skip to Main Content

The Anti-Federalist Roots of Voter Outrage

The Anti-Federalist Roots Of Voter Outrage

The current outburst of voter discontent, which has made the 2016 election campaign an equal source of fascination and dread, contains the elements of a revolution and a restoration. Analysts have traced widespread disgust with the ‘Washington establishment,’ which has vaulted the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump, to issues ranging from economic anxiety to cultural concerns over national character, with illegal immigration providing a linkage between the two. For these myriad grievances to achieve political impact, there must be an overarching conceptual framework that gathers different portions of the electorate under a common set of principles as well as a shared understanding of the proper alternative and how to realize it. Such a consensus cannot emerge spontaneously, and so new political movements draw upon historical schools of thought to supply their protests with intellectual coherence and to rally a public following around the vision of a once and future Golden Age.

In this case, the Trump campaign’s denunciation of a broken political system and its populist alternative parallels the Anti-Federalist case against the ratification of the Constitution. In particular, its prognostications of imminent collapse, and the plausibility of these claims among a sizable contingent of voters, evoke Cecilia Kenyon’s description of the Anti-Federalists as “men of little faith.”1 However, in both cases this gloomy vision contains a slim hope that a concerted popular effort to ‘make America great again’ can still snap victory from the jaws of defeat.  I do not suggest that Trump or his supporters are aware of this connection, or that they equal the philosophic rigor of the Anti-Federalists. Nonetheless, evaluating the relationship between them serves to illustrate a consistent pattern within American political thought and to shed light on its likely consequences. A more nuanced understanding of the logic behind a movement that otherwise appears irrational can separate legitimate objections from their potentially disastrous political effects, and better address those objections within a constitutional framework.

A brief overview of Anti-Federalist arguments, along with the inherent contradictions between them, helps to explain why their contemporary resurgence would culminate in the kind of campaign that Trump has undertaken. While composed of numerous authors and spokesmen who put forth a wide variety of often contrasting positions, Anti-Federalism united around the conviction that the fundamental laws of politics were basic and unchanging. ‘Cato’ states that “the axioms in the science of politics” are “as irrefragable as any in Euclid,”2 so that they are universally valid and boil down to a set of fixed and unambiguous rules.

Republican Governance

Chief among these rules is that a “free people…form their government and laws, and so to administer them, as to create a confidence in, and respect for the laws.”3 Self-government is not merely an ideal, but a safeguard against man’s selfish nature. According to ‘Agrippa,’ “no man when he enters into society, does it from a view to promote the good of others, but he does it for his own good.”4 To ensure that governors rule in the interest of the community rather than themselves, representatives must be “a true picture of the people; possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants; sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests.”5 If there is any divergence between the individual and his representative, the individual must have the knowledge and proximity to identify and correct the lapse at once. Otherwise, the representative will invariably use his power to advance his own ends, which will then make it more difficult for his constituents to hold him accountable.

In a large polity such as the United States, the sheer number of its members and the diversity of their interests inhibited the possibility of true representation, and so the people “will have no confidence in their legislature, suspect them of ambitious views…and will not support the laws they pass.”At the same time, most Anti-Federalists recognized that some kind of national government was necessary for interstate commerce and common defense. As Herbert Storing pointed out, this dilemma left Anti-Federalists searching for ways to “mitigate the dangers of the large republic that America seemed to require”7 and maximize the qualities of a small republic that were indispensable for the preservation of liberty.

The best way to rescue the advantages of a small republic in a large one was to promote homogeneity among what ‘Brutus’ calls the “manners, sentiments, and interests of the people” so as to avoid “a constant clashing of opinions” which will “prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good.”8 Confronted with a wide variety of manners and interests to choose from, ‘A [Maryland] Farmer’ declares that the yeomanry “and their posterity” should be “legislators by birth.” Freed from the hubris of wealth and the desperation of poverty, the “freeholders of America” are “the most independent of mankind, mild by nature, moderate by manners, and persevering in every honest pursuit.” As the only class “worthy of being entrusted with their own rights,”9 they are most likely to favor stable laws and engender moderate habits. All men may be created equal, but the yeomanry are more equal than others.

Consequently, the formation of a national character approximating the yeoman ideal is the primary determinant of security and prosperity. A “spirit of public and private justice, economy, and industry”10 offers better insurance against invasion than an army, which only weakens public morale by rewarding the glory of a few at the expense of the many. A self-sufficient, mostly agrarian people will never grant the legislature the fiscal power to unleash the “cruel excise-man” who will invariably “exact the uttermost farthing, both from the states and individuals.”11 As Patrick Henry declared, “you are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured.”12 A republic can only endure if the objects of popular passions confer their benefits equally, or else society will split between those greedy for luxury, power, and esteem against those whom they exploit to satisfy those aristocratic pursuits.

These conclusions on the formation and perpetuation of a republic derived from “events observed in the laboratory of history” which “had long since produced results needing little further testing.”13 Yet those same lessons of history “exhibit this melancholy truth…that the very small portion [of mankind] who have enjoyed the blessings of liberty, have soon been reduced to the common level of slavery and misery.”14 A republic was the only legitimate form of government for all mankind, but most of mankind was so blind to the truth of its own condition that their participation would only corrode its purity.  The enlightened few were left with the task of establishing a template worthy of universal imitation while conferring its benefits only upon the deserving.

The Anti-Federalists

This dual mission placed Anti-Federalists in the paradoxical position of proposing anti-liberal measures to preserve a liberal outcome which is as fragile as it is desirable. Civic education is crucial for instilling the moral and practical virtues of citizenship, but because it represents the objective “principles of philosophy, religion [and] good policy,” any difference of opinion could only be the product of “passion, prejudice…or ignorance.”15  The powers and duties of the government have to remain simple enough for the average citizen to comprehend, lest a complex bureaucracy of separated powers empower a de facto ruling class that navigates its obscure procedures to form “private juntos”16 immune from public scrutiny. Isolationism is not just a proud abstention from the petty game of power politics, but an equation of external influence of any kind with the pernicious introduction of “foreign luxurious or foreign vices.”17

The achievement of the Anti-Federalist ideal requires that the world contract to fit the perspective of the individual. When the citizen enjoys the exclusive company of himself and those like him, he inhabits a perfect state of “tranquil ease and content; you will find no alarms or disturbances.”18 Yet lurking just beneath this utopian vision are what Samuel Adams calls “seeds which like a canker worm lie at the root of free governments. So great is the wickedness of some men, & the stupid servility of others, that one would be almost inclined to conclude that communities cannot be free.”19 The Anti-Federalists never successfully resolved the tension in their thinking between their absolute belief in government by the people and their grave doubts that the people were up to the task.

The Anti-Federalists were not merely the losing side in the debate over the Constitution; they represented a significant intellectual tradition that has a permanent place in American political thought. Populists of the left and right have continually “shown a remarkable affinity for an Anti-Federalist conception of politics,”20 as they provide the preeminent rationale for the recurring moods of hostility toward a distant and corrupt central authority that the Constitution never fully muted. It is no surprise that voters fed up with ‘politics as usual’ would favor a candidate that most closely resembles the classic critique of federal overreach. But while the Trump campaign has brought those ideas closer than ever to power, in doing so it has magnified the tensions within a tradition more accustomed to the habits of dissent than the responsibilities of governing.

Trump as the Anti-Federalist

On one hand, the Anti-Federalist lineage of Trump’s campaign is straightforward. His few substantive proposals, notably his signature plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, are designed to rouse feelings of patriotic exceptionalism rather than achieve an actual policy objective. His seemingly straightforward manner has endeared him to certain voters who share the preference of the ‘Federal Farmer’ that their leaders be “genuinely like themselves.”21 His penchant for conspiracy theories places him squarely in the tradition of the “paranoid style”22  that characterized eighteenth-century political discourse, especially among  Anti-Federalists who tended to equate all forms of power with incipient tyranny.

On the other hand, other aspects of a prospective Trump presidency appear to fulfill Edmund Randolph’s warning that the executive would be the “foetus of monarchy.”23 Anti-Federalists worried that a ‘President-General’ would “suppress all free enquiry and discussion”24 by the press, use the armed forces “for the purpose of promoting [his] own ambitious views,”25 or become a tool of “aristocratic domination”26 by a wealthy elite. With Trump, each of these possibilities have gone from worst-case scenarios to campaign promises. The debate within Anti-Federalism between praise of the average American’s democratic character and fear of his despotic inclinations is now embodied in a single candidate, making a reconciliation between these conflicting tendencies increasingly difficult.

The Trump campaign’s blending of Anti-Federalist hopes and fears derives from its reliance on their ideas without any of the structures they considered necessary for making those ideas viable. Furthermore, many of the consequences that Anti-Federalists warned would result from the decline of those structures have come true, rendering the possibility of a restored republic even more remote. Anti-Federalists accurately foresaw that “the General Government being paramount to, and in every respect more powerful than, the state governments, the latter must give way to the former.”27 To make matters worse, the public has generally accepted this accumulation of federal power, as “the attachment of citizens to their government and its laws is founded upon the benefits which they derive from them.”28 The clear superiority of “federal allurements” over the “poor contemptible things that the State Legislature can bring forth”29 and so popular loyalties have shifted accordingly.

No serious national office-seeker can promise to recreate the conditions of 1787, nor can he throw up his hands and declare the American experiment a noble failure. The only remaining option for the candidate hoping to capitalize on voter discontent is to promise the reform of corrupted institutions from within. Most who choose this path try to strike a balance between the decorum of the office and the crusading spirit of an outsider. Trump, by contrast, fully embraces a caricature of both crony capitalism and the populist backlash against it. His reputed wealth and boundless ambition, combined with his contempt for established procedures and norms, grants him the perceived credentials to participate in a rigged system, knowhow to maximize its powers, and willingness to drive the money-changers from the temple. A Trump presidency promises to strip away the pretense of a hypocritical system, which upon exposure  will wither under the light of public scrutiny, thereby reforging an authentic connection between the people and its leaders.

The Critics

Critics of Trump frequently echo the Federalist dismissal of their opponents as men “governed by such narrow views and local prejudices” that they “can never be trusted”30 to wield power responsibly. Such charges were not the most effective counter-arguments at the time, nor are they now. The Federalists were most convincing when they utilized Anti-Federalist assumptions in order to prove the need for Constitutional remedies.

At the Convention, Alexander Hamilton explained that the essential features of  republicanism required their own restriction within stabilizing institutions. The “avarice, ambition, [and] interest which govern most individuals, an all public bodies” makes it impossible to design institutions primarily in terms of republican orthodoxy. Given the extraordinary diversity of opinion and interest that a republic entails, frequent discussions of first principles will unleash a “wild fire” of popular passion and demagogic manipulation, weakening the public confidence necessary for a well-functioning republic. The quotidian tasks of administration may not inspire public devotion, but only within a framework of “stability and permanency”31 can a republic hope to maximize its virtues and minimize its vices.

The Trump narrative is similarly liable to refutation on its own premises. A healthy skepticism of centralized authority should encourage voters to cast aspersion on the notion that anyone capable of rising to the top of a fraudulent system would actually fulfill their promise to dismantle the basis of their own power after acquiring it. Those fearful of terrorism and illegal immigration should hardly expect symbolic gestures of isolation to deter forces which Trump routinely describes as innately predatory.

Leaving aside the merits of Trump and his policy proposals, the pledge to ‘make America great again’ is self-defeating by its own internal logic. Treating the presidency as a vehicle for perfecting an ideal will turn its occupant into the representative of a majority faction. Unless America exhibits an incontrovertible greatness that is satisfying to all, both the opposition party and discontented elements within the ruling faction will turn Trump into the symbol of the establishment that he now derides, a cycle that will restart with each new incumbent. Trump may ultimately win the election through his appeal to raw sentiment, but instead of deriding those sentiments, critics should demonstrate that Constitutional government is the only means of securing their interests, and is thus more worthy of their attachment.

 

Notes

1. Cecilia Kenyon, “The Anti-Federalists: Men of Little Faith,” William and Mary Quarterly 12 (1955): 3-46.

2. Cato, “No. 3” (Fall 1787), in The Founder’s Constitution, edited by Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 126.

3. The Federal Farmer, “III” (10 October 1787), in The Anti-Federalist: Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution, edited by Herbert Storing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 43.

4. Agrippa ,”VII” (18 December 1787), in The Anti-Federalist,

5. Melancton Smith, “Speech of 21 June 1788 to the New York Ratifying Convention,” in The Anti-Federalist, 340.

6. Brutus, “I” (18 October 1787), in The Anti-Federalist, 116.

7. Herbert Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) 16.

8. Brutus, “I,” 114.

9. A Farmer, “V” (28 March 1788), in The Anti-Federalist, 270.

10. Brutus, “VII” (3 January 1788), in The Anti-Federalist, 146.

11. Philadelphiensis, “XI” (8 March 1788), in The Complete Anti-Federalist, 3, edited by Herbert Storing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 135.

12. Patrick Henry, “Speech of 5 June 1788 to the Virginia Ratifying Convention,” in The Founder’s Constitution, 289.

13. Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage Books, 1997),

14. Centinel, “VI” (25 December 1787), in The Complete Anti-Federalist, Vol. 2, edited by Herbert Storing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 172.

15. A Columbian Patriot, “Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions (1788)” in The Complete Anti-Federalist, Vol. 4, edited by Herbert Storing (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 282.

16. Federal Farmer, “VII” (31 December 1787), in The Anti-Federalist, 78.

17. “A Letter From a Gentleman in a Neighbouring State, to a Gentleman in This City” (Connecticut Journal, October 1787), in The Complete Anti-Federalist, 4, 8.

18. Patrick Henry, “Speech of 5 June,” 290.

19. Samuel Adams, “Letter to Richard Henry Lee of 3 December 1787,” in The Founder’s Constitution, 268.

20. Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Early Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 305.

21. Federal Farmer, “VII,” 75.

22. Gordon Wood, “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century,” The William and Mary Quarterly 39 (1982): 401-441.

23. James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 46.

24. Centinel, “I” (5 October 1787), in The Anti-Federalist, 19.

25. Brutus, “X” (24 January 1788), in The Anti-Federalist, 159.

26. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For, 49.

27. George Mason, “Speech of 4 June 1788 at the Virginia Ratifying Convention,” in The Founder’s Constitution, 288.

28. John Smilie, “Speech of 28 November 1787 to the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention,” in The Founder’s Constitution, 264.

29. Patrick Henry, “Speech of 4 June,” 289.

30. Landholder, “VI” (10 December 1787). in Essays on the Constitution of the United States, edited by Paul Leicester Ford (Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1892), 165.

31. Madison, 131-6.

Eric FleuryEric Fleury

Eric Fleury

Eric Fleury is a Professor in the Political Science Department at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Back To Top