The Constitution was signed and presented to the world on September 17, 1787. Not everybody was thrilled with the proposed changes to the American system of government. Anti-Federalists wasted no time in denouncing the Constitution.

The first stand-alone counterattack against the anti-federalists took place in Philadelphia on October 6, 1787, when James Wilson delivered his “State House Speech.” Anti-federalist opponents of ratification took up their pens to counter the arguments Wilson made in his speech.

We covered two of those counter-arguments in a previous article.

An Officer of the Late Continental Army”- Independent Gazetteer, November 6, 1787

“Let not a set of aspiring despots, who make us slaves and tell us ’tis our charter, wrest from you those invaluable blessings, but exert yourselves, like freemen, to transmit unimpaired…those rights, & liberties which have ever been so dear to you, and which it is yet in your power to preserve.”

This anti-federalist writing, perhaps authored by William Findley, touches on two criticisms of the proposed Constitution worth noting: the exclusivity of the Senate and the nature of elections in America.

The Senate was specifically designed to be a more aristocratic political body than any of the others created by the Constitution. An Officer, perhaps fundamentally disagreeing with it being such an aristocratic body, focused on the dangers of the Senate having too few members.

That of the Senate is so small that it renders its extensive powers extremely dangerous. It is to consist only of 26 members, two-thirds of whom must concur to conclude any treaty or alliance with foreign powers. Now we will suppose that five of them are absent, sick, dead, or unable to attend; twenty-one will remain, and eight of these (one-third, and one over) may prevent the conclusion of any treaty, even the most favorable to America. Here will be a fine field for the intrigues and even the bribery and corruption of European powers.

Anti-federalist principles would not permit the creation of a blatantly elite political body, inevitably focusing governmental power in one place. Nonetheless, the Senate remains unchanged from the time this author critiqued it.

Second, the nature of elections troubled this anti-federalist author. Along with many other anti-federalists, An Officer called for annual elections of all elected offices. Perhaps this is overly idealistic, given the length of political campaigns in modern times. Further, the author points out that there is no rotation of political offices mandated in the Constitution. Of course, this would change in the 20th century for the office of the president, with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment.

To finish his remarks, the author invokes his military service in the Revolutionary War. He begs the reader to not relinquish the freedom that was so fiercely fought for in the war. He argued that the Constitution would inevitably push America into the abyss and the Constitution was doomed to fail.

This rhetoric ought to be remembered. It is tempting to conclude that politics, in general, has become more negative and that arguments have only become filled with hyperbole and demagoguery in recent times. But none of these attributes are new to politics. This author’s response to James Wilson’s speech best captures that fact, as it is clear that as long as there are arguments about the course America is charting (which there always must be, if America has any hope of survival), there will be arguments with positive and negative tones.

“Plain Truth – Rebuttal to an Officer of the Late Continental Army,Independent Gazetteer, 10 November 1787

“An Officer of the Late Continental Army” did not go unchallenged. Just four days later, the paper published a rebuttal by a writer under the penname “plain truth”

This rebuttal refutes “An Officer” point by point, and touches on two key issues: (1) the rationale for a national military and (2) the underlying spirit for ratification of the Constitution.

The Constitution proposed to create the right for Congress to call for a militia, with the help of the states in raising the men from their respective populations. One concern permeating anti-federalists’ arguments against the Constitution was that Congress was being empowered to raise a national militia that could impose a tyranny upon the people. The check put into the states’ hands, that they are to raise the militia and appoint officers and train the militia, served as insurance against national tyranny.

”But the states respectively can only raise it, and they expressly reserve the right of “appointment of officers and of training it.” Now we know that men conscientiously scrupulous by sect or profession are not forced to bear arms in any of the states, a pecuniary compensation being accepted in lieu of it. Whatever may be my sentiments on the present state of this matter is foreign to the point. But it is certain that whatever redress may be wished for, or expected, can only come from the state legislature, where, and where only, the dispensing power, or enforcing power, is in the first instance placed.”

Plain Truth also pointed out the army could be disbanded.

“Thus the representatives of the people have it in their power to disband this army every two years, by refusing supplies. Does not every American feel that no standing army in the power of Congress to raise, could support despotism over this immense continent, where almost every citizen is a soldier? If such an apprehension came, in my opinion, within the bounds of possibility, it would not indeed become my principles to oppose this objection.

While this may not have quelled the most ardent and vigorous anti-federalists, it would assuage the concerns of ordinary Americans who wanted to know that there was some balance between the state governments and federal government.

Second, the author quoted George Washington’s speech in favor of ratification of the Constitution.

“In all our deliberations on this subject [said George Washington] we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence.”

Washington’s words not only applied to the ratification of the Constitution but could apply in modern America. More often, Americans should remember that decisions should be viewed through the lens of what fosters unity, prosperity, and safety for Americans as a collective. While individual interests must be protected and valued, modern Americans should remember that sacrificing for the greater good can be a valuable tool for prolonging prosperity and ensuring the betterment of America.

Cincinnatus INew York Journal, November 1, 1787.

“When the people are fully apprised of the chains you have prepared for them, if they choose to put them on, you have nothing to answer for. If they choose to be tenants at will of their liberties, by the new constitution; instead of having their freehold in them, secured by a declaration of rights; I can only lament it…”

Arthur Lee’s [Cincinnatus] response captures the spirit underlying both the Ninth Amendment and Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The Ninth Amendment is a reservation of rights not enumerated and the Tenth Amendment is a reservation of all powers not expressly delegated to the federal government.

These amendments were intended to protect the people, and the states, against any tyranny that may arise on the federal level. In making his argument against the proposed Constitution, Lee looks to the various state constitutions and the spirit of those state constitutions to say that there must be an express reservation of rights and that any federalist’s words on the matter, should not be sufficient to satisfy concerns about the Constitution’s meaning.

“For a man to be tenant at will of his liberty, I can never agree to it. Though a despot may not act tyrannically; yet it is dreadful to think, that if he will, he may.”

This insistence was rooted in the prevention of tyranny, a common theme for Antifederalists and for Americans generally. However, Lee’s skepticism and lack of trust are quite clear as he invoked Sir Edward Coke to imply that Wilson’s smooth words masked an evil that must be revealed. Lee’s eloquent and illustrious language undoubtedly gave credibility to the anti-federalists and helped spur the ultimate adoption of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.

Cincinnatus V – Sense where is your guard! Shame where is your blush! November 29, 1787

Arthur Lee’s Cincinnatus V makes for one of the most poignant and probing dissections of the dangers posed by the proposed structure of the Senate. He argues that surrendering the liberty of the press and trial by jury for the promise of burdensome taxes and a standing army will only serve the interests, ambitions and arbitrary power of an aristocratic Senate.

“…Who will either be themselves the tyrants, or the support of tyranny, in a president, who will know how to manage them, so as to make that body at once the instrument and the shield of his absolute authority.”

Lee also finds a striking comparison with Ancient Rome in the way that Roman Emperors found the Senate, rendered largely impotent with the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire, a useful body to maintain for the precise purpose he ascribes to the new Constitution’s Executive Branch:

“To compass this object, we have seen powers, in every branch of government, in violation of all principle, and all safety condensed in this aristocratic senate”

He warns that with the impeachment power in the hands of this aristocratic Senate, impeachment will not serve to remove officials who work against the public interest. It will instead will be focused on the removal of officers who fail to be useful servants of the Senators’ arbitrary whims.

Lee clearly feels betrayed that the convention has seemingly abandoned the more democratic government, whose power was placed in the hands of the whole body of the people under the Articles of Confederation. He believed the Articles were being usurped by a new form of government. He accuses Wilson of disingenuously and euphemistically mislabeling it a ‘Republican government’ as a means of fooling all those who fought and died in the cause of a democracy, of, by and for the people. He warns that ratifying the new document would be nothing short of the overthrow of the government that they could truly call their own.

“Can you, O citizens of Philadelphia, so soon forget the constitution which you formed, for which you fought, which you have solemnly engaged to defend–can you so soon forget all this, as to be the willing ministers of that ambition, which aims only at making you its footstool–the confirmers of that constitution, which gives your aristocratic enemies their wish, and must trample your state constitution in the dust.”

Bob Fiedler
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