The vindication of the anti-federalist

During the debate over whether to ratify the Constitution, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote under the pseudonym Publius various essays defending the Constitution and offering explanations for each part of it. Those essays were eventually collected into a single book known as the Federalist Papers, which is commonly used to help decipher the meaning of the Constitution.

The Constitution’s detractors, which included men like Patrick Henry, were known as anti-federalists. Likewise, their essay, albeit far less organized, were gathered into the Anti-Federalist Papers. They are almost never spoken of, referenced, or mentioned in political debates. One wonders why this is the case. A part of it is that the Constitution was ratified and so their criticisms did not sway the majority of Americans.

At the same time, when one reads the essays, one can’t help but find prophetic statements uttered by men who had the foresight to perceive where the document would take us. For example, many of them saw danger in statements like “general welfare” or the power to tax, a power denied to the central government under the Articles of Confederation.

This is what Madison had to say in Federalist Paper #45 on the role of the federal government under the proposed Constitution:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.

Now consider this paragraph from Anti-Federalist #7:

The new constitution in its present form is calculated to produce despotism, thraldom and confusion, and if the United States do swallow it, they will find it a bolus, that will create convulsions to their utmost extremities. Were they mine enemies, the worst imprecation I could devise would be, may they adopt it. For tyranny, where it has been chained (as for a few years past) is always more cursed, and sticks its teeth in deeper than before……..What then may we expect if the new constitution be adopted as it now stands? The great will struggle for power, honor and wealth; the poor become a prey to avarice, insolence and oppression. And while some are studying to supplant their neighbors, and others striving to keep their stations, one villain will wink at the oppression of another, the people be fleeced, and the public business neglected. From despotism and tyranny good Lord deliver us. 

It is fairly obvious which person’s vision of the Constitution has been borne out, and which one understood the dangers of granting power to a centralized government – or any government.

It also goes to show the flaw of written constitutions. There is no guarantee the limitations will be followed, unless there is a threat of violence behind it. Unless there is the danger or revolt, rebellion, or revolution (whichever word suits you best) those in power will not be checked by a piece of paper.

We can debate the wisdom of the Founding Fathers based on the context of the political climate at the time the Constitution was ratified. But when it comes to which group had the greatest capacity to see the end result of the proposed government, the anti-federalists win by the mere facts of our present situation.

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