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To a very great extent, it was the Anti-Federalists, through their rhetoric and writings, who kept alive the spirit of localism and salvaged the great ideal of limited government inherited from the Revolution…

The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 by Saul Cornell (University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

other founders saul cornellThe Anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution have not fared well among American historians and political scientists. Nothing reveals more starkly the near-complete disinterest in Anti-Federalist thought than a bibliographical check of books and essays on the Constitution and the American political tradition published since the late nineteenth century. With the exception of Jonathan Elliot’s Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Constitution (1836), which contains an assortment of letters and speeches by some of the Anti-Federalists in nine of the State ratifying conventions, and Paul Leicester Ford’s limited selection of Anti-Federalist tracts in his Pamphlets on the Constitution (1888) and Essays on the Constitution (1892), only a handful of Anti-Federalist writings have been available to the modem reader; and scholarly studies of the Anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution have been virtually non-existent.

The noted historian, Cecelia M. Kenyon, probably spoke for most of her profession when, in a highly touted article published in 1955, she dismissed the Anti-Federalists as misguided provocateurs, or “men of little faith,” who opposed the national democracy that had become the quintessential feature of American government, the assumption being that they deserved to be relegated to obscurity.

It is not difficult to understand why these “enemies of the Constitution” were often maligned as curious misfits. Americans love an underdog, but not a loser. In the struggle over the adoption of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were defeated in every State ratifying convention except North Carolina’s—and after a second convention they lost there too. Then they promptly vanished from the American political scene, never to be seen again. The possibility that such a spasmodic event as Anti-Federalism could have exerted any lasting influence on the American political tradition seemed remote indeed. Added to this, their ideas and insights, even their prophesies, most of them scattered in old newspapers and recondite pamphlets, were soon forgotten. Lacking the organization and leadership of their opponents, the Anti-Federalists failed to produce a political or constitutional treatise that could match the appeal and substance of The Federalist. When Ford published his modest collection of Anti-Federalist Pamphlets on the Constitution in 1882, there were already twenty-nine editions of The Federalist extant, the first dating all the way back to 1788. To appreciate the original meaning and purpose of the Constitution, and virtually every clause in it, generations of Americans had worshiped The Federalist like hot gospel. But who was reading the blasphemous essays of “Brutus,” the Letters of a Federal Farmer to the Republican, or any of the other Anti-Federalist writings on the Constitution that contradicted the sacred text of St. Publius?

What really doomed Anti-Federalism, however, was the doctrine of States’ Rights that sprang from it. This was not evident at first, for the Anti-Federalists emerged from the struggle over ratification with a commitment from the Federalists to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. As the defenders of State sovereignty, strict construction, and decentralization, the Anti-Federalists achieved these ends, and more, in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was adopted. Though its original purpose has been grossly distorted over the years, particularly by the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights was understood at its inception as a States’ Rights document, one that assured the States that they would continue to exercise exclusive jurisdiction, as they had under the Articles of Confederation, over most civil liberties disputes between a State and its citizens.

But the Bill of Rights was the only victory of the Anti-Federalists in their campaign to clarify and limit the new Federal power—achieved, ironically enough, after they had disbanded and gone home. All of the other States’ Rights doctrines they espoused were ultimately trampled to death on Civil War battlefields, repudiated by the Supreme Court, or denounced by Congress as a subterfuge for the protection of slavery or racial segregation. Judged by their record of success in American constitutional history, the Anti-Federalists, it would seem, have been thoroughly discredited by their relationship to States’ Rightists, and have about as much stature and relevancy as the Anti-Masons.

Fortunately, this picture is changing, and there has been a noticeable resurgence of interest in Anti-Federalist thought since Professor Kenyon delivered her requiem. In addition to important contributions from Jackson Turner Main, Alpheus T. Mason, and Walter Bennett, we now have The Complete Anti-Federalist (1981), a seven volume collection of Anti-Federalist writings edited by the late Herbert Storing.

Although we may rightfully quarrel with some of Storing’s interpretations of these documents, there is no denying that he has revolutionized the study of the Constitution by showing that the Anti-Federalists must be consulted along with the Federalists in seeking an understanding of the American founding. Expanding on Storing’s thesis, M.E. Bradford went one step further in his Original Intentions, which persuasively argues that the original understanding of the Constitution derives not simply from the collective intent of the delegates to the Federal Convention, but also from the multifaceted intentions of those who participated in the State ratifying conventions. More recently, Christopher M. Duncan, a political scientist at Mississippi State, has challenged many of the popular misconceptions about Anti-Federalism in his work on The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought (1995), which contends, much in the tradition of John Taylor of Caroline, that the Anti-Federalists were the true representatives of the American Revolution.

But what of the legacy of Anti-Federalism after all the shouting stopped and the country returned to business as usual under the newly adopted Constitution? It has commonly been assumed that the Anti-Federalist heartbeat dropped off the screen, ratification of the Constitution signaling the last blip. From 1789 to 1800, however, when the Federalists enjoyed a monopoly of power and controlled all three branches of the central government, there were faint yet familiar Anti-Federalist murmurs of discontent-declamations against consolidation, inordinate executive and judicial power, and alleged encroachments on the reserved powers of the States. Victorious in the elections of 1800 as Jeffersonian Republicans, the Anti-Federalists had changed their name but not their stance.

As Saul Cornell amply demonstrates in this well-written, carefully researched study of the Anti-Federalist mind, the Anti-Federalists continued to influence political and constitutional debate in the new republic well into the nineteenth century. To a very great extent, it was the Anti-Federalists, through their rhetoric and writings, who kept alive the spirit of localism and salvaged the great ideal of limited government inherited from the Revolution. The Other Founders is thus a fresh and much-welcomed reinterpretation of the role played by Anti-Federalism in the evolution of a dissenting tradition of political and constitutional thought that extends down to the present.

Unfortunately, the scope of the book is arbitrarily limited to a period of just forty years. The first part of the study covers the public debate over the adoption of the Constitution in 1788 and the wide-ranging varieties of constitutional thought expressed in prominent Anti-Federalist tracts. From here Cornell takes the reader into the Anti-Federalist struggle against Hamilton’s financial schemes and the Alien and Sedition Acts, ending with the effort by Jefferson and Madison to forge a constitutional barrier to Federal usurpations with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. The final section of this important study discusses the evolution of a dissenting tradition of constitutionalism based on Anti-Federalist ideas in the period 1800-1828.

One of Cornell’s most significant and original contributions to our understanding of this extended debate over the meaning of the Constitution in the formative era is his treatment of Robert Yates’s Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Federal Convention, published in 1821, and John Taylor of Caroline’s New Views of the Constitution, which came out in 1823 in response to Yates. As the reader will recall, the Federal Convention of 1787 was held in secrecy, and public knowledge of the intent of the Framers was, for more than three decades, limited to the wording of the document, hearsay, and fragmentary references to some of the debates that were occasionally uttered by a few of the delegates who sat in the Convention.

In keeping with the rule of secrecy they had agreed upon, Madison and the other delegates who recorded the proceedings declined to publish their notes, and the only original sources available besides the Constitution itself were scattered proceedings of a few State ratifying conventions. None of the Anti-Federalist pamphlets were reprinted, and interested parties were compelled to rely almost exclusively on the essays in The Federalist for an understanding of the reasoning behind many provisions of the Constitution.

All of this changed, as Cornell properly notes, when Congress broke the secrecy agreement and ordered publication of the Convention Journal in 1819. Yates’s notes, which included Luther Martin’s important pamphlet opposing the Constitution, entitled The Genuine Information, were published a few years later. Taking these materials, and comparing them with interpretations of the Constitution offered by Publius in 1788, John Taylor quickly produced his New Views of the Constitution, an analysis of the early debates in Philadelphia contending rather persuasively that The Federalist was a politically biased work that favored more consolidation than the Framers had agreed upon. Although he acknowledges the significance of Taylor’s work, Cornell observes that the publication of Yates’s notes “facilitated a revival of interest in Anti-Federalist ideas,” and “became a key text for commentators seeking to formulate an alternative to the Marshall Court’s theory of federalism.” He seems less aware that Taylor’s book aroused as much, if not more, interest in the true intent of the Framers, and that Taylor encouraged a number of Southern thinkers, including Calhoun, to take a more critical view of the rampant nationalism that had by this time captured the mind and imagination of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Cornell’s The Other Founders is recommended reading for any Southern Partisan seeking a greater understanding of Anti-Federalism and the historical roots of the States’ Rights tradition in the early republic. The discriminating reader will find, however, that the book falls somewhat short of expectation.

The author assumes without argument that the Federalists won just about every battle in 1787 and overlooks the triumphs of the States’ Rightists in the Federal Convention. Anti-Federalism was a continuation of the debate that began in the Continental Congress, if not earlier. It exerted a powerful force in the Convention and was not, as this study seems to imply, an entirely new theory of government that suddenly erupted during the ratification struggle.

A more serious shortcoming is the author’s failure to probe the Anti-Federalist writings that he presents for discussion. Cornell is an Assistant Professor of History at Ohio State University whose scholarly attributes, as this book indicates, are considerable. Like so many members of his profession, however, he has a proclivity to report events, assemble facts, and describe the political literature of the period without actually examining the merits of a particular work, let alone taking a stand. Objectivity is a virtue, but carried to an extreme is more likely to produce superficiality than superior scholarship.

Crucial to an understanding and appreciation of the Anti-Federalist or States’ Rights interpretation of the Constitution are the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and  Madison’s Report of 1800. The author dutifully profiles the basic principles embodied in these documents—the compact theory of the union, nullification, and State sovereignty—but never pauses to examine their substantive content or venture an informed opinion as to their accuracy or merit. Similarly, he ignores Taylor’s often brilliant and original insights into the calculated misrepresentations of Federal power that have been artfully concealed in The Federalist, and thus misses a unique opportunity to walk the reader through Taylor’s A New View of the Constitution and identify its strengths and weaknesses.

In short, the reader will finish this book with barely a clue about the validity of Anti-Federalism. In these and other respects, The Other Founders is not a definitive work, but a prolegomenon to further study of the Anti-Federalist and States’ Rights traditions.

Not the least disconcerting is Cornell’s Epilogue which argues that the Anti-Federalist legacy in the twentieth century is evident in both the left wing and conservative movements of our time, “in the rhetoric of Barry Goldwater’s Republican Party and Tom Hayden’s Students for a Democratic Society.” The author concedes that “Neither of these movements conceptualized its agenda in terms directly borrowed from Anti-Federalist writing.” He insists nevertheless that “resonances of a distinctively Anti-Federalist vision of politics can be detected in both. Goldwater and SDS both grappled with the structure of power within an increasingly centralized federal system. Then rather different critiques of centralized authority seemed to capture the same disparate ideals that led elite and popular elements of the Anti-Federalist coalition to oppose the Constitution more than two hundred years ago.”

Alas, the poor fellow blurs the distinction between form and substance, and leaves the reader wondering whether the author really grasps the essence and meaning of his subject. To attribute Anti-Federalist sympathies to a radical leftist like Tom Hayden merely because he defied authority is to misunderstand the values pursued by both the Anti-Federalists and the Tom Haydens of this world. One might just as well claim that the French and American revolutions came from the same cloth because they both contended against centralized power. Elementary principles of political theory, it must be admitted, are strangers to this book.

Despite its faults, The Other Founders is a pioneering achievement that promises to arouse interest in Anti-Federalism and States’ Rights. The book is informative and remarkably free of anti-Southern bias. Rare qualities, these, in our time. On these grounds alone, it would seem, The Other Founders is well worth the price of admission.

Republished with gracious permission from The Abbeville Review (September 2018). This essay was originally published in the First Quarter 2000 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.

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4 replies to this post
  1. In being an anti-federalist, there is a great degree of value for the long-standing federal system. Without the anti-federalist vigilance and argumentation of the past, if not present, the United States would have a more politically fractured and/or despotic legacy. The Constitution was drafted several times within the raw intensity of comprehensive debate, which was critical to the instituted elements of civil rights, balance of power among branches, and checks/balances.

  2. There is no doubt in my mind that, had I been around in 1787, I would have been a die-hard Anti-Federalist. I’d say that many of the “conservatives” who always tout the divinely inspired greatness of this document would have been, as well, actually. The Anti-Federalists were localists, republicans, and believers in the American colonial heritage who perceived the radical assault on their tradition by classically liberal elitists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison at the Philadelphia Convention. Though the document was, thankfully, somewhat salvaged by good Americans (such as Roger Sherman) from the centralists at the Convention, it nonetheless still had as its foundation abstractions and speculations instead of the lived-experience of the colonial Americans. We’d have been better off had the delegates followed their actual mandate of revising the Articles of Confederation, and we may have even been spared the gruesome and destructive Civil War that led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans.

    I’ve read Christopher Duncan’s book, mentioned in this essay, and I found it to be very informative and quite good. There is a republican tradition in America that people can turn to should they desire to reject the liberal project. But it is not found with Hamilton or Madison, who favored massive centralization of national power in the name of protecting individual rights. The republican tradition is better expressed by Anti-Federalists such as Melancton Smith, Patrick Henry, and George Mason, each of whom understood that people flourish when politics is close to them.

  3. I don’t believe one can have a complete understanding of the development of the Constitution without studying the Anti-Federalists Papers. What’s a shame is how the law schools totally neglect studying the Federalist Papers and merely skim them and their history.

    Justice Scalia believed in to get the original meaning of the Constitution one should not depend on the Federalist Papers, the minutes of the ratification conventions, but the meaning of the words as to how the common people of the time would understand what the meanings of the words and phrases meant. That is covered so very well in a couple of his speeches which are available in the excellent book, ”Scalia Speaks”.

  4. Yes to Gordon Arnold above. We might even have been spared Jim crow in the 20th and BLM in the 21st century if only Madison had let go of that 3 fifths and fugitive slave clauses.

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