February 14, 2011

THE ANTI-FEDERALISTS WERE JUST AHEAD OF THE CURVE:

Remembering the Anti-Federalists (John C. Pinheiro, September 8, 2010, Acton)

Recent experience with tyranny shaped the Articles of Confederation, the United States' constitution from 1781-1787. In an effort to avoid everything that had become instruments of tyranny in British hands, the Articles contained no national army, no executive branch, no national judiciary, and States had to vote unanimously for any tax. A unicameral Congress, with members elected by State legislatures (not "the People") and in which each State had one collective vote, oversaw all national matters via committees. In this highly decentralized Union, ensuring State sovereignty trumped concerns about individual liberty.

The U.S. Constitution won ratification on June 21, 1788, mainly because of promises to anti-Federalists that a Bill of Rights would be added as soon as possible. (Federalists had opposed the addition of a Bill of Rights on the grounds that listing Americans' liberties in amendments might unintentionally limit them.) Another comforting thought was that George Washington, who had proven trustworthy with power, would be the first president.

Still, anti-Federalists did correctly predict that the U.S. Constitution would become a much-abused instrument in the hands of those who wished to build a muscular, far-reaching government. They also foresaw that the judiciary might endanger liberty more than a quasi-monarchical president. Robert Yates's warnings about the Supreme Court and Congress certainly ring true today, as do Samuel Bryan's predictions about politicians taking advantage of crises to pursue ideological or partisan ends. These processes tend to limit Americans' liberties while chipping away at their virtue via government-constructed moral hazards. Indeed, as J. Budziszweski notes in The Line through the Heart, Yates's "arguments seem even stronger today than they did at the time they were written."

Does this mean, then, that the anti-Federalists ought to have succeeded in stopping the Constitution's ratification? Far from it. The Federalists correctly criticized the Confederation for being unable to provide the minimum order needed so that Americans could flourish as a free people. Their arguments show they understood better than anti-Federalists the necessary balance between liberty and order. Had the anti-Federalists defeated the Constitution, the Union would have soon split into multiple confederations or divided into highly separate States. The consequences for liberty and human flourishing under these scenarios would have been worse than the most dismal anti-Federalist prediction about life under the Constitution.


Order though is now so well-established that we will devolve into multiple confederations.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 14, 2011 6:13 AM
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