The Irony of Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

May 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Posted in Decentralism, History, Political theory | 6 Comments

Given that Federalism and Antifederalism are 220 year old ideologies, I’m surprised I have never run across the observation I’m about to make. If someone knows who else pointed this out, please let me know.  Pay attention to when I capitalize “federalism” as when lower case I refer to the concept, but when capitalized refers to the group of people calling themselves by that name, whether accurate or not.

The Federalists named themselves that. It was wrong. Most Federalists were really nationalists. They named themselves such because of the Colonial public’s distrust of nationalism.  In Lincoln’s era, and sympathetic historians after him, the Unionists could point to acts and quotes of many Federalists that clearly had nationalist leanings and statements, as this was what the Federalists desired.  The Southern secessionists could likewise point to acts and quotes against nationalism because this is what the Federalists had to say to gain power.

Anti-Federalists did not name themselves.  This was a term applied to them by their opponents who called themselves Federalists.  So it is more ironic that the so called Anti-Federalists were actually the federalists, just as the Articles of Confederation were federalist while the Constitution was only superficially so.

So it is true that the Constitution, created by the “Framers” who were mostly Federalists who weren’t federalists with just enough Anti-Federalist federalist wording to get passed, was a combination of apparent federalism but hidden nationalism.  So the Constitution as applied became increasingly nationalist, and permanently so after the so called Civil War.

If anyone has read the constitution of the former USSR, freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion are enumerated. However, like the Constitution of the USA, there was insufficient protections to stop centralization of power into nationalism which provides no means to protect those freedoms.

Lysander Spooner would write it best:

The practical difficulty with our government has been, that most of those who have administered it, have taken it for granted that the Constitution, as it is written was a thing of no importance; that it neither said what it meant, nor meant what it said; that it was gotten up by swindlers, (as many of its authors doubtless were,) who said a great many good things, which they did not mean, and meant a great many bad things, which they dared not say; that these men, under the false pretence of a government resting on the consent of the whole people, designed to entrap them into a government of a part, who should be powerful and fraudulent enough to cheat the weaker portion out of all the good things that were said, but not meant, and subject them to all the bad things that were meant, but not said. And most of those who have administered the government, have assumed that all these swindling intentions were to be carried into effect, in the place of the written Constitution.

And again another Spooner nugget of genius:

But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain—that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.



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  1. IT’S MY OPINION THAT WE THE PEOPLE, WERE MEANT TO BREATHE LIFE INTO THE CONSTITUTION. It’s also my opinion that when someone makes a point of equating The Constitution with Communism, they are likely Communists themselves trying to discredit The Constitution

    • Never known anyone to equate the Constitution with Communism. It takes a long link back in the historical chain of thought to link them, where Federalists-totalitarians like John Adams explicitly tied the American system and defense of the Constitution back to Machiavelli. Some Communists, like Stalin, were also equally fond of Machiavelli. Note that I’m not saying that is a close ideological link. The lesson is that both the American and Soviet Constitutions relied of Machiavelli’s flawed concepts of “checks and balances”, and both failed.

  2. The meaning of “federalism” has changed since its use by the authors of the “Federalist Papers.” They argued to have the U.S. Constitution, which established a central government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches and it gave the central government the power to collect taxes. The Constitution was drafted after the Articles of Confederation had failed that new nation because there was no central government at all, which meant that the states could not make agreements with foreign governments as a single unit, and the soldiers of the Continental Army who had fought and won the Revolutionary War couldn’t even be paid – during the 1783 Pennsylvania Mutiny, 500 unpaid soldiers stormed the Continental Congress, and if you want some irony, they requested the Pen. Militia to protect them from their own troops, but they refused. The Federalists of that time recognized how the states had turned against each other as the postwar depression deepened, and that a strong central government was necessary to prevent the lack of unity amongst the not-so-united states from destroying the fledgling nation.

    The “Federalists” of today, such as the activist judges and libertarians who are members of the “Federalist Society,” want to limit the central government.

    The real irony in this is that today’s Federalists don’t seem to understand that a federalist state is not the same thing as a unitary state, where subnational units only have the rights and powers that are granted them by the national government. In the United States, which is a federalist system, the states have powers and rights that cannot be unilaterally changed or infringed upon by the central government. (There are, of course, several areas where the power of the central government over the states is open to interpretation of the Constitution.)

    Today’s Federalists, like yesterday’s “Anti-Federalists” and the Confederates of the Civil War, want the states to have more independence than the U.S. Constitution grants them. If they want to change the power structure, they will have to do what the original Federalists did and either make a new constitution or amend the one that exists.

  3. Here’s a good, short explanation of history on that myth of the Constitution as necessary, supposedly justified by Shay’s Rebellion and the Pennsylvania Mutiny as excuses to create more of the tyranny that such Rebellions meant to stop.

  4. You asked to be pointed to some folks who have pointed out that the “Federalists” were actually nationalists who co-opted a term. This idea exists. Here’s Carol Berkin from Baruch College saying just that:!87246

    Terry Bouton says the same thing in “Taming Democracy (2010),” a great book about the counter-revolution against the democratic gains of the Revolution.

    I’m sure there are others saying it. Wouldn’t be surprised to find Howard Zinn making the same argument years ago.

    • I assumed I would not have been the first. -Thanks!

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