In his third letter dated Oct. 10, 1787, the anti-federalist writer Federal Farmer wrote skeptically of the proposed new federal government for fear it would bring about a “tendency toward aristocracy,” similar to those which could be found in European nations. 

Aristocracy differs from what the founding generation called “popular government” in that the titles such as king, prince, baron, and earl are inherited and not elected positions. Within Parliament, there is the House of Commons and the House of Lords; the former is elected, while the latter is composed of those who inherited those offices.

Within the proposed Constitution’s legislative branch, the allocation of House of Representatives and Senate seats were to be based on population and number of states, along with a desire to protect the rights of the people of the smaller states, like Delaware and Rhode Island. The House seats would be elected, while the Senate seats would be appointed by the state legislatures. No office within the federal government would be inherited.

However, the Federal Farmer still felt this framework had problems that would result in a situation similar to England.  

Writing on the House of Representatives, he noted the relatively few number of elected officials who would need to be present for a quorum, i.e. the bare minimum of members necessary for the branch to function.

I have no idea that the interests, feelings, and opinions of three or four millions of people, especially touching internal taxation, can be collected in such a house.—In the nature of things, nine times in ten, men of elevated classes in the community only can be chosen.

He went on to warn that despite claims of a “democratic” House, it would tend toward aristocracy.

The people of this country, in one sense, may all be democratic; but if we make the proper distinction between the few men of wealth and abilities, and consider them, as we ought, as the natural aristocracy of the country, and the great body of the people, the middle and lower classes, as the democracy, this federal representative branch will have but very little democracy in it, even this small representation is not secured on proper principles.

The Federal Farmer was also equally suspicious of the executive’s role. It was seen by many Founders as a compromise, as some proposed having the president elected for life rather than four-year terms.

Yet, he thought the problem wasn’t so much presidential authority, but that his powers were tied too closely to the Senate, whose consent was needed for all sorts of presidential decisions. This too would tend toward aristocracy. (bold emphasis added)

The election…of the president of the United States seems to be properly secured; but when we examine the powers of the president, and the form• of the executive, shall perceive that the general government, in this part, will have a strong tendency to aristocracy, or the government of the few. The executive is, in fact, the president and senate in all transactions of any importance; the president is connected with, or tied to the senate; he may always act with the senate, never can effectually counteract its views: The president can appoint no officer, civil or military, who shall not be agreeable to the senate; and the presumption is, that the will of so important a body will not be very easily controlled, and that it will exercise its powers with great address.

As for the judiciary, he felt “it is proper the federal judiciary should have powers co-extensive with the federal legislature – that is, the power of deciding finally on the laws of the union.”

However, he felt that the judiciary – like with the overall federal government, undermined state sovereignty by extending federal jurisdiction over all cases, whether it be between citizens or citizens and states (bold emphasis added):

If the new constitution be adopted without any amendment in this respect, all those numerous actions, now brought in the state courts between our citizens and foreigners, between citizens of different states, by state governments against foreigners, and by state governments against citizens of other states, may also be brought in the federal courts; and an appeal will lay in them from the state courts, or federal inferior courts, to the supreme judicial court of the union.

I do not, in any point of view, see the need of opening a new jurisdiction to these causes—of opening a new scene of expensive law suits—of suffering foreigners, and citizens of different states, to drag each other many hundred miles into the federal courts.

Just as Patrick Henry felt the new Constitution didn’t adequately protect the right to a trial by jury, the Federal Farmer wrote that such a right was “secured only in those few criminal cases, to which the federal laws will extend—as crimes committed on the seas against the laws of nations, treason and counterfeiting the federal securities and coin: But even in these cases, the jury trial of the vicinage is not secured, particularly in the large states, a citizen may be tried for a crime committed in the state, and yet tried in some states 500 miles from the place where it was committed; but the jury trial is not secured at all in civil causes.”

In retrospect, many of the Federal Farmer’s fears were proven correct, while others did not transpire. 

One accurate fear was that the House would fail to adequately represent the people it governs. By 2018 there was one House member for every 747,000 or so Americans. To put that in perspective, a mere handful of representatives based on that ratio would have represented the entire population of the early republic.

Another fear that proved accurate was the lack of a trial by jury in the federal judiciary system. On paper people have the right, but in roughly 90 percent of cases they accept plea bargains and reduced sentences to avoid going to trial. 

However, one apprehension the Federal Farmer held that didn’t occur was senatorial control over the executive branch. Despite its role, the Senate has proven itself willing to rubber stamp most of the president’s appointments instead of the other way around, and the fear of impeachment is only made possible if the House of Representatives agrees. 

Meanwhile, the executive has usurped more and more of the legislative branch’s role regarding lawmaking via executive orders, but especially regarding congressional war powers. 

But in his overall assessment warning of an aristocracy, one need only look up the estimated wealth of those who occupy power, how long they hold power, and how much power they wield to see how right he was.

TJ Martinell

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