by Derek Sheriff

After reading and listening to numerous questions and comments about federalism from people on the Internet and on various talk radio shows, I’ve concluded that there is still a great deal of confusion about what exactly federalism is and what it is not.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines federalism as:

“..the distribution of power in an organization (as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units — compare centralism.”

The same dictionary defines centralism as:

“..the concentration of power and control in the central authority of an organization (as a political or educational system).”

These are not perfect definitions for the purposes of this essay, but you’ll notice one thing. Neither definitions mention the 18th century American political factions that came to be commonly known as the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Rather, the definitions reflect a more worldwide understanding of the concept of true federalism, which favors the decentralization, rather than the consolidation of political power.


Let me assure you that the principles of true federalism are not synonymous with the political platform of the American political party that originated in the 18th century and came to be known as the Federalists.

For example, on page 90 of his book, The Original Constitution: What it Actually Said and Meant, Robert G. Natelson points out how Alexander Hamilton, who is usually identified by most historians as a Federalist, “..did not share most of the Founders’ view that government should be strictly limited. In fact, he may have been a secret monarchist. Whether or not that was true, he certainly represented the ‘big government’ extreme on the American political spectrum of his day.”

I would call that an understatement in one sense. But either way, ask yourself, according to the definitions found in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, would you classify Hamilton’s ideology as federalist or centralist?

Much earlier in the book’s preface Natelson defines some words whose meanings are very important if one is to understand the concept of federalism and have a meaningful discussion about our Constitution. He explains:

“The Federalists were participants in the public ratification debates who argued for adopting the Constitution. History has labeled (unfairly) their opponents as Anti-Federalists.”

So during the time of the ratification debates, perhaps it would have been more accurate and objective to refer to the two opposing camps in the debate as the Pro-Ratifiers and the Anti-Ratifiers, especially since those in favor of ratification, who came to be known as the Federalists, were anything but a homogeneous, monolithic group. In his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution, historian Kevin Gutzman maintains that there were actually three parties at the Philadelphia Convention:

“The first was the monarchist party, the chief exemplar of which was New York’s Alexander Hamilton. The monarchists were intent on wiping the states from the map and substituting one unitary government for the entire continent … The second party consisted of nationalists, people who – without ever avowing admiration for the monarchical form – wanted to push centralization as far as could reasonably be hoped … Finally, there was a cohort in the Convention of members insistent on proposing a reinforcement of the central government while maintaining the primary place of the states in the American polity – a truly federal, rather than national government (emphasis mine)” (pp. 22–24).

Another point that needs to be understood as well, is that those who were opposed to ratifying the Constitution were not opposed to federalism as it is correctly defined and understood around the world today. They were known as Anti-Federalists, simply because they opposed those who were incorrectly labeled Federalists, some of who were actually monarchists or nationalists. But alas, we will probably be forever stuck with the confusing and very biased terms “Federalist” and “Anti-Federalist”.

Robert Natelson points out an important fact however, about those who were pro-ratification, the so called Federalists, and those who opposed ratification, the so called Anti-Federalists:

“Certain basic political values and principles seem to have been fully accepted by Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike. The two sides differed only in the weight they gave to each, and—more importantly—on how well they thought the Constitution would promote them. Those who thought the Constitution would further those values and principles tended to be Federalists. Those who thought the Constitution subversive of those values and principles tended to be Anti-Federalists. But all agreed that the nation’s basic law should be structured to further those values and principles. They can be summarized under five heads:

(1) liberty, in the sense of Lockean natural rights,
(2) effective government,
(3) republican government,
(4) decentralization, and
(5) fiduciary government.”

Those who think of themselves today as the ideological heirs of, or who simply identify more with the so called Anti-Federalists, should always remember these five principles of government and work to promote them as a way to maximize agreement within the new states’ rights coalition that has recently emerged.

Post Ratification

But what happened to these two opposing camps after all original thirteen states finally did decide to ratify the Constitution?

Although Alexander Hamilton may have formed the Federalist Party near the end of the 18th century, a strong case can be made that Hamilton actually favored a mixed monarchy and that most of the Federalist Party’s supporters were actually nationalists. In the early 1790’s, newspapers started calling Hamilton supporters “Federalists”. Those who opposed Hamilton and supported Jefferson, usually called themselves “Republicans” and their party the “Republican Party.” Newspapers that promoted good relations with Britain, supported the Jay Treaty and favored Hamiltonian economic policies, would often refer to them as “Democrats” or “Democratic-Republicans”, in an attempt to associate them with the excesses of the French Revolution.

Looking back on the origins, development and eventual demise of the Federalists as a formal political party however, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1822:

“An opinion prevails that there is no longer any distinction, that the republicans & Federalists are completely amalgamated but it is not so. The amalgamation is of name only, not of principle. All indeed call themselves by the name of Republicans, because that of Federalists was extinguished in the battle of New Orleans. But the truth is that finding that monarchy is a desperate wish in this country, they rally to the point which they think next best, a consolidated government. Their aim is now therefore to break down the rights reserved by the constitution to the states as a bulwark against that consolidation, the fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the constitution at its birth. Hence new Republicans in Congress, preaching the doctrines of the old Federalists, and the new nick-names of Ultras and Radicals. But I trust they will fail under the new, as the old name, and that the friends of the real constitution and union will prevail against consolidation, as they have done against monarchism. I scarcely know myself which is most to be deprecated, a consolidation, or dissolution of the states. The horrors of both are beyond the reach of human foresight.”

The Original Constitution

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So let’s not allow ourselves to be confused by nick-names, old or new. Rather, we should do our best to discern the true aims of those who who were labeled as Federalists or Anti-Federalists. Likewise we should do the same with those who call themselves by the name of Republicans, or Democrats for that matter, but who often advocate the doctrines of those Jefferson described as the old Federalists, many of who actually tried to subvert the truly federal form of government established by the Constitution.

The task of patriots today is to do everything in their power to defeat the advocates of consolidated government, who would like more than anything else, to finalize Hamilton’s agenda and, “..break down the rights reserved by the constitution to the states as a bulwark against that consolidation, the fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the constitution at its birth.”

Derek Sheriff
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