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What the Anti-Federalist Can Teach Us

On Principle, v5n1

February 1997

by Stephen F. Knott

In Federalist #55, James Madison discussed the character of the citizenry and its relation to the success of republican government. This particular form of government, according to Madison, "presupposes the existence of these qualities [qualities worthy of esteem and confidence] in a higher degree than any other form." It would seem a legitimate and important question to ask whether the federalists or the anti-federalists envisioned a form of government capable of nurturing these "better qualities."


There appears to be grounds for indicting the federalists on this count; in many ways their scheme of government involves little more than a blueprint for negative checks on human behavior. A sense of public spiritedness, which Madison found necessary in Federalist #55, is not to be assumed in one of his most important papers, Federalist #10. Instead, the overarching principle of the Madisonian system is to channel the passions in harmless directions; to counter ambition with ambition. There is little talk of fostering the kind of character the republican polity "presupposes." Madison is very forthright in telling us what won’t work in controlling the passions and interests of an overbearing majority: "If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control." The control of faction – that "mortal disease" – requires institutional arrangements." <
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The focus on institutional arrangements found in The Federalist Papers represents Publius’ faith in the new science of politics and in the ability of man to order his life. Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist #9 that "the science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients." Madison and Hamilton’s faith in mans’ ability to design institutions of government capable of constraining mans’ lower impulses and supplementing traditional forms of restraint on human behavior is somewhat disturbing. In their abandonment of or at best, lack of faith in extra-governmental institutions concerned with the formation of mens’ character, Publius appears to endorse the lowered expectations of what one should expect from the citizenry.


With a system resting in large part on self-interestedness and with the determination that fostering the higher qualities in man was not properly the purpose of government, it is not surprising that early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville discerned a certain emptiness in American life. He found in America "a taste for well-being" and "an inordinate love of material gratification." Tocqueville was overwhelmed by the tremendous energy and vitality he found in America, most of it directed in the pursuit of commerce. "The love of well-being is now become the predominant taste of the nation; the great current of human passion runs in that channel and sweeps everything along in its course." Although he saw important differences between the pursuit of wealth in America and that in Europe, Tocqueville nonetheless worried about the potential unbending of the soul’s "springs of action." He noted that religion’s great advantage is to "in
spire diametrically contrary principles" to the inordinate love of material gratification and "impose on man some duties toward his kind."


The federalists, on the other hand, saw the nurturing of commerce as one of government’s most important tasks. Publius notes in Federalist #60 that men who are "accustomed to investigate the sources of prosperity upon a large scale must be too well-convinced of the utility of commerce" and later refers to "the importance of commerce, in view of its revenue generating capability." Good government has as one of its purposes the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the states. Enlightened statesmen understand that the "prosperity of commerce is now perceived … to be the most useful as well as the most productive source of national wealth, and has accordingly become a primary object of their political cares." Commercial activity is worthy of government promotion, for in "multiplying the means of gratification … it serves to vivify and invigorate all the channels of industry and to make them flow with greater activity and copio
usness … all orders of men look forward with eager expectation and growing alacrity to this pleasing reward for their toils."


The anti-federalists’ misgivings regarding Publius’ commercial republic focused in part on the need for religion and civic morality as necessary presuppositions of successful republican government. In contrast to Publius, some prominent anti-federalists warned of the debilitating effect this commercial republic would have on traditional beliefs and institutions. The anti-federalist writer Cato warned that "the progress of a commercial society begets luxury, the parent of inequality, the foe to virtue, and the enemy to restraint." Later, Cato noted "that great power connected with ambition, luxury and flattery, will as readily produce a Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Domitain in America, as the same causes did in the Roman Empire." Cato even found threats to civic virtue in the proposed federal city where "the court of a president possessing the powers of a monarch" will generate "the perpetual ridicule of virtue." The anti-federalist writin
g under the pseudonym "The Impartial Examiner" warned that the passage of time and the erosion of the spirit of the American Revolution would produce that enervation of the soul that would later concern Tocqueville. "The altar of liberty is no longer watched with such attentive assiduity; a new train of passing succeeds to the empire of the mind … and if the nation happens to enjoy a series of prosperity, voluptuousness, excessive fondness for riches and luxury gain admission and establish themselves – these produce venality and corruption of every kind…. Mercy Warren, commenting on the insufficiency of a community of mere interest, at the same time feared that the American people were "too selfish and avaricious for a virtuous republic."


The Hamiltonian vision of an America capable of competing with the Europeans through the growth of commerce and military strength led anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry to worry about the nation changing "from a simple to a splendid Government." This competition with Europeans would, paradoxically, lead to a "hankering" after European luxury. As Charles Turner noted in a bit of anti-federalist overstatement, "as people become more luxurious, they become incapacitated of governing themselves." This anti-federalist plea for simplicity (or perhaps more accurately, isolationism and parochialism) had a certain "know-nothing" quality to it. For instance, the essayist Agrippa’s aversion to things European extended to certain European ethnic groups as well. "The eastern states have, by keeping separate from foreign mixtures, acquired their present greatness in the course of a century and a half, and have preserved their religion and mor
als."


Despite this nagging parochialism and a dearth of viable proposals to foster religion and civic education, some anti-federalists deserve credit for attempting to elevate the debate over the proposed Constitution. As Herbert Storing noted, "the indifference of the Constitution and its main defenders to organized religion is striking." In contrast, the anti-federalists understood the fragility of a society based primarily on self-interest. They feared the consequences of relegating religion and morality to the sidelines to fend for themselves. Although our system has survived for over 200 years, we would do well, at the very least, to insert these matters into the civic discourse and not treat them with such benign neglect as did Publius. A political order in which commerce and self-interest so often dominate the terms of debate can well afford the occasional input from institutions capable of tempering excessive individualism. The anti-federalist concern for the poli
ty’s educative function and the character of its citizenry is a most impressive legacy to our country.

Stephen F. Knott is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the United States Air Force Academy

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