Ultimate magazine theme for WordPress.

Founding Debate

The first thing one notices about Gary L. Gregg and Aaron N. Coleman’s new edition of Federalist and Anti-Federalist writings is that it looks like a Bible. Its dimensions, its handsome black leather cover, and its gilt lettering all make it look like it should be tucked under the arm of a Baptist on Sunday morning.

And maybe there’s something to that. After all, The Federalist has often been treated as a kind of Bible of American constitutionalism. While most varieties of American civil religion elevate the Declaration of Independence to the status of sacred text, it stretches credulity to present that document as the interpretive key to the Constitution (though that doesn’t stop some from trying). The Federalist, though, has long served as an authoritative source on the Constitution’s meaning and underlying assumptions, as well as some of its drafters’ expectations. This is sometimes overstated, but if America’s Constitution and political institutions need their own “Bible,” you could do much worse than The Federalist.

Gregg and Coleman do us one better, though. In Reflection and Choice, they have helped restore the debate to the study of ratification. The Federalist essays are placed into 14 sections based on the conceptual themes covered, and each section contains excerpts from significant Anti-Federalist writings on those topics. This allows not only for context that helps us better understand The Federalist, but also for criticism that helps us see its limitations.

Often, Anti-Federalist “context” amounts to little more than identifying the bag that the Federalists were punching. (“Anti-Federalists argued x. Publius, however, showed . . .”) But here we see serious concerns and meaningful arguments that continue to hold water. The Anti-Federalists often overstated the dangers posed by the Constitution as it was written, and imputed motives to the Federalists that none of them had. Some of them also demonstrate a degree of naiveté in their desire for the simple, small, virtuous republic. But there is no denying that, even if their dire predictions seemed to have been overwrought at the time, they bear a similarity to the problems that have arisen in the centuries following.

Consider one of the concerns of “Centinel.” The president, given his dependence on the Senate for appointments, and given Congress’ ability to “control” elections, would find it to be in his interest to kowtow to the Senate, never using his veto power, so as to become “the head of that aristocratic junto.” That hasn’t happened. But what was the underlying concern here? That “checks in government” may prove to be “merely nominal” if one branch has no “inclination to exercise [its] prerogative.” “The semblance of checks, may remain but without operation.”

Within a few years of ratification, the Anti-Federalists’ Democratic-Republican heirs would read the Constitution in a restrained way, while the Federalists insisted on broad construction and nebulous powers.

Though it doesn’t look like what Centinel predicted, has not something similar taken place as the result of the organized political party? Publius believed the Constitution provided adequate “personal motives” by connecting the “interest of the man” with “the constitutional rights of the place.” But the allure of power impels combination and collaboration when necessary, and a president connected by established political ties to a majority in the Senate is much more powerful than an enitrely independent president. When a modern president is of the same party as the legislature, does he not in some ways resemble Centinel’s “head of the aristocratic junto”?

And of course, this example doesn’t even address the Anti-Federalists’ most prescient insight, that on the encroaching nature of federal power.

The inclusion of the Anti-Federalists also helps us better understand the (justly) more famous Federalist. Consider how the first letter of Brutus helps us clarify the famous argument of Federalist #10. Brutus expresses concern about the possibility of genuine representation of the people in a large republic:

If the people are to give their assent to the laws by persons chosen and appointed by them, the manner of the choice and the number chosen, must be such, as to possess, be disposed, and consequently qualified to declare the sentiments of the people. . . . Now, in a large extended country, it is impossible to have [such] a representation . . . without having it [too] numerous and unwieldly [sic].

Moreover, to the extent that such a country could represent its people, it would not be able to come to any common conclusions:

In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving, against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good.

We can quickly observe the tension with Madison’s extended republic thesis. What Brutus fails to see is that the “similar” sentiments and opinions in the small republic are often characteristic of factions that lord their will over those few who do not share them. But does Brutus also see something Publius does not? After all, Madison’s famous essay does not exactly address the primary Anti-Federalist concern—that the government of a large republic will not thoroughly represent the people’s interests or be able to arrive at the common good.

We might, then, be prompted to cast our eyes beyond #10 in search of Publius’ response to this objection, where we find Madison in Federalist #56 more directly address this concern: “It is a sound and important principle, that the representative ought to be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents. But this principle can extend no farther than to those circumstances and interests to which the authority and care of the representative relate.” He goes on to stress the limited character of national powers. Representatives to the federal government need not be acquainted with the minutiae of their constituents’ daily life, but only because they won’t be making decisions on such local matters.

Madison’s full response to Brutus, therefore, wasn’t simply that large republics are better, but that the large republic provides the opportunity for the compound federal system which holds out the possibility that we might have the best of both worlds: a federal government largely free from factional sentiment that manages the most pressing common concerns of the whole, while the daily needs of governance are met by representatives in smaller republics who genuinely reflect the opinions of their constituents. But it only works if we are serious about federal limits. (So much for that.)

Forty-five essays separate #10 from #56, so the first-time reader is unlikely to put these two together. Reading The Federalist with Brutus’ criticism in mind, however, might well prompt a more thorough search for Publius’ answer and help make connections that would otherwise be hidden.

Viewing both sides together also might call our attention to the ironic reversal that would take place within a decade of ratification. Anti-Federalists saw dangers in the Constitution’s seemingly open-ended grants of powers, its monarchical presidency, and its nationalizing tendencies. Federalists reassured them of its limited character, the distribution of its powers, and the continued central place of the states. Within a few years, the Anti-Federalists’ Democratic-Republican heirs would read the Constitution in this restrained way, while the Federalists insisted on broad construction and nebulous powers. A dynamic approach to constitutional interpretation as dictated by political necessity is nothing new.

Gregg and Coleman have also provided useful introductions and a set of “Questions for Our Time” for each conceptual section, which are sure to help students work through the nuances of the arguments and see their contemporary relevance.

This volume helps the reader approach the ratification debates with the context that reveals the fuller meaning of famous ideas. It also fosters an appreciation for a dissenting tradition in American political thought. Maybe the best of what the American founding era offers is not a sacred text at all, but a lively debate.

Comments are closed.