J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Rebirth of Anti-Federalism?

Yesterday’s posting discussed how four Supreme Court justices had, perhaps unthinkingly, adopted Alexander Hamilton’s dismissive version of how Anti-Federalists caricatured the Constitution. In other words, they accepted the attitude of the Anti-Federalists expressed in the broadest, most sneering form.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo sees a larger reemergence of Anti-Federalism in today’s politics:
If you read about how the federal constitution came about, one thing is crystal clear: it was devised by people who wanted to create a strong federal government and saw the states as obstacles to doing so. The people who believed in states rights and an anemic federal government — the ancestors of today’s Tea Party — were the Anti-Federalists. And they lost.

But especially in recent decades, these modern day Anti-Federalists hatched a massive bamboozle in which they projected the the aims and values of the losers — the Anti-Federalists — on to the winners of the debates — Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin and the rest of them.

This hasn’t simply been an effort on the terrain of political argument. It’s dominated the high-toned theory of the conservative legal academy as well.

But now it seems that anti-federal government thought has become so powerful and accepted that it’s finally ready to come out of the Anti-Federalist closet and embrace its true heritage: The Articles of Confederation, the failed union of sovereign states the federal constitution was hatched to replace.

In her latest column (thanks to Jon Chait for flagging it), Amity Shlaes proposed a major reversion to the Articles of the Confederation model: removing the federal government’s ability to tax individuals and replacing it with a claim on states. In other words, devolving the taxing power to the states. 
Because that worked so well in the 1780s.

Of course, it’s possible to maintain intellectual consistency by arguing that the Federalist Founders wanted a stronger national government for their time but would have opposed the powers that the federal government has taken on since; that the Anti-Federalists’ fears were overblown for their time but have come true since.

But there’s no way to prove or disprove that. We have no idea what James Madison (pictured above) or his opponents in 1787-89 would have thought about the Fourteenth Amendment, or mileage rules for automobiles, or necessary powers for the executive branch in a world with nuclear-tipped missiles.

We can say, however, that Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who both became President declaring their support for a smaller, weaker national government, ended up using the executive branch powers in unprecedented ways. And that’s one reason I have no faith that most of today’s “Anti-Federalist” or “states’ rights” politicians and activists would stick to that philosophy if they found a chance to institute what they want from the federal level.


Anonymous said...

As someone who has studied the Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments at some length (certainly no expert, but 3 years of consistent, focused reading of both), I have to disagree with you. The Tea Party doesn't symbolize the rebirth of Anti-Federalism, but Federalism. The Constitution was founded on compromise and neither side "won" all of what they wanted for the system. Consider the fact that one of the people most responsible for the Constitution, was James Madison, a primary author of the "Federalist!" He was for a stronger federal government, but was also a major Anti-Federalist.

Both Federalist and Anti-Federalist principles went into the founding. It was a national debate that resulted in a mix of the two under a "Federal" system. The Anti-Federalists were victims of a being misnamed. They weren't opposed to a Federal system, they just disagreed as to the proportion and balance of powers proposed. Their concerns were somewhat alleviated by the Bill of Rights and the evolution of the federal government in the first several administrations.

A Federalist system is one in which powers are disseminated with an aim toward placing the powers as close to the people as practicable. In Gordon Wood's The Idea of America, he explains how the Federalists may have gotten more than they bargained for in their arguments that the Federal system was in fact democratic at its core. The people bought the argument, and the Federalists adapted accordingly.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that both Federalist and Anti-Federalist thinking went into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Because the Federalists won the argument for ratification and produced the first couple of Presidents, they dominated the historiography for the next century. Anti-Federalism was treated almost as an embarrassment. Even the name "Anti-Federalist" shows how Federalist writers and historians influenced by them defined the terms of the debate.

But to define Federalism as seeking to bring power closer to the people seems profoundly anachronistic. The Federalists of the 1780s wanted a strong national government, and insulated many of its officials from the people (the lower house of the legislature being the exception, but even there two-year terms provided more insulation than in many state legislatures). The Federalists of the early republic distrusted democracy.

In the 20th century "federalism" came to mean devolving or restoring powers to state governments, but that's the reversal of either positions or situation that Marshall wrote about.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, I am an anachronism :-)

I subscribe more to Gordon Wood's interpretation of what federalism quickly came to mean and contend that Madison, first arguably a Federalist and then Anti-Federalist (misnomer) had a hand in shaping that definition. In Wood's words:

"The Anti-Federalists may have lost the battle over the Constitution, but during the subsequent generation they essentially won the war over the character of the new nation." -- The Idea of America

In essence, they won the war of ideas and framed the definition of Federalism as the guiding principle behind American governance for much of our history. I might even cede that this was not entirely what the Federalists intended, but it was what they argued in the Federalist papers. Wood asserts that once these arguments were made, they were adopted by most people.

"In the debates over ratification of the Constitution, they [Federalists] were extraordinarily successful in exploiting the old idea of separation of powers in new ways and in giving a novel twist to the conventional meaning of sovereignty by locating it in the people." -- Gordon Wood, The Idea of America

Yes the Federalists were skeptical of democracy - and men like Fisher Ames equated it with mobocracy. Even Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said that democracy was like two wolves and a sheep voting about what was for dinner.

However, democratic the Anti-Federalists were, they were republicans through and through. In a recent book entitled "Madison's Metronome" by Greg Weiner, the author makes a persuasive argument that Madison too, was suspicious of pure democracy. Ultimately, he realized that it was the only alternative, but sought to ameliorate the effects of ill-considered mood swings amongst the electorate by allowing time for consideration. He, like the federalists (who always claimed the mantle of republican government), was s republican (small r) in principle.

J. L. Bell said...

So the Anti-Federalists "framed the definition of Federalism"? Sorry, that doesn't make logical sense. It looks like a Procrustean attempt to fit all significant Founders into an ahistoric definition of Federalism.

The Federalists of the 1780s had a clear program of creating a stronger national government. Prompted by the Shays rebellion, they also wanted to insulate that government from direct popular pressure. The Anti-Federalists of the 1780s opposed that program from a variety of perspectives.

Several leading Anti-Federalists in the first Congress opposed James Madison's proposal for a Bill of Rights on the grounds that it would make the new national government, which they still distrusted, more palatable to the electorate. At the same time the most populist of the states, Rhode Island, resisted joining the union.

I think it's better to say that in Hegelian terms that conflict of Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the Constitution soon formed a new republican synthesis under the new national government. Calling that synthesis "Federalist" is both ahistoric and confusing, erasing the important differences between the remaining Founders and creating a false picture of consensus on important issues.

Within that new republican synthesis, the definition of Federalism remained much the same. For the next generation the Federalists were the party supporting strong national government institutions and opposed to moving power closer to the electorate. The Democratic-Republican party that grew out of the Anti-Federalists (with Madison and others joining), while not democratic by any means, sought to expand governing power beyond traditional elites.

By the 1820s, there was yet another new synthesis, producing the more formalized Democratic and Whig Parties, with no room for Federalists anymore. That doesn't mean, however, that the label is free for anyone to snatch up and apply anywhere and everywhere. It should retain its original meaning determined by politicians of the 1780s through 1810s.