Federalists and Anti-federalists on Classic Roman Thought, Human Nature, and Forming a Successful U.S. Constitution
Not all the political leaders in the 13 states were sold on the Constitution presented to the states for ratification in the fall of 1787. It was common under the Articles of Confederation to require unanimous agreement, of the states to changes, made to the Articles. Aware that unanimous agreement on the Constitution was unlikely, the Constitutional Convention delegates decided that the Constitution would require only nine states’ ratification to become effective. Had Las Vegas existed then, the betting would have reflected the more-likely result that the Constitution would not be ratified.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and others realized that a marketing and communication campaign had to be waged. They were especially concerned about New York, and proceeded to write a series of 85 essays in New York newspapers to sell the new Constitution to the public. Those essays are known as the Federalist Papers. Those opposed to the new Constitution, known as Anti-federalists, countered with their own essays to disprove the points in each of the Federalist Papers.
The Anti-federalists were as well educated on the history of governmental structures of the past and, in particular, knew that Democratic Republics were unlikely to survive because of their greater trust in the political wisdom and virtue of the common man. The Anti-federalists also were concerned that a “national” government, rather than a stronger Confederation, would quickly erode the Sovereign powers of the individual states. They feared a national government, not unlike the British government they had just relinquished, that would dictate to the states and leave the state governments with few powers, even over more local matters. Although the Tenth Amendment was designed to ensure that the states retained significant powers, to some extent, the Anti-federalist fears have been increasingly realized, especially since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment when the Senate was effectively made into a second House of Representatives by popular election of the Senators rather than the Senators being “representatives” of the states who sent them to Washington. Since then, Federal mandates have diminished the power of the states to act independently with respect to many otherwise local issues.
The Federalists had a difficult job to sell the Constitution, but their wisdom eventually won the day. Some of the major issues addressed are reflected below.
In Anti-federalist 47, the author writes, “Mr. Adams has traced the constitution of every form of government that ever existed. A republican, or free government, can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous.” All our founders were very familiar with the writings of Cicero and Aristotle regarding individual and community virtue and many Anti-federalists doubted that sufficient civic virtue existed in man to make this new experiment at republican government successful.
“But Hamilton’s notes for his famed five-hour (only) speech to the Convention cite Cicero, as well as Aristotle and Montesquieu, in favor of the Constitution’s proposed mixed government theory, and Madison’s notes, while drafting the Federalist Papers, cite Cicero in addition to Aristotle and Polybius. Hamilton based his foundation of republican government on Cicero’s as that strong, representative government which is most conducive to liberty and resistant to tyranny.”
In Anti-federalist 57, the author notes that “the men most commonly presented to the people as candidates for the offices of representatives include (1) the natural aristocracy, (2) popular demagogues, and (3) the substantial and respectable part of the democracy, a numerous and valuable set of men, who discern and judge well, but from being generally silent in public assemblies are often overlooked. He fears that those elected to the national House of Representatives will be less likely to come from the third category than from the first two categories.”
In Federalist 57, Madison counters this argument saying, “Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgement or disappoint the inclination of the people.” Furthermore, Madison notes that a key restraint to the election of representatives, who are found unworthy after their election, is the requirement in the Constitution that Representatives be elected every two years, allowing constituents to “throw the bums out” quickly.
Separation of powers was an important element of the new Constitution. Anti-federalists weren’t convinced of the validity of the claim that such separation would be effective. But in Federalist 47, Madison observes that “the oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject (separation of powers) is the celebrated Montesquieu.” Madison then quotes Montesquieu as saying, “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body of magistrates, or if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.”
The authors of the Federalist papers used extant facts from foreign governments as well as from the Constitutions and practices of the 13 states to demonstrate that what the Constitution proposed is not so distinct but, in fact, identifies deficiencies in those documents and proposes solutions to correct those deficiencies. Madison, in Federalist 47 examined the Constitutions of each of the states to prove his case that provisions such as separation of powers already existed at the state level; if they existed there, then why would the anti-federalists believe that such a provision wouldn’t work at the national level?
Whether to have one or two bodies in the legislature was a topic of contention in the Convention. The final Constitution proposal was for two bodies, a House and a Senate. In Anti-federalist 63, the authors state, “But they are so formed, that the members of both must generally be the same kind of men, men having similar interests and views, feelings and connections, men of the same grade in society, and who associate on all, occasions. The Senate, from the mode of its appointment, will probably be influenced to support the state governments; and, from its periods of service will produce stability in legislation, while frequent elections may take place in the other branch.”
In Federalist 63, Madison notes that, “history informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate.” And, as to an equivalent to the Constitution’s House of Representatives, Madison states that, “in Sparta we meet with the Ephori, and in Rome with the Tribunes; two bodies, small indeed in numbers, but annually ELECTED BY THE WHOLE BODY OF THE PEOPLE, and considered as the REPRESENTATIVES of the people, almost in their PLENIPOTENTIARY capacity,” and “The Tribunes of Rome, who were the representatives of the people, prevailed, it is well known, in almost every contest with the senate for life, and in the end gained the most complete triumph over it.”
Because of the breadth and depth of the Founding Fathers’ understanding of both good and bad governments from ancient to then-current history, their debates in the Constitutional Convention, and in the political pamphlets produced in those days, were robust. The citizens read the Anti-federalist and Federalist arguments and heard both sides’ arguments in the churches and meeting halls in their communities. Because civic virtue was an important part of their formal and informal education in the 18th century, they were able to decide that the strengths of human nature could prevail over its weaknesses and that the experiment the Convention created, had a better than even chance of success.
Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.
(1) What the founders learned from Cicero // The Observer (ndsmcobserver.com)
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As one who studied under Willmoore Kendall and Heinrich Rommen in the early 1960s I am hugely impressed with this scholarship. So needed for our country to be sustained in this dark time. Thank you!