Men of Great Faith: The Wisdom of the Anti-federalists
Patrick J. Deneen
Periodically there are eruptions of fascination with the disparate group of men who, during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, took the stance of the loyal opposition, resisting the fundamental alteration of the regime that had heretofore been in effect under the Articles of Confederation. In general, while that fascination has been fair to the substance of their arguments, some of its more prominent articulations have tended to be dismissive of the deeper philosophical and political claims of the Anti-federalists.
Two of the major treatments of the Anti-federalists in roughly the past half-century have largely rejected the legitimacy of their criticisms of the proposed Constitution. One well-known critique of the Anti-federalist position was published in 1955 by Cecilia Kenyon, entitled “Men of Little Faith” in which she argued that the Anti-federalists had little faith in the good will of the future rulers of America – that they were too inclined to attribute self-interest as the sole motive of human beings and thus were skeptical of the good of a more central and well-administered government, and hence ultimately small-minded in their inability to grasp the benefits that would redound to the nation as a consequence of adopting the Constitution.
Doubtlessly the most significant publishing event in regards to the Antifederalists was Herbert Storing’s seven-volume collection of their writing, published in 1981 by the University of Chicago Press. Storing’s lengthy introduction of the Anti-federalists remains the best introduction to their thought, but in its final chapter Storing summarily concludes that “the Anti-federalists lost the debate over the Constitution not merely because they were less clever arguers or less skillful politicians but because they had the weaker arguments” (71). Published nearly thirty years apart, two of the most significant interpreters of the Anti-federalists nevertheless largely dismissed their relevance to contemporary politics inasmuch as – here to quote Kenyon – the Anti-federalists were clinging to a theory … that was already becoming obsolete…” (38).
Now, nearly 30 years after the publication of Storing’s monumental scholarly achievement, and about 55 years after Kenyon’s original article, the moment seems ripe for a reconsideration of the arguments, and even prescience of the Anti-federalists, particularly in light of some recent and near-recent events. We are, of course, in the midst of a remarkable national moment, a fundamental reassessment of the role and place of the central government in the lives of American citizens, a massive expansion of the role of the government in the economic and personal affairs of the daily life of the nation, and a reconsideration even of America’s place in the global order, with one real possibility a move toward a new international order that will begin to resemble the aspirations of Kant and neo-Kantians cosmopolitans.
Taking a slightly longer view, for over the past half-century in the United States, and longer still in the wider Western world, the political scene has been divided between partisans of liberalism and conservatism. During those fifty years, conservatives were often in the ascendancy, with conservative gains particularly of note in the United States in the Presidential victories of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, with a pause during the two terms of President Bill Clinton during which arguably many conservative policies were realized. Yet, even during this time of seeming bitter partisan ire and considerable conservative achievement, over that time frame the expansion of what outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the military-industrial” complex has continued unceasingly. The aim of both American parties – irrespective of different means – has been to promote economic growth and to pursue American military predominance in the world. More fundamentally still, both seek, with some different emphases, to expand the modern project of human progress in the sciences and applied technology, extending the human mastery of the world that was the stated aim of one of modernity’s inaugural thinkers, Sir Francis Bacon. Both agree that human happiness is measured by the achievement of “the American Dream,” a dream whose content is often evanescent, but which often tends to mean our material abundance, free movement from place to place, the ownership of a house and two cars, the chance to run in the race for success, the opportunity to “pursue happiness,” a society of meritocracy, mobility and opportunity. To that end, both have recently dedicated themselves to the revival of an economy premised on unending growth and expansion, at whatever cost. For all of the many differences in particulars, which take the form of means, the ends shared by both parties are remarkably similar.
While these developments doubtlessly might lead some to conclude that the arguments of the Anti-federalists are more “obsolete” than ever, by another measure developments of our time make a reconsideration of their views all the more necessary. This is especially so because, some two-hundred and twenty years ago, a great many of these men were fearful of the likely consequences of the adoption of the proposed Constitution. They feared that these consequences would not be immediate, but that, given tendencies within the framework and assumptions of the proposed Constitution, its tendency over time to shape the nation and its citizenry would lead eventually to the evisceration of the basic and essential features of republican self-government in America, and would perhaps even lead to its demise.
One Anti-federalist, “The Impartial Examiner,” sums up best the fears that lie behind many of the criticisms of the proposed Constitution, and should strike us today for its remarkable foresight:
It is next to impossible to enslave a people immediately after a firm struggle against oppression, while the sense of past injury is recent and strong. But after some time this impression wears off against oppression, while the sense of past injury is recent and strong. But after some time this impression naturally wears off – the charms of popular equality, which arose from the republican plan, insensibly decline – the pleasures the advantages derived from the new kind of government grow stale through use. Such declension in all those vigorous springs of action necessarily produce supineness. The alter of liberty is no longer watches with such attentive assiduity; a new train of passions succeeds to the empire of the mind; different objects of desire take place; and if the nation happens to enjoy a series of prosperity, voluptuousness, excessive fondness for riches, and luxury gain admission and establish themselves – these produce venality and corruption of every kind, which opens a fatal avenue to bribery. Hence it follows, that in the midst of this general contagion a few men – or one – more powerful than the others, industriously endeavor to obtain all authority; and by means of great wealth – or embezzling the public money – perhaps totally subvert the government, and erect a system of aristocratical or monarchic tyranny in its room. It is this depravation of manners, this wicked propensity, my dear countrymen, against which you ought to provide the utmost degree of prudence and circumspection.
Particularly in this time when both so-called conservatives and so-called liberals are largely in agreement that the main aim of modern Republicanism is little different than that aim first articulated by Machiavelli and developed further by Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Smith – namely, national glory, power, wealth, growth. and dominion over the natural world – Americans who would attempt to discern some possible divergence from this main project are hard pressed to find potent articulations of a true alternative among today’s major parties. How strange perhaps the words of the Impartial Examiner sound, particularly the use of the words “prosperity” and “luxury” laced with negative connotations when today they are deemed wholly positive! Such strangeness we are well advised to confront and to consider as a way of being shaken from the narrowly conceived political differences of our day, to consider a true and forceful opposition to our predominant worldview. We are well-advised to look at articulations of what might be called a submerged but powerful “alternative tradition” in American – and indeed, Western – political thought, one that was powerfully articulated by the original opponents to the Constitution.