The federalist/anti-federalist debate is a great opportunity to study Question Two of the Four Question Method: “What were they thinking?” Good students (and teachers) of American history know that the anti-federalists opposed the ratification of the constitution. But good students (and teachers) of American history also want to know why the anti-federalists opposed the constitution. Answering Question Two requires us to dive into the minds of the people we are studying, to understand the world as they understood it. We call this “historical empathy.” Building historical empathy often requires slow and close reading of primary sources. (If you’re interested in learning how to do close reading well with your students I recommend “Reading Reconsidered.”) In this post I’ll use two anti-federalist texts to show how the Anti-Federalists’ preference for strong states was based on an important assumption they made about representation.
Anti-Federalists Favored The States
Melancton Smith of New York was one of the most important and articulate anti-federalists. We can’t be sure he was the author of the set of anonymous letters signed by the “Federal Farmer,” but he is a likely candidate. The Federal Farmer thought that the new constitution made the national government too strong, and the states too weak. In his second letter he writes, “as to powers, the general [national] government will possess all essential ones, at least on paper, and those of the states a mere shadow of power.” Interestingly enough, the federalists, supporters of the constitution, agreed with the Farmer on the facts, but they saw this distribution of powers as a good thing. Indeed, the constitution was deliberately designed to weaken the states and strengthen the national government. A close reading of the Farmer shows that, by contrast, he sees a strong national government as a bad thing. Consider his word choice: the national government will have “all essential” powers, while the states will have “a mere shadow of power.” His language would have been very different if he had been pleased with the distribution of powers: he might have said that the national government had “all necessary” powers, for example. But he’s upset with the distribution of powers, and wants the states to have more. Later in the same paragraph he actually calls for the states to have sole power to collect internal taxes. Today most textbooks note the inability of the national government to collect taxes as one of the major problems for the country before the constitution. So why did the anti-federalists want to continue that practice? What were they thinking?
Anti-Federalists Assumed That State Governments Represented Ordinary People
The anti-federalists’ support for strong states was intimately related to their views about representation in government. Their opponents, the federalists, were candid elitists: they believed that the interests of ordinary people could be best represented by men who were wealthier and more educated than the ordinary. So for the Federalists, a person’s representative in government could be, and probably should be, someone quite unlike themselves. They thought you should vote for someone better than you to represent you. The Anti-Federalists, by contrast, believed that a person’s representative should be someone like them. In a speech he gave on June 21, 1788 Melancton Smith explained: “The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives, is, that they resemble those they represent.” He goes on to call for government bodies to include people from “the middling class of life.”
This different view of representation in government explains why anti-federalists favored strong states: they believed that the state governments were where people from “the middling class of life” would have their voices heard. They were afraid that the national government, with its small number of representatives and senators and its inevitable physical distance from many of the citizens, would be dominated by the rich, who they believed would act against the interests of the ordinary people.
What makes the federalist/anti-federalist debate so interesting is that the federalists also believed that the national government would be dominated by the rich. But their assumptions about the wisdom of the ordinary people were the opposite of the anti-federalists’. The federalists thought that people from “the middling class of life” were too poorly educated to make decisions in their own best interests. They were susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and charlatans, and needed to be protected from themselves because their ideas of government were often shaped by emotion and simplistic thinking. Empowering the ordinary people was, for the federalists, a recipe for bad government and chaos.
As we all know, the Constitution was ratified, and today textbooks and Broadway musicals generally see that as a good thing. But if history students are to make responsible judgments about which side in the ratification debate was right and why, they must first take the the time to truly understand what people on both sides were thinking. That means taking the time to build historical empathy for the losers as well as the winners.