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On The Curious Question Of The Anti-Federalist Papers

By John Lindstrom
Posted: November 14, 2013 12:11 PM

On its face, SB 423* is an uncontroversial bill, requiring school districts to ensure that instruction focus on the basic foundational documents of U.S. governance and law: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers…

I’m sorry, the what? The Anti-Federalist Papers. Those are foundational? Interesting.

The bill, reported from the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, lists the Anti-Federalist Papers as among the documents schools can teach from. The bill also specifically says the documents shall include but not be limited to those listed.

Those who have not read them can glean that these were the articles, essays, speeches and letters that opposed the adoption of the Constitution and supported keeping the Articles of Confederation in place. They kind of came back into light around the time of the Bicentennial in the 1970s and then the bicentennial of the Constitution in the 1980s.

Unlike the Federalist Papers, a planned series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay to defend the proposed Constitution that played a major role in convincing the public to support the Constitution and are cited today in legal arguments and selectively by politicians of every stripe, the Anti-Federalist papers were not so organized. They were written by a wide variety of people, many whose identities are lost to history, some in direct reaction to whatever Federalist had been recently published.

And unlike the Federalist Papers, there is really no set number of Anti-Federalist Papers. Whichever historian or political group collects them essentially decides what to keep as part of its particular collection.

Not all the authors are unknown. Patrick Henry, he of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame, was a prominent anti-Federalist and gave a famous speech where he first demanded why the proposed Constitution spoke of “We the people,” and not “We the states,” and warned the Constitution would lead to tyranny.

Clearly the anti-Federalists were opposed to a central government, opposed to an elected executive (little better than a king they said), opposed to any suggestion of a standing army, really opposed to any central taxing power, and pretty much opposed to everything in the Constitution.

In what is considered Anti-Federalist 7, a Virginian wrote: “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. … A change of government is at all times dangerous, but at present may be fatal, without the utmost caution, just after emerging out of a tedious and expensive war. Feeble in our nature, and complicated in our form, we are little able to bear the rough posting of civil dissensions which are likely to ensue.” He warned of a civil war, which of course we had but it is a stretch to say it was caused solely by the Constitution.

The anti-Federalists were big into the idea the Federalists were monarchists, never mind that the Federalists included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Hamilton and others who had signed the Declaration of Independence or led the revolution. One writer summed up the authors as: “We the Aristocratic party of the United States, lamenting the many inconveniences to which the late confederation subjected the well-born, the better kind of people, bringing them down to the level of the rabble-and holding in utter detestation that frontispiece to every bill of rights, ‘that all men are born equal’-beg leave (for the purpose of drawing a line between such as we think were ordained to govern, and such as were made to bear the weight of government without having any share in its administration).”

The Anti-Federalist Papers do get into very specific arguments against the Constitution, as the author of what is called Anti-Federalist 46 said of Article 1, Section 8: “My object is to consider that undefined, unbounded and immense power which is comprised in the following clause – ‘And 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 offices thereof.’ Under such a clause as this, can anything be said to be reserved and kept back from Congress? Can it be said that the Congress have no power but what is expressed?”

This constitutional section has drawn considerable debate in recent years between scholars, lawyers, tea party activists and others let me note.

Finally, for this post, the Anti-Federalist Papers also deal with what sociologist and economist Gunnar Myrdal titled, in his epic study, “The American Dilemma”: race relations. And the Anti-Federalists weren’t open-minded on the subject, as in Number 54: “The representatives of the different parts of the Union will be extremely unequal; in some of the Southern States the slaves are nearly equal in number to the free men; and for all these slaves they will be entitled to a proportionate share in the legislature; this will give them an unreasonable weight in the government, which can derive no additional strength, protection, nor defense from the slaves, but the contrary. Why, then, should they be represented?”

Yes, the Anti-Federalist Papers play an important role in our history and should be studied. Are they foundational? Well, that’s a tricky question. The objections they raised certainly played a role in developing the Bill of Rights, which were as much a political convenience at the time as foundational themselves. So one could argue the Anti-Federalists were foundational in being anti-foundational.

And SB 423* does say the list of documents is not exclusive, so the Mayflower Compact could be read as well, given that it established the concept of majority rule in this land. It could also include Mr. Washington’s letter on the Constitution to Congress which described the need for surrendering some liberty for the stability to assure ongoing liberty. Or hey, the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is coming up; it could include that, too.

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