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Anti-Federalists, Their Arguments, and the Federal Government Today

Updated on September 24, 2010

Anti-Federalists, Their Arguments, and the Federal Government Today

A discussion of anti-federalist positions and whether there is any rationale and validity to their arguments.

Introduction

Many times Anti-Federalists are portrayed as self-serving, nefarious, and unpatriotic that needed to be left in the trash heap of history. In reality, the Anti-Federalists were generally far from self-serving rabble that they have been made out to be. Many of the most visible Anti-Federalists were highly respected individuals who fought in the Revolutionary War, signed the Declaration of Independence, and were political powerhouses in their respective states. Some of the notables to be listed among the Anti-Federalist ranks included Samuel Adams, George Clinton, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and the future President James Monroe. Opposing this star-studded group, among other popular figures, were the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison two of which will become future Presidents. Anti-Federalists are generally accused of having little in the way of a solid basis in their arguments opposing the ratification to the Constitution. Many authors, historians, and educators dismiss the Anti-Federalists without as much as a basic examination of their arguments. In this time of government bailouts of select private sector businesses, local and state government requests for massive amounts of money from the federal government, one party control of both the Executive and Legislative branches, and the unprecedented growth and spending of the Federal Government not seen since the Great Depression this is a perfect time for the arguments of the Anti-Federalists to be more closely examined.

The Anti-Federalists had great apprehension about the potential loss of sovereignty through the power given to the national government in the proposed Constitution and the resulting horrific effects that such a loss would have on the nation and her people as a whole. The Anti-Federalist belief was that through the integrity of state sovereignty, effective restraints would be in place to keep the national government from deteriorating into a despotic government thus protecting the liberties and freedoms of the people. Should the sovereignty of the states be dissolved and total power was acquired by the national government, Americans would find themselves in a worse state of affairs than they were under the most arduous times during their tenure as British colonists. In The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania to their Constituents, produced by Samuel Bryan in behalf of those opposing the ratification at the Pennsylvania convention, this assertion was brought to light.

"We dissent, secondly, because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government, which from the nature of things will be an iron handed despotism, as nothing short of the supremacy of despotic sway could connect and govern these United States under one government."(1)

This lens will look at the main Anti-Federalist argument in two ways. First, three pieces of evidence used to support the major Anti-Federalist argument of the government described under the proposed Constitution will become tyrannical and despotic by overcoming and destroying state sovereignty, the only true defense against such, will be examined. These three points are the issue of a standing army in a democracy, the power of taxation, and the broad powers to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."(2) Second, the main argument, through the application of the provided evidence, will be compared to the Federal Government as it is administered today in order to see if there is any evidence of validity to the Anti-Federalist argument and the evidence they provided in support of their argument.

Anti-Federalist Argument #1

Standing Armies Within a Democracy During Peacetime

The first major piece of evidence used by the Anti-Federalists to prove their argument is the issue of a standing army within a democracy during peacetime. The issue stems from the clause stating that Congress has the authority to "provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress."(3) The fear of the Anti-Federalists was that the national government created by the proposed Constitution would be able to use this standing army to force compliance of enacted laws, and the potential for use by a despotic government to destroy the liberties of the people. Up to this point the national government, under the Articles of Confederation, could not raise and maintain a standing army. Instead, the national government had to rely on the states providing soldiers and materials for wartime service. Article Two explains the defensive system put into place by the Articles of Confederation by declaring that the states "hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever."(4) While this provided a defense pact that has the states agreeing to assist each other in times of crisis, Article Two also keeps the national government from being able to raise an army that may be used to take control and create a tyranny through the destruction of the liberties and rights enjoyed by the people as well as from the states in general.

In the Dissent of the Minority of the Pennsylvania Convention, those opposing ratification had the following to say about standing armies:

"The absolute command of Congress over the militia may be destructive of public liberty; for under the guidance of an arbitrary government, they may be made the unwilling instruments of tyranny. The militia of Pennsylvania may be marched to New England or Virginia to quell an insurrection occasioned by the most galling oppression, and aided by the standing army, they will no doubt be successful in subduing their liberty and independency."(5)

The Impartial Examiner discussed his opposition to standing armies in the Virginia Independent Chronicle February 27, 1788:

"It as ever been held that standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to a free country; and no observation seems to contain more reason in it. Besides being useless, as having no object of employment, they are inconvenient and expensive… The severity of discipline necessary to be observed reduces them to a degree of slavery; the unconditional submission to the commands of their superiors, to which they are bound, renders them the fit instruments of tyranny and oppression. - Hence they have in all ages afforded striking examples of contributing, more or less, to enslave mankind; - and whoever will take the trouble to examine, will find that by far the greater part of the different nations, who have fallen from the glorious state of liberty, owe their ruin to standing armies."(6)

The Anti-Federalists had viable concerns in relation to maintaining a standing army. Not only had England used a standing army in their American colonies to force the compliance of a multitude of legislative edicts including several that were taxation based, there was also historic evidence to lend credence to their argument against a standing army. Mercy Otis Warren, writing as "A Columbian Patriot," provided the following historical context in relation to standing armies and the loss of liberty and freedom:

"It is hoped this country may yet be governed by milder methods than are usually displayed beneath the bannerets of military law. - Standing armies have been the nursery of vice and the bane of liberty from the Roman legions, to the establishment of the artful Ximenes, and from the ruin of the Cortes of Spain, to the planting the British cohorts in the capitals of America."(7)

The Anti-Federalists, with the actions of the British army still fresh in their minds and historical evidence available, were not especially eager to relinquish such a power to a national government and opposed the Constitution on the grounds that the power to raise and maintain a standing army in time of peace was one step from the loss of liberty and the creation of a tyrannical government that ruled by force rather than through the good will of the people.

Anti-Federalist Argument #2

Loss of State Sovereignty and the Creation of an All-Powerful Central Government Through Taxation

The second evidentiary piece in regards to the plausible loss of state sovereignty and the creation of an all-powerful, despotic central government is the powers of taxation given to the national government by the proposed Constitution. This issue comes from Article 1, Section 8 which states that the “Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises."(8) The Anti-Federalists knew that the power of the purse and taxation could be a powerful weapon in the destruction of liberty and sovereignty of the states as they believed that when both the state and national governments tried to levy taxes on the people that in the end the states would be push out and become reliant on the national government for funds.

Melancton Smith spoke on this issue at the New York Convention. He stated that if “taxes are laid by both governments on the same article: It seems to me impossible that they can operate with harmony. I have no more conception that in taxation two powers can act together; than that two bodies can occupy the same place. They will therefore not only interfere; but they will be hostile to each other.”(9) Smith, in regards to the loss of state sovereignty, further commented about the potential power that taxation by a central government would create. Smith claimed that if “therefore you give to one or the other, a power which may in its operation become exclusive; it is obvious that one can exist only at the will of the other; and must ultimately be sacrificed. The powers of the general government extend to the raising of money, in all possible ways…The individual states in time will be allowed to raise no money at all: The United States will have a right to raise money from every quarter.”(10) Samuel Bryan, using the pseudonym “Centinel,” further discussed this matter in a letter to the Independent Gazetteer in Philadelphia. Bryan wrote that “the all-prevailing power of taxation, and such extensive legislative and judicial powers are vested in the general government, as must in their operation, necessarily absorb the state legislatures and judicatories.”(11)

Like with standing armies, Anti-Federalists feared that the express powers of taxation would be used as a means to subjugate both state and individual. The subjugation of the state through the national government’s “extensive, exclusive revenues; the vast sums of money they can command, and the means they thereby possess of supporting a powerful standing force.”(12) The subjugation of the individual through a “power that has such latitude, which reaches every person in the community in every conceivable circumstance, and lays hold of every species of property they possess, and which has no bounds set to it, but the discretion of those who exercise it.”(13)

Anti-Federalist Argument #3

The Constitution Gives a Blank Check for the Central Government to Wield Uncontrolled and Unlimited Power

The third issue that, according to Anti-Federalists, proved that the government would become tyrannical under the proposed Constitution is a phrase in Article 1, section 8 which authorizes Congress to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.”(14) The Anti-Federalists argued that this was a blank check for the central government to wield uncontrolled and unlimited power.

Robert Yates, writing to the New York Journal as “Brutus,” comments on this clause in his first letter, “there is no need of any intervention of the state governments between the Congress and the people, to execute any one power vested in the general government, and that the constitution and laws of every state are nullified and declared void, so far as they are or shall be inconsistent with this constitution, or the laws made in pursuance of it, or with treatment made under the authority of the United States.”(15) Yates continues, that Congress “has authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and property of every man in the United States; nor can the constitution or laws of any state, in any way prevent or impede the full and complete execution of every power given.”(16)

The discussion by Yates continues within his sixth letter in which he states:

“What will render this power in Congress effectual and sure in its operation is, that the government will have complete judicial and executive authority to carry all their laws into effect, which will be paramount to the judicial and executive authority of the individual states: in vain therefore will be all interference of the legislatures, courts, or magistrates of any of the states on the subject; for they will be subordinate to the general government, and engaged by oath to support it, and will be constitutionally bound to submit to their decisions.”(17)

The clause in Article 1, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution giving Congress the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof”(18) was a great concern to the Anti-Federalists. The issue with this clause was the possibility that Congress would use it to consolidate power and be uncheckable with their power to the point that tyranny would take root and flourish.

Anti-Federalist Writings

Comparing Anti-Federalist Arguments to the Current Power of the Federal Government

Part 1

Looking at the three pieces of evidence backing their argument in relation to the Federal Government as now administered, the question is whether or not there was any rationale or validity to the arguments of the Anti-Federalists in opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. The first argument discussed in this lens was that of a standing army during peacetime in a democracy. The Anti-Federalist viewed a standing army as a prelude and an invitation to tyranny, despotism, and the loss of the liberties and freedoms enjoyed by the people. The Anti-Federalists believed that the time would come when the national government would use military force to coerce obedience to their edicts and legislation. There were also historical examples used to add credence to their argument. However, while the Anti-Federalists would be absolutely appalled at the current size and scope of the military force in place, there is little evidence that the standing army that the country enjoys has been a devious tool of the Federal Government. There have been points in our history that could be pointed to, Kent State in 1970 and the Civil War specifically, as evidence of Machiavellian uses of the military against American citizens.

There has been a great deal of on again, off again concern regarding President Obama's desire to start a civilian defense corps to assist the military with homeland security threats. The quote that created the furor was given at a July 2, 2008 campaign speech in Colorado Springs, Colorado where Obama said: "We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded."(19) Even though there are various Constitutional justifications for the formation of such a group, which will not be examined here, a wide variety of individuals, blogs, and organizations are now using arguments along the same line that were used in the opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. One example of this is a comment in a World Net Daily column by Joseph Farah entitled Obama's 'civilian national security force'. Farah states that "there have been initiatives like this elsewhere - Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, Venezuela, North Korea. But has anything like this ever been proposed in a free country?"(20) A second example is from the blog "Gateway Pundit." This blog has an entry dated October 29, 2008 titled Obama's Plans For Civilian Security Force Rings Marxist Bell. In the blog entry, the "Gateway Pundit" quotes the following from a Cuban national opposed to the proposed civilian defense force:

"Basically, what Obama is talking about is creating a Committee for the Defense of Liberal Ideology and Political correctness funded by a half trillion taxpayer dollars. National Security for this crowd is not about stopping terrorists from killing our children. National Security means to teach our children to understand the terrorists and their motivations so that our children can learn how to live their lives submissively so as not to offend the sensitivities of the very sensitive America haters.

Their version of National Security is to force you to act for the common good of society and not in your own best interest. Since this goes against human nature, the half trillion dollar 'Civilian National Security Force' will have to force Americans to change their nature."(21)

Like their Anti-Federalist predecessors, those now raising the alarm use current and historical events as evidence. The Anti-Federalists used Rome, Greece, and England as examples in the 1780's. Now North Korea, the Soviet Union, Venezuela, China and Cuba are presented as proof of scheming to take away liberties and freedoms.

Like the Anti-Federalists, those vocalizing concerns about Obama's proposed civilian defense corps have opponents that claim that there is nothing nefarious happening to remove the liberties and freedoms of the people. Factcheck.org has provided a rebuttal to those who see a covert movement to steal liberties from Americans. On their website, Factcheck.org had the following to say about the issue:

"Obama was not talking about a 'security force' with guns or police powers. He was talking specifically about expanding AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps and the USA Freedom Corps, which is the volunteer initiative launched by the Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11, and about increasing the number of trained Foreign Service officers who populate U.S. embassies overseas."(22)

Overall, to this point in history, there is no real credible evidence of concerted efforts to force compliance to and consolidation of Federal power through the use of the military or any military-like force. But there will always be conspiracy theories and suspicions about the use of the military to consolidate power in the Federal Government to the point that Americans will lose their liberty and be reduced to living under a despotic government.

Comparing Anti-Federalist Arguments to the Current Power of the Federal Government

Part 2

Taxation is another modern hot button issue that follows along the same lines as the Anti-Federalists concerns. Through the power of taxation, the Anti-Federalists argued that the states would lose sovereignty and the national government would be come tyrannical and despotic through the heavy burden of taxation. Although there are repeated instances of loss of state sovereignty through the taxation powers of the Federal Government, the loss of sovereignty to the extent that the Anti-Federalists feared is questionable. Much of the lost sovereignty in the last 30-40 years has been sold by the states themselves in exchange for Federal money with strings and conditions attached. A perfect example of this is the No Child Left Behind Act.

No Child Left Behind Act was touted by the Bush Administration as highly flexible and removing much of the red tape experienced by the states in their ability to use Federal monies in their educational programs and schools. Instead this was a way in which the Federal Government has been able to take power away from states. However, the states are not completely innocent. This is a case where the acceptance of federal funds linked with conditions has created a situation where the states believe that they have to go along with the program over fears of loss of the federal monies they have become reliant on. The repercussions for repeatedly not meeting the required standards in the No Child Left Behind Act is where the states lose their sovereignty in dealing with the shortcomings at the particular schools or districts through Federally mandated corrections. Some of the penalties as outlined by a White House fact sheet on the No Child Left Behind Act are as follows:

"School districts and schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward statewide proficiency goals will over time be subject to corrective action and restructuring measures aimed at getting them back on course to meet State standards.

- If a school fails to make AYP for two consecutive years, it will be identified as needing improvement and must develop improvement plans incorporating strategies from scientifically based research. School districts will be required to offer public school choice (unless prohibited by state law) to all students in the failing school no later than the first day of the school year following identification. The district must provide transportation to the new school.

- If a school fails to make AYP for a third consecutive year, the district must continue to offer public school choice and provide Title I funds (approximately $500 to $1,000 per child) for low-achieving disadvantaged students in the school to obtain supplemental services -- tutoring, after school services, or summer school programs -- from the public- or private-sector provider selected by their parents from a State-approved list. Twenty percent of Title I funds at the local school district level must be used for public school choice and supplemental services.

- If a school fails to make AYP for a fourth consecutive year, it will be subject to increasingly tough corrective actions-such as replacing school staff or significantly decreasing management authority at the school level. If a school continues to fail, the school could ultimately face restructuring, which involves a fundamental change in governance, such as a State takeover or placement under private management."(23)

While, again there is no solid evidence that the taxation powers of the Federal Government has forcibly removed the sovereignty of the states. There is evidence that the states have sold portions of their sovereignty in return for Federal funds. Though this is not the way that the Anti-Federalists expected the erosion of state sovereignty to happen, they would definitely have been dismayed at the amount of control and sovereignty that the states have been willing to give up on exchange for a small sum of money.

While, again there is no solid evidence that the taxation powers of the Federal Government has forcibly removed the sovereignty of the states. There is evidence that the states have sold portions of their sovereignty in return for Federal funds. Though this is not the way that the Anti-Federalists expected the erosion of state sovereignty to happen, they would definitely have been dismayed at the amount of control and sovereignty that the states have been willing to give up on exchange for a small sum of money.

In regards to the loss of personal liberties through Federal taxation, there is some evidence. A solid case can be made regarding to loss of individual liberty in relation to personal earnings and property. Redistributive taxation removes the ability of the individual to use their earnings as they see fit by the Federal Government taxes that are used to provide services and funds to those who are not as well off as those taxed. Much has been said lately by various Senators, Representatives, and the President-elect regarding taking earnings from those who make a certain amount and redistributing it. This is not what the original intent was for the taxation clause in the Constitution. The intent was to provide the Federal Government the necessary funds to operate. During the time the Articles of Confederation was in force, the revenue obtained by the central government was from the good will of the states. There was no taxation authority for the central government. This was one area that the framers of the Constitution wished to rectify. Alexander Hamilton stated in Federalist Letter 21 that there "no method of steering clear of this inconvenience but by authorizing the national government to raise its own revenues in its own way."(24)

Like the states, much of the personal liberties that have been eroded through taxation have gone the same way as state sovereignty, sold to the highest bidder. A demand by the general population for Federal intervention in areas from retirement to health care to welfare has required an increase in federal revenue. Social issues consistently account for three of the top five total expenditures in the Federal Budget. With the increasing costs of social programs funded by the Federal Government, there is a constant need for additional revenue or deficit spending. The Anti-Federalists would again be horrified by the way things are run today in regards to the Federal Government. However, they would be more appalled by the fact that the citizens are more than willing to give up collective freedom for money and security from a central governmental entity.

Lastly, the Anti-Federalists were fearful of the blanket authorization in the proposed Constitution which states that Congress has the power to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."(25) What is known from history is this clause is not the one that has caused the most consternation amongst states rights supporters. Gary Galles, economics professor at Pepperdine University, states that one "could quibble with the mechanisms the Antifederalists predicted would lead to constitutional tyranny. For instance, they did not foresee that the Commerce Clause would come to be called 'the everything clause' in law schools, used by centralizers to justify almost any conceivable federal intervention. The 20th-century distortion of the clause's original meaning was so great even the vigilant Antifederalists could never have imagined the government getting away with it."(26)

Thus, even though the Anti-Federalists were incorrect about the clause used to consolidate power, there is relevance to their argument. Two examples of this are the Americans with Disabilities Act and the National Labor Relations Act. Both of which were upheld by the Supreme Court through the Commerce Clause. However, even with the use of the Commerce Clause to position supremacy by the Federal Government in certain policy areas, there is no modern evidence of the tyrannical, despotic, centralized government feared by the Anti-Federalists.

Conclusion

From the research done for this lens, there is no evidence that there was any idea that the Anti-Federalists saw the possibility of their fears being fulfilled through the willing sell-out of sovereignty and liberty by individual states and citizens for the strong, centralized government that exists today. While there is evidence that the Federal Government is much stronger than what the Federalists envisioned, there is no evidence that the wholesale tyranny and despotism pictured by the Anti-Federalists has materialized. However, there are viable concerns that the current road that the United States is taking may one day prove the Anti-Federalists correct in their arguments. But how it happens will not be as a forceful grab by the central government as the Anti-Federalists expected, but through the willingness by states and individuals to give up sovereignty and freedom for more protection and support by the Federal Government.

End Notes

(1) Samuel Bryan, The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania to their Constituents; available from http://www.constitution.org/afp/pennmi00.htm; Internet; accessed 9 December 2008.

(2) United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.

(3) Ibid.

(4) The Articles of Confederation; available from http://www.usconstitution.net/articles.html; Internet; accessed 9 December 2008.

(5) The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification Part One: September 1787 to February 1788, ed. Bernard Bailyn (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1993), 551.

(6) The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification Part Two: January to August 1788, ed. Bernard Bailyn (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1993), 253.

(7) Ibid., 291.

(8) U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.

(9) The Debate on the Constitution Part Two, ed. Bernard Bailyn, 817.

(10) Ibid., 816.

(11) The Debate on the Constitution Part One, ed. Bernard Bailyn, 58.

(12) The Debate on the Constitution Part Two, ed. Bernard Bailyn, 817.

(13) The Debate on the Constitution Part One, ed. Bernard Bailyn, 617.

(14) U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.

(15) The Debate on the Constitution Part One, ed. Bernard Bailyn, 166.

(16) Ibid., 167.

(17) Ibid., 614-615.

(18) U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.

(19) July 2, 2008 Barak Obama campaign speech in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Quote taken from video Obama Civilian Security; available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt2yGzHfy7s; internet; accessed 11 December 2008.

(20) Joseph Farah, Obama's 'civilian national security force'; available from http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=69601; internet; accessed 11 December 2008.

(21) Obama's Plans For Civilian Security Force Rings Marxist Bell, Gateway Pundit Blog, posted October 29, 2008, http://gatewaypundit.blogspot.com/2008/10/obama-pl... (accessed December 11, 2008).

(22) Is Obama planning a Gestapo-like "civilian national security force"?; available from http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/is_obama_pla... internet; accessed 11 December 2008.

(23) Office of the Press Secretary, The White House; Fact Sheet: No Child Left Behind Act; available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20... internet; accessed 11 December 2008.

(24) Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003), 121.

(25) U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8.

(26) Gary Galles, The Antifederalists Were Right, Ludwig von Mises Institute; available from http://mises.org/story/2335; internet; accessed 14 December 2008.

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    • Dragos Apostol profile image

      Apostol Dragos 3 years ago from Bucharest, Romania

      This was really educative,carry on :D

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Excellent article!

      I have been advocating for years a need for the nation to thoroughly revisit the arguments between the Federalists and anti-Federalists in search for answers as to why we are where we are, and ultimately what to do to about it.

      Jacob Roginsky

      jrogins@va.metrocast.net

      202-277-7454