Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

While Federalist 37 defends the Philadelphia Convention and the Constitution by recalling the difficulties involved in completing such a complex and novel undertaking, Federalist 38 is a full-throated attack on the Antifederalists. To counter the accusations—at least formally defensible—that the Convention was a revolutionary body that threatened liberty, Madison first reminds his readers that the Convention differed from historical procedures for constitutional innovation. Traditionally, such change was put in the hands of (or seized by) a single law-giver. The danger to liberty posed by such a charismatic leader was avoided by the use of a multitudinous assembly. On the other hand, such an assembly has all the characteristics of faction that he described in the previous essay as making the Convention’s work so difficult.

After this rather mild prologue, Madison sets to work. He likens the United States to an imperiled patient and the Convention to a panel of physicians. The latter agree that the situation is critical, but not so desperate that it cannot, “with proper and timely relief…be made to issue in an improvement of his constitution.” [Here the reader pauses briefly to acknowledge the clever pun.] Then a prescription for relief is made, only to trigger an invasion of nay-sayers who, though they admit the danger, alarm the patient against the cure and prohibit its use. This reminds one of risk-averse bureaucracies that prohibit or stall the use of new drugs for grave conditions because the potential side-effects are not entirely ascertained.

Worse, the objectors cannot agree exactly why the cure is bad. Nor can they agree on an alternative. Madison obviously relishes the opportunity to list various objections, all arranged for maximum ridicule. Though he avoids names, Madison’s examples likely would have brought to readers’ minds various specific opponents, particularly in the New York and Virginia ratifying conventions. Mocking the opponents’ portrayed disunity in order to blunt the dangerous calls for a new convention that were resonating with the public, Madison uses the variety of the objections to declare that the Constitution would likely be immortal if it were put in effect “not until a BETTER, but until ANOTHER should be agreed upon by this new assembly of lawgivers. [Emphasis in original.]”

His role as a champion of the Constitution prevents him from giving rhetorical quarter to his opponents, but they were not the intemperate and intellectually vapid lot Madison portrays through his caricatured compilation. Opposing specifics of the Convention’s product hardly makes one deserving of ridicule. Madison should know. Of 71 proposals he made or strongly and openly supported at the Convention, he lost 40 votes. His desired constitution would have looked remarkably different and more nationalized than what emerged.

Both sides were composed of patriots who ardently desired the success of the republican experiment and the United States. Both sides also had partisans who pursued the more parochial interests of their respective states, as well as their own personal objectives. Usually these conflicting interests operated in the same individuals to varying degrees. The strategic disadvantage the opponents suffered was that they were not a tight-knit cadre, as the writers of The Federalist were. And, of course, they lost. The victor writes the history. But many of them were leading intellectuals, lawyers, politicians, and other educated members of the country’s elite. As Publius infrequently identifies the writers to which he is responding in a particular paper, I should like to take a few lines to mention some of the opposition leaders.

The many effective and famous Antifederalists included Patrick Henry and George Mason of Virginia, Samuel Chase and Luther Martin of Maryland, and Samuel Adams and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Some opposed the whole project; Henry declared he did not attend the Convention because he “smelt a rat.” Others just wanted a bill of rights. George Mason was one of the most important contributors at the Convention, but, along with Gerry, declined to sign when the Convention refused consideration of a bill of rights. Still others eventually supported the Constitution with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Many Antifederalists used pseudonyms, in the custom of the day. There was Robert Yates, writing sixteen papers as “Brutus.” Judge Yates was a New York delegate who attended the Philadelphia Convention with Hamilton but left when the delegates moved beyond their charge only to consider revisions to the Articles. A moderate opponent, he was later recruited as a Federalist Party candidate for governor. His influential writings were widely circulated and known for their constructive and analytical criticisms, many of which, unfortunately, have manifested themselves over the years in the federal government that has evolved. Contrary to Madison’s claim, Yates often made suggestions for alternatives. It is curious that Publius never mentions Brutus by name (as he does a few others), although reading the former’s writings, it is clear from the language and the order of argument that he is often responding to the latter’s critiques.

George Clinton, likely author of seven “Letters of Cato,” was the longest-serving governor in American history at 21 years and a two-term U.S. Vice President. He presided over the New York convention and was a moderate opponent of the Constitution who favored adoption conditioned on amendments. His “letters” were widely read, and some historians believe that the effectiveness of his letters impelled the Constitution’s supporters to write The Federalist in response. Cato is specifically mentioned by Publius.

“A Federal Farmer” is traditionally associated with Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a career politician who was, among many other things, a member of the Confederation Congress. More recent scholars believe that the writer is attorney Melancton Smith, a member of the Confederation Congress and the New York ratifying convention. Hamilton considered the Federal Farmer the most persuasive of the Antifederalists, and refers to him in Federalist 68. The tone in the two pamphlets containing eighteen letters is generally analytical, readable, and moderate. That makes it less likely that Lee, an emotional and powerful orator, is the author. Smith eventually voted for the Constitution, with amendments.

Towards the end of the paper, Madison engages in a dubious tactic of defending the Constitution by declaring the ways that the Confederation has exercised broad powers. That may seem good in theory, but it is unlikely strategically to convince those who are weighing arguments for and against the Constitution. Though the point is to make the Constitution sound tame, one can just as easily draw a different conclusion: If the Confederation Congress is so dynamic, why is there need for change? That said, inducing most of the states to cede their western territorial claims to the United States, taking control of the territory, and passing the Northwest Ordinance as a model of colonial administration for the territory was probably the Confederation’s finest domestic policy success and showed the—ultimately unrealized—potential of the Articles.

Friday, June 18th, 2010

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. 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.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is


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