the cause of justice (however defined) over whatever area it wished to act. Antifederalists and their descendants, usually fingered as southern states’ righters, hinder progress and are best ridiculed or ignored.
In reality, the story of Antifederalism and ratification was much more complex. Pauline Maier’s recent tome Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution (2010) offers some interesting examples that hint at a different account. Most importantly, as Maier notes, neither the Federalists nor the Antifederalists of the ratification battles were monolithic in their concerns or strategies. Some Federalists were strongly nationalistic; some were not. Some Antifederalists wanted a weak federal government; some wanted a strong, but strictly limited, one. One, therefore, must ask who exactly one means by “Antifederalists” or “Federalists.” All too often scholars lean on Brutus, Centinel, and Federal Farmer to express Antifederalism and The Federalist Papers, which Maier suggests influenced relatively few people during ratification, to encompass the Federalist side. If the story was more complicated and the two sides more diverse, then the way one reads the Federalist-Antifederalist rhetoric must change from regarding the documents as representations of two sides in a debate over political philosophy to a multi-layered conversation among groups responding, often philosophically, to the questions of the moment. Reading the debates in context of the public conversation over ratification produces a different narrative.
The issue of state sovereignty provides one lens through which to appreciate the complexity of ratification and address Lloyd’s political concerns about centralization. Positions on state sovereignty and its exact meaning varied greatly during the 1780s despite the ubiquitous use the term. Nevertheless, Antifederalists expressed concern in state after state that the new Constitution, through the consolidation of power, would destroy the sovereignty of the states (which had been encapsulated in Article II of the Articles of Confederation, the so-called Burke Amendment). Federalists at the ratification conventions in many states answered the Antifederalists’ concerns by denying such a threat existed. As Maier shows, the Federalists in states such as Virginia and New York worried that the Antifederalists represented the views of the majority. Thus, Federalists needed to assuage the fears of Antifederalists in order to secure ratification. Federalists allowed, and in some states encouraged, Antifederalists to suggest amendments to the Constitution and even included these in official ratification statements for the new Congress to consider (though, as Lloyd emphasizes, conditional ratification was rejected). In most states, Antifederalists included a modified Burke Amendment in their suggestions, which eventually found its way into the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Some scholars have argued that Federalist rhetoric in many of the ratification conventions contributed greatly to states’ rights constitutionalism in the Early Republic. When Antifederalists complained that the new Constitution would bring consolidation and destroy state sovereignty, Federalists assured them that their fears were greatly exaggerated. This happened in state convention after state convention. Thus, when the ratification conventions approved the new Constitution, many delegates trusted that the interpretations offered by the Constitution’s defenders would hold. (Lloyd refers to a similar type of exchange in his discussion of the judiciary and Federalist #78.) Maier notes this dynamic in Virginia, but it also applied to Pennsylvania, whose ratification convention was hardly an open, democratic process. Federalists in Pennsylvania, as Maier tells it, tried to suppress Antifederalist editorials in the press and refused to record their speeches at the ratification convention. Stung by the unfair process of ratification in the state, Antifederalists reacted by publishing a diatribe against the Federalists and calling immediately for amendments. Federalists such as George Washington were bothered, and in later ratification conventions, Antifederalists were freer to express their concerns.
Some Federalists in Pennsylvania responded by allaying Antifederalist fears. Tench Coxe, in several essays, assured Antifederalists that the new Constitution was not a consolidated government and would not destroy the sovereignty of the states. He noted in his September 1788 essays written under the title “An American Citizen” that U.S. Senators would “be chosen by the legislature of a free, sovereign, and independent state,” a conscious use of the language of the Burke Amendment. In his essays under the title of “A Freeman,” addressed to disgruntled Pennsylvania Antifederalists in January and February 1788, he insisted that the new government would not extinguish the states and was constructed on the sovereign states. John Dickinson, writing under the pseudonym “Fabius” in neighboring Delaware, noted in 1788 that the states were the ones who could (that is, they had the power to) defend themselves from any future aggression by the general government. Coxe listed the many powers of the states and concluded that powers had been divided under the new Constitution between the state and federal governments. A consolidation had not occurred. Coxe and Dickinson sounded much like later defenders of states’ rights.
The rhetoric of state sovereignty was not the invention of Antifederalists but rather the public sentiments of the majority of the convention delegates, both Federalists and Antifederalists. The Federalists affirmed state sovereignty, though often qualifying the meaning of the concept, while defending the Constitution. Many Antifederalists took them at their word and hoped that future amendments would clarify any remaining ambiguities. As Lloyd mentioned, “The Antifederalists had, in fact, been incorporated within the new American System.” In 1789 hard-core nationalists like James Wilson, Rufus King, and Alexander Hamilton could hold private beliefs that the states were not sovereign, but in the public debates during the ratification conventions and in the press, many of their Federalist allies had disagreed with that perspective. The nationalist position of a consolidated union with relatively powerless, non-sovereign states was the position of a small minority. It seems logical to conclude that if the Federalists had tried to gain ratification in each of the thirteen states by proclaiming the private beliefs of extreme nationalists, the Constitution would not have been ratified. Even Hamilton referred to the union as a “confederate republic” in Federalist #9, a conscious use of the language of the majority.
The people of the several states ratified the Constitution believing that the new document improved the operation of the federal government without destroying the sovereignty of the people of the states. Later, nationalists began to claim that the states were not sovereign and that the national government possessed the final word on all constitutional matters. Many, including men like Madison and Jefferson who had supported ratification in 1788, felt betrayed. Nationalists had forgotten (or ignored) the promises made during ratification.
At least two plausible possibilities exist to explain the political break up after the ratification conventions. First, the Federalists were dishonest in their affirmations of state sovereignty during the ratification contest. Pauline Maier relates the story of young John Quincy Adams listening to the stories of Theophilus Parsons, a Massachusetts Federalist who had attended the state’s ratification convention, about the tricks pulled on the Antifederalists in order to gain ratification. Adams regarded the supposed “tricks” as “meanness,” and in the words of Maier “made them a strange basis for boasting.” Indeed, if the success of the Federalists was based on lies and deception, then the legitimacy of the Republic, as Washington had realized after the Pennsylvania ratification debacle, could be called into question. Second, recalling Maier’s depiction of Federalists as a heterogeneous group, the Federalists, because they never really agreed with each other’s broader goals, divided ideologically after the Constitution went into effect. Nationalists, the most outspoken group, received most of the attention and thus gave the impression that the Federalist position had been, indeed, nationalism.
One’s view of the ratification conventions and their aftermath shapes one’s portrayal of the rest of American political and constitutional history. If the sovereignty of the people of the states was the default position, a foundation of the revolutionary settlement expressed during the ratification conventions, then the story of the Early Republic becomes one of declension – how the Republic devolved into centralism and consolidation. That story came to be told by Americans who maintained belief in a federal republic and often repeated the Antifederalist warnings that Lloyd recounts so well. If Federalist unity on the narrow goal of ratification covered a multitude of broader political positions, then the subsequent narrative of American history becomes more complex. One would have to explain how the Federalist coalition came apart and track the results of such a fracture. Here, Antifederalist polemics, though applicable when taking the long view, might not explain historical and constitutional change. Both narratives are related, however, in that they identify centralization as a consequence of American constitutional development.
If Gordon Lloyd desires a federal government that obeys the Constitution as understood by the majority sentiments of the ratifiers, reviving Antifederalism might not be his best choice. Invoking Antifederalists, despite his efforts to salvage their reputation, probably will be counterproductive. Perhaps more Federalism as expressed by the majority public sentiments of the Federalists during the ratification process would be a better choice. If one desires, however, a more decentralized republican system, then one could invoke the spirit of the Antifederalists, many of whom recognized that self-government works best on a smaller, human scale. But that is a different issue, one which, in his efforts to push away from Calhoun and the Jeffersonians in his essay, Lloyd hints at but does not entertain.