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Many people naively believe that political polarization is a recent phenomenon. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Going back the founding of the American republic, American politics have been contentious, and even vitriolic. Although the issues have changed, the general atmosphere is in many ways similar. In 1787, the issue under discussion throughout the nation was whether to ratify the proposed Constitution, maintain the existing Articles of Confederation, or hold out for a better Constitution. On one side are the Federalists, who support the Constitution, and on the other side are the Anti-Federalists who oppose the Constitution.
Two important period pieces, Patrick Henry and George Mason’s, “From Arguments against Ratification at the Virginia Convention,” and James Madison’s, “The Federalist Papers, No. 45,” provide valuable insights into the arguments being made. At the heart of both of these writings are important arguments regarding the proper role of government, which are still meaningful and relevant. By investigating these writings it can be seen that the Anti-Federalists were concerned that the proposed federal government was strong enough that it would lead to tyranny, and the Federalists thought the given powers were appropriate and the that any weaker federal government would lead to the dissolution of the American nation.
Though the Anti-Federalist argument deals primarily with too much power being given to the federal government, there are several sub-aspects which should be considered. One such sub-aspect, apart from political arguments for and against the Constitution, is the fact that a Constitution is even being debated.
The original mandate of the committee which wrote the Constitution was to make revisions to the Articles of Confederation, with the full support of all states being needed for the changes to be adopted. Instead the committee, which is almost entirely composed of Federalists, crafts the Constitution, which proposes an entirely new government to replace the existing confederation. Based on their preference for a weaker national government, it is clear that the Anti-Federalists would have preferred a simple revision of the existing articles, but while Henry and Mason do not let that influence their analysis of the proposed Constitution, the significance of the distinction is not lost on them, as they describe it as “a proposal of establishing nine states into a confederacy, to the eventual exclusion of four states.” Because the Constitution took effect once nine states ratified it, one concern was that many the states would support it and join a new nation, but the other states would reject it, dividing America into two countries. The dominant concern of the Anti-Federalists, however, was the issue that the Constitution did not clearly limit the extent of federal power. They argued that based on historical precedent in Great Britain and Europe, “all rights not expressly and unequivocally reserved to the people are impliedly and incidentally relinquished to rulers.” The Anti-Federalists fear that because the Constitution doesn’t clearly enumerate the rights not given to the government, the government would be able to seize other powers and devolve into a tyranny similar to the British system. Subservient to this base position and the fear that the federal government would grow too powerful are arguments that the standing national military would pose a threat and interestingly, that the federal government could unilaterally abolish slavery, regardless of whatever Virginia or any other state desired. Notwithstanding their concern about an overly powerful federal government, the Anti-Federalists, and Patrick Henry in particular recognize the need to unify as a country and make compromises, “If such amendments be introduced as shall exclude danger… I shall most heartily make the greatest concessions.” In response to the fears about the federal government becoming too powerful under the Constitution, the Federalists sought to clarify how the Constitution was intended to function.
The Federalist perspective worried that an insufficiently strong federal government would lead to the states gaining too much independence which would lead to the destruction of the new nation. As Madison points out, the Anti-Federalists believe that little harm can come from the states having too much power, whereas the Federalists believe overly strong states’ rights pose the greater threat. Madison offers a specific and pointed critique for those who place the state above the nation, “Was then the American revolution effected… not that the people of America should enjoy peace, liberty and safety; but that the Governments of the individual States… might enjoy a certain extend of power, and be arrayed with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty?” The reason for revolution was to ensure “peace, liberty and safety” and if strong state power threatens this, endowing the states with this authority would run contrary to purpose of the revolution. Madison also attempts to challenge fears of tyranny by arguing that without the constitution the same thing would happen, “We have seen in all the examples of ancient and modern confederacies, the strongest tendency continually betraying itself in the members to despoil the general Government of its authorities.” Madison cleverly argues that even if the Constitution has its issues, these must be compared to the problems with the existing Articles of Confederation. Using this standard it is easier to see how the Constitution offers an improvement, as its federal system would prevent any state from hijacking the government, which was a very real threat given the relative power of New York and Virginia. At the same time, the Federalists realize that there is also the risk the that federal government could seize too much power, so they tried to ameliorate Anti-Federalist concerns, “The State Government will have the advantage of the federal Government, whether we compare them in respect to the immediate dependence of the one or the other; to the weight of personal influence which each side will possess; … the State Governments will in no instance be indebted for their appointment to the direct agency of the federal government.” The state government will retain significant power, but even more importantly, because they will remain largely independent of the federal government, there are minimal fears of encroachment. With regards to the adoption of the Constitution, the biggest hindrance is agreeing on the proper treatment of individual rights. The Anti-Federalists worry that without the explicit protections granted by a “bill of rights” the government will oppress its citizens. Against this primary concern the Federalists offer two main responses. The first is given by Madison, who argues, “the new Constitution… consist much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS.” If the powers of the Constitution were already given, and it is simply the manner of enforcement which is changing, there shouldn’t be much of an issue, considering that the existing government already has those powers. The second response is given by Alexander Hamilton in “The Federalist Papers, No. 84,” which attacks the value of having a bill of rights. “[B]ills of rights… are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” It is important to recognize that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists aren’t questioning whether a person’s natural rights should be protected, but are arguing about the best way to protect these rights. The Federalists worry that rights not explicitly granted will be taken away, while the Anti Federalists are concerned that explicitly protecting rights which the government isn’t authorized to curtail would cause future leaders to argue that they do have the power to restrict those rights. It should come as no surprise that the Constitution barely passed because the arguments for each side were so well balanced.
Although the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had their disagreements, they recognized the need to change their present form of government. After many compromises, most notably an agreement to add a bill of rights, they adopted the proposed Constitution. In the immediate aftermath, their choice proved relatively successful as the union endured and the government adhered relatively closely to its given rights. A further look in history reveals their folly. Both sides were primarily interested in how to prevent the growth of an abusive government, and while they took different sides on whether states or national government would be better defenders of liberty, they failed to answer the broader questions regarding the rights of the states. A dark irony of American history is that while around 7,000 Americans died answering the question of whether America had a right to exist as a nation during both wars with England, over 30 times as many died, fighting fellow Americans, to resolve the question of states’ rights. The Federalist and Anti-Federalists each made compelling points regarding the risks and benefits of adopting the Constitution, and should be commended for being willing to make compromises to ensure its adoption, but their failure to reconcile their competing interpretations of states’ rights paved the way for the horrific Civil War.
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