Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“Sir, I contemplate the abolition of the state constitutions as an event fatal to the liberties of America. These liberties will not be violently wrested from the people; they will be undermined and gradually consumed. On subjects of the kind we cannot be too critical…Will it not give occasion for an innumerable swarm of officers, to infest our country and consume our substance? People will be subject to impositions which they cannot support, and of which their complaints can never reach the government.” – Melancton Smith, Delegate, First Provincial Congress in New York; June 27, 1788 Notes during days beginning the New York Ratifying Convention.
Melancton Smith is not a household name when considering the adoption of the United States Constitution. But he was well known to the members of the crucial 1788 New York ratifying convention. Through his writings, his ideas became well known beyond his state, even if his name did not. In the convention, Smith was aligned with Governor George Clinton, Aaron Burr, and the upstate Albany faction against John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and the downstate New York City faction. Clinton was a wily politician and powerful political figure in the state and, later, in the country. He was also a prominent and effective antifederalist leader, who traditionally has been thought to be the writer of a series of antifederalist essays appearing under the pseudonym Cato.
Smith, too, was a prolific critic of the proposed Constitution. Indeed, he was such an effective advocate in the state ratifying convention for the opponents of the Constitution that Alexander Hamilton and other federalists felt obliged to respond to his challenges and criticisms. Smith had been a lawyer and was a merchant, so his style was logical, and his substantive critique was moderate and pragmatic. He appears to have been the author of a series of antifederalist essays previously attributed to the Virginian Richard Henry Lee and published anonymously under the name “Letters from a Federal Farmer to the Republican.”
Like the essays by Cato (George Clinton) and Brutus (attributed to Judge Robert Yates), those of the Federal Farmer posed a real threat to the adoption of the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton replied to them directly by name in Nos. 67 and 68 of The Federalist, the only antifederalist authors whom he named expressly. But there was a difference. With some justification, Hamilton considered the Cato essays to be works of political expedience, and Governor Clinton to be swayed by personal concerns about looming restrictions on the powers of state governments, should the Constitution be adopted. He castigated Cato as presenting deliberate falsifications of the constitutional structure of the executive branch. Falling into passages of purple prose at times, Hamilton singled out Cato as an example, “This bold experiment upon the discernment of his countrymen, has been hazarded by the writer who (whatever may be his real merit) has had no inconsiderable share of the applauses of his party; and who, upon this false and unfounded suggestion, has built a series of observations equally false and unfounded.”
By contrast, the Federal Farmer received, reluctantly, some faint praise. Hamilton noted that the method of selecting the president had received little criticism. Referring specifically to Federal Farmer, he wrote, “The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit, that the election of the president is pretty well guarded.”
Smith eventually broke rank with the antifederalist opposition and voted in favor of the Constitution for practical reasons. By the time the convention voted, the requisite nine states had already approved it, so the Articles of Confederation had been supplanted. Then, the Virginia convention, where the result had been uncertain, voted narrowly to approve the Constitution. Virginia was the largest and wealthiest state. With Virginia out, there was reason to believe that the Constitution ultimately was not viable as a plan of union. With Virginia committed to the new charter, New York’s hand was forced, Smith believed. His defection helped the Constitution’s supporters gain a crucial 30-27 favorable vote, although the price was a letter that listed 25 proposed provisions in a bill of rights and 31 amendments to the Constitution, to be addressed through a second “general convention,” which never materialized.
Particularly because he was such a voice of moderation, Smith’s concerns about the threat of a far-away general government to the liberty of the people struck a chord. Moreover, his warnings were closely tied to the historical perceptions of Americans regarding Great Britain, including the charge that the people’s complaints would fall on deaf ears with a distant government, that such a government would tax and control them in ways that the people could not support, and, recalling sentiments from the Declaration of Independence, that such government would send in “an innumerable swarm of officers, to infest our country and consume our substance.”
Finally, his criticism simply “made sense.” Government close by is more likely to respond to local needs and to mirror local values than government in a remote location. It was a self-evident truth to classic republican writers that republics were homogeneous, with many shared traits and values among the people, and small in area and population. Although republics could be larger than pure democracies and exercise self-government through the principle of representation, the sacrifice that civic virtue often demanded under either system was rooted in notions of friendship and cultural affinity. Social science research has shown that the larger and more diverse the population of a polity is, the less civic engagement occurs. The result is that a ruling elite becomes distant from the general population, and self-government becomes a cherished fiction, a Platonic “noble lie,” more theoretical than real. Such homogeneity and small size have potential downsides of provincialism and inflexibility, of a “small-town” staidness, but there is a limit to the size of what truly could be characterized as a community.
Antifederalist writers made much of this connection among size, cultural affinities, civic virtue, and republican government. They repeatedly invoked the danger of “consolidation” under the new Constitution, that is, the fusion of the states into a single large unitary government, an empire, destined to become tyrannical. As Melancton Smith warned, that process of effective abolition of the state constitutional systems would not be a sudden event. Rather, it would be gradual but irresistible and inevitable, as the general government grew and expanded its powers ever more intrusively into traditionally local matters. “These liberties will not be violently wrested from the people; they will be undermined and gradually consumed.”
The potency of this republican challenge to the Constitution created an urgency for the charter’s supporters to respond vigorously. They used several arguments. Federalist writers commonly pointed to the limited powers which the Constitution vested in the general government in contrast to what they described as the vast reserved powers of the states. For example, James Madison used this tactic in The Federalist, No. 45:
“The powers delegated to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments, are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers of the several states will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”
Another approach was to emphasize the effect of the natural rivalries of politicians fostered by the horizontal separation of powers in the structure of federalism. In the classic essay No. 51 of The Federalist, James Madison presented as a key feature of the Constitution the simultaneous separation and blending of powers in a system that guarded against oppressive government not by a myopic focus on civic virtue but on structures that enabled “Ambition…to counteract ambition.” “In a single republic [such as the several states], all the power surrendered by the people, is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against, by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments [state and national], and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”
Still another was to go on the offensive and to point out that even most American states at the time barely qualified as classic republics in view of their large territorial spread and population, and to note concurrently that the state constitutions lacked various protections so dear to antifederalist writers. As to size of republics, antifederalists cited Montesquieu, but Hamilton rejoined in No. 9 of The Federalist that “the standards he had in view were of dimensions, far short of the limits of every one of these states. Neither Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, nor Georgia, can by any means be compared with the models from which he reasoned and to which the terms of his description apply.”
As to protections of liberty, Hamilton objected in The Federalist No. 84,
“The most considerable of the remaining objections is, that the plan of the convention contains no bill of rights. Among other answers given to this, it has been on different occasions remarked, that the constitutions of several of the states are in a similar predicament. I add, that New York is of the number. And yet the persons who in this state oppose the new system, while they profess an unlimited admiration for our particular constitution, are among the most intemperate partizans of a bill of rights.”
In similar vein, Madison asserted that the danger of factions, the bête noire of republican belief, was much greater in the states than in the union. Waxing metaphorical, he insisted in No. 10 of The Federalist,
“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire state. In the extent and proper structure of the union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the disease most incident to republican government.”
Finally, the Federalists pointed out the psychological tendency of voters to connect with local politicians. Hamilton described this in No. 17 of The Federalist:
“It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than his neighbourhood, to his neighbourhood than to the community at large, the people of each state would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments, than towards the government of the union, ….”
Madison echoed that analysis in No. 46 of The Federalist and challenged Smith’s assertion that the new government would infest the country with swarms of bureaucrats:
“Many considerations, besides those suggested on a former occasion, seem to place it beyond doubt, that the first and most natural attachment of the people, will be to the governments of their respective states. Into the administration of these, a greater number of individuals will expect to rise. From the gift of these, a greater number of offices and emoluments will flow…. With the affairs of these, the people will be more familiarly and minutely conversant; and with the members of these, will a greater proportion of the people have the ties of personal acquaintance and friendship, and of family and party attachments.”
It is notable that the defenders of the Constitution at the time agreed that a distant government had systemic tendencies towards unresponsiveness and autocracy. They sought to blunt that criticism by defending their new “confederated republic.” As noted above, a significant part of that defense was that the general government’s powers were few and directed at truly “national” concerns which would arise in only unusual and occasional situations, whereas the states would deal with the everyday matters most directly and closely affecting the people. In hindsight, a fair observation is that many of the alarms the Antifederalists raised about an intrusive and overweening central government have materialized. The Federalists’ responses often appear quaint and unrealistic, perhaps even utopian, in light of events. Their own perceptions of human nature must have alerted them to the weaknesses of their positions and the veracity of the objections of calm and pragmatic critics such as Smith.
That said, Madison, Hamilton, and the other Federalists were not disinterested commentators. They were intent on completing their project of adopting the Constitution. As well, just because the Antifederalists appear prescient in their criticisms of the national government does not mean that their confidence in the republican attributes of state governments would have resulted in less control and regimentation of people’s lives. States and localities in fact do still control the main of people’s lives, just as the Federalists argued. Can it really be said that many state governments have not also “undermined and gradually consumed” the liberties of the people, that those governments have not created “an innumerable swarm of officers, to infest our country and consume our substance,” and that the people have not become “subject to impositions which they cannot support, and of which their complaints can never reach the government”?
We live in a country nearly one hundred times the population and four times the area of the United States when the Constitution was adopted. The principle of subsidiarity espoused by Melancton Smith in a republican constitution has the virtues of more direct popular participation and influence, more efficient implementation of political decisions, better reflection across broader domain of the diversity of local values and needs, and, hence, more immediate claims to political legitimacy. The many commentators on effective self-government who have warned over the centuries about the practical limits of republics in terms of area, population size, and cultural heterogeneity were keen observers of political systems. A devolution of more power away from the national government to the states and from the states to the localities well might be consistent with better republican government. Yet, with many current cities and metropolitan areas each exceeding the entire population of the United States in 1787, there will be further questions about how realistic it is today to expect republican government in anything but name even at the local level. Benjamin Franklin’s challenge remains, when he said about the nature of the government under the Constitution, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.