by Walt Garlington

“The people who lost”: Bill Kauffman uses this quote from historian William Appleman Williams to begin his book, Forgotten Founder Drunken Prophet, on the Anti-Federalists – those who opposed the ratification of the current U. S. Constitution during and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Most of the state delegations at Philadelphia were populated by Federalists –men dedicated chiefly to strengthening the power of the federal government. To this class belonged the famous men of our history: e. g., Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison (a surprise to me to find him in this camp).

The Anti-Federalists were lesser known mostly: Melancton Smith, John Lansing, Luther Martin (the main subject of Kauffman’s aforementioned book – Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet). They were more modest in their goals at the Convention, wanting only to reform the existing Articles of Confederation rather than toss them aside and build the federal government anew as the Federalists desired, and wishing to preserve state and local authority.

The Federalists were not shy in their disdain for the states at the Convention. In order to establish a strong national government, the states “ought to be extinguished, new modified, or reduced to a smaller scale,” opined Alexander Hamilton. “State attachments and State importance have been the bane of this country,” Gouverneur Morris added.

The Virginia Plan written by Madison (the document upon which our present Constitution is based) eliminated the equal representation of the states as then existed under the Articles, and he was insistent that the national legislature be able to veto laws of the state legislatures that it thought were opposed to the “general interest” of the country.

The Anti-Federalists were having none of it. Thanks to their efforts Madison’s national veto was scrapped; the Virginia Plan was modified to include equal representation of the states in the Senate; the Senate was given the power to approve appointments by the president; and after the Convention they were successful in adding the Bill of Rights.

These were significant victories, but the Anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in other attempts to improve the new federal government of the Constitution. All of their ideas cannot be presented here, but a few of the more important ones appear below.

In the Senate they were unable to preserve the provisions in the Articles that would have required annual elections of U. S. senators by the state legislatures (with the power to recall any senator at any time), pay for senators by their states rather than the federal government, or senators voting together as one state delegation rather than as separate individuals.

In the U. S. House of Representatives they sought “short terms of office” and “frequent rotation” out of office for members. Only the first was achieved. Their attempts to secure substantial numbers of middle class representatives in the House through a “numerous representation” were also thwarted, making way for the aristocratic domination of that chamber. (Herbert Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For)

They did not prevail in replacing the overly powerful president with plural executives.

They failed to further safeguard the authority of the states by giving them more control over their own militias, limiting the taxing power of the federal government, or requiring a supermajority to approve federal measures regulating commerce between the states and between the U. S. and foreign countries.

Martin was not optimistic about the Constitution that resulted from the deliberations in Philadelphia. The federal government would break free from the few restraints placed upon it, he thought.

Fellow Anti-Federalist George Clinton agreed: Nothing would be left to the states but to “meet once in a year to make laws for regulating the height of your fences and the repairing of your roads.”

They have been proven right. Indeed, Kauffman concludes, many of the federal government’s objectionable actions “are not so much unconstitutional as they are logical extensions of the consolidationist thought of Madison, Wilson, Morris, and the nationalist faction that triumphed at Philadelphia.”

The U. S. Constitution is not without its beneficial features. Neither were the Federalists without virtue or wisdom. But this Constitution Day and afterwards, spend some time becoming acquainted with Anti-Federalist thought. Our country needs its revival now more than ever.

Luther Martin asks for a final word, and he shall have it: “Happiness is preferable to the Splendors of a national Government.”

Walt Garlington is founder of the Louisiana State Sovereignty Committee

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