July 17, 2010


“Entirely a National Government”? The Anti-Federalist Perspective: an excerpt from Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin By Bill Kauffman (Bill Kauffman - 07/16/10, First Principles)

Permit me to say a few words for the Anti-Federalists.

The Antis are the men—and women, I add, not as a p.c. genuflection but in recognition of the Bay State’s Mercy Otis Warren, playwright and historian and among the most literary Anti-Federalists—who considered what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had wrought in that sweltering Philadelphia summer of 1787 and said No. They included dissenting delegates to that convention, like George Mason of Virginia; patriots still afire with the spirit of ’76, like Patrick Henry; and backcountry farmers and cobblers and libertarian editors and malcontent layabouts. They were “not simply blockheads standing in the way of progress,” wrote Robert Rutland in The Ordeal of the Constitution, “but . . . serious, oftentimes brilliant, citizens who viewed the Constitution in 1787–88 with something less than awe.”

The Anti-Federalists regarded consolidation of governmental power with what seems to me a meet suspicion, though it has seemed to others to verge on paranoia. One of my favorite Anti-Fed pseudonyms was taken by the writer who called himself “None of the Well-Born Conspirators.”

They often made wild predictions about where this all would lead. For instance, George Clinton—not the funky parliamentarian but the New York Anti-Federalist—prophesied that the federal city created by the Constitution, later known as Washington, D.C., “would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious.” Gee, thank God that never happened.

The Anti-Federalists raised a central question of political philosophy: Where ought political power to reside? In a remote central authority, or hard by the people? (My invidious phrasing, I admit.) A prominent Federalist—which is to say, using the down-is-up nomenclature devised by those crafty consolidationists, an advocate of the new Constitution—lectured that “we must forget our local habits and attachments,” but this is only possible for those who have no local habits or attachments. One might as well enjoin that “we must forget our heart and lungs.”

The sheer scope of this new system, the audacity of bringing thirteen far-flung states under one central government, astonished the Anti-Federalists. James Winthrop of Massachusetts marveled, “The idea of an uncompounded republick, on an average one thousand miles in length, and eight hundred in breadth, and containing six millions of white inhabitants all reduced to the same standard of morals, of habits, and of laws, is in itself an absurdity, and contrary to the whole experience of mankind. . . . Large and consolidated empires may indeed dazzle the eyes of a distant spectator with their splendour, but if examined more nearly are always found to be full of misery.”

The Antis were not quibblers, not captious carpers arguing about dotted i’s and uncrossed t’s. Their objections cut to the heart of the new Constitution. Indeed, they began with the preamble. Samuel Adams, brewer and sometime Anti-Federalist, upon reading “We the People of the United States,” remarked wryly, “As I enter the Building I stumble at the Threshold. I meet with a National Government, instead of a Federal Union of Sovereign States.” Patrick Henry stumbled, too: “The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing—the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America”—a locution that was “extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous.”
Patrick Henry

“For the Anti-Federalists,” wrote the historian Herbert J. Storing, “government is seen as itself the major problem.” The Anti-Federalists stood for decentralism, local democracy, antimilitarism, and a deep suspicion of central governments. And they stood on what they stood for. Local attachments. Local knowledge. While the Pennsylvania Federalist Gouverneur Morris “flattered himself he came here in some degree as a Representative of the whole human race,” Anti-Federalists understood that one cannot love an abstraction such as “the whole human race.” One loves particular flesh-and-blood members of that race. “My love must be discriminate / or fail to bear its weight,” in the words of a modern Anti-Federalist, the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He who loves the whole human race seldom has much time for individual members thereof.

* * *

The Anti’s Anti, the man who is, without doubt, the least honored delegate to the Constitutional Convention, is Luther Martin of Maryland. Popular accounts of the Constitutional Convention designate Martin as the villain—think a circa-1973 hybrid of Dennis Hopper and Ernest Borgnine, endlessly talkative but fitfully coherent, an obstructionist, a naysayer. He is the town drunk, the class bore, the motormouth.

Yet he was also, as the historian M. E. Bradford has written, “The tireless champion of the sovereignty of the states . . . A cheerful pessimist . . . and a great original.”

“The federalistic principles found in the Constitution are largely a result of concessions to [Martin’s] demands,” wrote historian Everett D. Obrecht. “Without his presence in the convention, the new national government would have been far more powerful.” Yet it was still too powerful for Luther Martin.

Martin understood quite clearly that the Constitution was a counterrevolution, recentralizing that which had been decentralized upon the assertion of American independence. “Men love power,” Hamilton told the convention. To Hamilton this was a simple statement of fact, not at all deplorable. The Anti-Federalists had their doubts about its accuracy—did not men love their families, their homeplaces, their liberties even more?—but in the event, they desired not to channel this powerlust toward profitable ends but rather to block those avenues down which power is pursued. If it is true that men love to wield power over other men and that a centralized state will attract such warped creatures, then rather than design a Rube Goldberg scheme by which the will to dominate is transmuted into gold for the commonweal, why not just not construct a centralized state? Remove the means of gratifying the temptation.

Luther Martin was “the bitterest states’ rightser at the Convention,” wrote Christopher and James Lincoln Collier. “He was unyielding, beyond compromise on the point, and when he spoke on the issue it was always in the strongest of terms.” This is because he conned the game and he kenned the consequences. Not only the rights of the states but their very existence was at stake.

Lest the dire warnings of Martin and the Anti-Federalists be dismissed as so much alarmist hokum, consider that not every nationalizer spoke with politic caution. Delaware’s George Read declared: “Too much attachment is betrayed to the State Governments. We must look beyond their continuance. A national Govt. must soon of necessity swallow all of them up. They will soon be reduced to the mere office of electing the national Senate.” Effused Read: We must “do . . . away States altogether.”

Or ponder the exchange between James Wilson, the archcentralist Scotsman, and Alexander Hamilton. Though they putatively represented Pennsylvania and New York, their ultimate loyalties could never be centered upon mere states of a confederacy. “With me, it is not a desirable object to annihilate the State governments,” Wilson said on June 19, “and here I differ from the honorable gentleman from New York. In all extensive empires, a subdivision of power is necessary.”

Hamilton objected, ever so mildly, to Wilson’s verb. In his lengthy address of the day ultimo, “my meaning was, that a national government ought to be able to support itself without the aid or interference of the state governments,” explained Hamilton. The states, he added, “will be dangerous to the national government, and ought to be extinguished, new modified, or reduced to a smaller scale.”

Extinguish, yes; annihilate, no. The only difference is in the violence of the verb.

Time and again, Luther Martin stood alone, or nearly so, in attempting to infuse the new Constitution with something of the spirit of ’76. He was a libertarian in a body of men convinced that America needed a more vigorous government; he spoke of decentralism to men with centripetal convictions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 17, 2010 5:41 AM
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