Men of Great Faith
i. In contrast to the Framers, the Anti-federalists held that self-interest could not be the organizing principle of a good polity. A good polity relied not upon the unleashing of self-interest, but its restraint and proper ordering. While many Anti-federalists adopted the natural rights language dominant in many of those contemporary debates, the thrust of their arguments was a hearkening back to pre-modern understandings of human nature and its necessary formation in political settings. That is, rather than assuming, like the Framers, that human beings are by natural free and independent individuals, the Anti-federalist’s emphasis on education and the inculcation of virtue rested on the view that man is by nature a political animal. This view was stated most clearly by Agrippa of Massachusetts, who explicitly rejects the assumptions about human nature that underlie the philosophy of the Constitution:
It is common to consider man at first as in a state of nature, separate from all society. The only historical evidence, that the human species ever existed in this state, is derived from the book of Genesis. There, it is said, that Adam remained a while alone. While the whole species was comprehended in his person was the only instance in which this supposed state of nature really existed. Ever since the completion of the first pair, mankind appear as natural to associate with their own species, as animals of any other kind herd together. Wherever we meet with their settlements, they are found in clans. We are therefore justified in saying, that a state of society is the natural condition of man. Wherever we find a settlement of men, we find also some appearance of government. The state of government is therefore as natural to mankind as a state of society.
Agrippa’s clear statement on this point helps to make sense the Anti-federalists’ near-unanimous insistence on the necessity of virtue as the basis for the good polity. Government is not merely the artificial restraint upon our natural and ungoverned self-interest; it is the natural inculcation of the excellent qualities of human nature to achieve a standard of self-governance, laws freely made and willingly observed. In accordance with classical teachings such as found in Aristotle or the widespread colonial understanding of Christian liberty, government and law is educative, making us more fully human rather than restricting our natural liberty. Numerous Anti-federalists objected to the absence in the Constitution requiring formal institutions of civic education, although for many the law was thought to be itself an education, and should reflect that underlying view of the necessity to teach restraint and self-governance.
ii. A government based upon self-interest would incline to self-aggrandizement, vainglory, avarice, dominion and ultimately would be tempted to adopt measures antithetical to republican government in order to retain the pleasures associated with the satisfactions of self-interest. The Anti-federalists insisted that the proper sphere for the inculcation of civic virtue was necessarily within the confines of small republic. A small republic afforded an intimate bond between the ruling body and the laws, leading to the voluntary and willing submission to laws made by the people themselves. A smaller sphere permitted the flourishing of local variety and legislation that reflected particular local and cultural commitments. The Anti-federalists feared that the consequence of greater distance between ruler and ruled would be the felt sense that law would be an external imposition, thereby requiring its enforced observance. They feared that the national uniformity of laws would result in the destruction of local variety and particularity, and would create instead a homogenous nation which would be ruled entirely from the center, giving rise to an “aristocratical” ruling class.
They saw in the proposed Constitution a strong tendency toward becoming a commercial empire. Patrick Henry asked, “shall we imitate the example of those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid government? Are those nations more worthy of our imitation….? If we admit this Consolidated Government, it will because we like a great and splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things…” (5.16.2). Cecilia Kenyon is undoubtedly correct to note that the Anti-federalists feared the rule of a small cadre of self-aggrandizing elites; however, it was not so much government tout court that they feared, so much as (as Christopher Duncan has perceptively argued) a “corrupt or detached government.” It was not that they misunderstood the ambitions of the Constitution; they disagreed with its basic aims, instead urging a commitment to a modest republic of relatively local commerce and defensive military posture. As Melancton Smith would argue in the New York ratification debates against his opponent Alexander Hamilton, a more local and modest scale would not only serve as the cradle of an education of virtue, but would provide modest means for the attainment of great ambitions.
Those in the middling circumstances have less temptation – they are inclined by habit and the company with whom they associate, to set bounds to their passions and appetites – if this is not sufficient, they also want the means to gratify them – and they are obliged to employ their time in their respective callings. Hence, the yeomanry of the country are more temperate, of better morals, and less ambition than the great. [emphasis mine]
And, of course, the Anti-federalists held that any inculcation in the virtues of self-restraint and self-government required a sound and widespread set of religious commitments. Perceiving among a number of the Federalists a skepticism toward religious belief, they noted the Constitution’s silence about God and protections for worship, and argued on behalf of the central role of religion in the maintenance of republican self-government. As the Revolution’s historian Mercy Warren was to write, America ought not to follow the example of Enlightenment Europe on the path toward incipient secularism: “Bent on gratification, at the expense of every moral tie, they have broken down the barriers of religion, and the spirit of infidelity is nourished at the fount; thence the poisonous streams run through every grade that constitutes the mass of nations” (6.14.148).
In their belief that a limited and modest republic could serve as the necessary backdrop for the inculcation of virtue, the Anti-federalists showed themselves to be men of great faith, not men of little faith as Cecilia Kenyon contended nearly 60 years ago. Rejecting the cramped view that “moral and religious motives cannot be relied upon,” the Anti-federalists insisted that virtue was a lived possibility in the small settings of the American confederation, and sought to defend those cradles of civic inculcation against efforts to dissipate their influence and unleash ambition and appetite toward the goal of national glory and “splendor.” If their argument was weaker, as Herbert Storing concluded, it was only because its achievement is always a challenge, never without difficulty. Building higher than the “low but solid ground” of modern philosophy, the Anti-federalists relied upon the inculcation of restraint of appetite and ambition – never an easy task for fallen and sinful mankind.
iii. In contrast to the Framers, whose system sought to encourage the great and ambitious to hold public office, and the superiority of good administration to local rule, the Anti-federalists insisted upon the superiority of the common sense embedded in and derived from the variety of places throughout the confederation. Rather than promoting office-holders from among the group of “speculative men,” the Anti-federalist Melancton Smith commended the homely virtues of ordinary citizens, arguing that they were grounded in modest professions and less likely to be subject to aggrandizing ambition and national glory. Smith argued in favor of what might be called “local knowledge,” or sensus communis, a common and shared stockpile of accumulated wisdom that is derived from the lived experience of people in the places they lived, knew, and loved.
The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives, is that they resemble those they represent; they should 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. The knowledge necessary for the representation of a free people, not only comprehends extensive political and commercial information, such as acquired by men of refined education, who have the leisure to attain to high degrees of improvement, but it should also comprehend that kind of acquaintance with the common concerns and occupations of the people, which men of the middling class of life are in general much better competent to, than those of a superior class. To understand the true commercial interests of a country, not only requires just ideas of the general commerce of the world, but also, and principally, a knowledge of the productions of your own country and their value, what your soil is capable of producing, the nature of your manufacture…, [and more than] an acquaintance with the abstruse parts of the system of finance. [Melancton Smith, 6.12.15]
The Anti-federalists recognized that modern republics required a form of representation, though their theory inclined them to a sympathy with more direct forms of democratic self-governance. To the extent that representation was required, they argued that representatives should be bound closely in ties of friendship and close contact with constituents, and that the opportunity to serve as public servant to one’s fellow citizens should be widely available, namely through shorter terms and rotation in office. Relatively small and coherent districts were strongly supported by the Anti-federalists.
A more numerous legislature composed of “yeomen” lawmakers was therefore one goal of the Anti-federalists, one that would reflect the variety of local circumstance and encourage a strong connection between office-holders and constituents. The New York Anti-federalist Melancton Smith contended that a mutually-reinforcing virtuous cycle would result, in which men of “middling” circumstance would serve in government – and in which frequent rotation would ensure the existence of a large body of civically-minded citizens – that would in turn encourage civic-mindedness among the broader body of citizens. While representatives would naturally be drawn to defending and advancing the interests specific to his particular district, the dynamic interaction and civic trust between representatives and represented meant that there was greater likelihood of discussion and persuasion over public matters – that politics would go beyond the expression of mere interest that was the deepest assumption of modern philosophic assumptions, but instead would in some ways be a form of education about the one’s interests, “rightly understood.”
Representatives must not only speak for the interests of their constituents, but speak to and with them. As the Anti-federalist Brutus agreed, the trust between representative and constituency made it possible for representatives to “mix with the people and explain to them the motives which enduced the adoption of any measure, point out its utility and remove … any unreasonable clamors against it….” By contrast, he feared in the arrangement of the proposed Constitution, with a republic of large extent and few elite representatives, that “the people in general would be acquainted with very few of their rulers: the people at large would know very little of their proceedings, an dit would be extremely difficult to change them.” Increasingly perceiving their government to be distant and unknowable, Brutus argued that the citizenry would eventually “have no confidence in their legislature, suspect them of ambitious views, be jealous of every measure they adopt and not support the laws they pass.” Increasingly perceiving laws to repressions externally imposed – and not self-generated – government would be “foreign” and outside, law would cease to be understood to be self-imposed, and a growing apparatus of external enforcement would become necessary, even to the point, Brutus concluded, that an “armed force [would be needed] to execute laws at the point of a bayonet.”