The first thing you notice about Gary L. Gregg and Aaron N. Coleman’s new editions of federal and anti-federal writings is that they look like a Bible. Its dimensions, its pretty black leather cover and its gold-plated lettering make it look like it should be hidden under the arm of a Baptist on Sunday morning.
And maybe there is something to it. After all, the federalist has often been treated as a kind of Bible of American constitutionalism. While most types of American civil religion elevate the Declaration of Independence to the status of sacred text, it is gullible to present this document as the interpretive key to the Constitution (although that doesn’t prevent some from trying). However, the federalist has long served as the authoritative source for the meaning and underlying assumptions of the Constitution, as well as for some of the expectations of its drafters. This is sometimes overrated, but if America’s Constitution and political institutions need their own “Bible” you could do a lot worse than The Federalist.
Gregg and Coleman do us better, however. In Reflection and Choice, they helped reestablish the debate on studying ratification. The federalist essays are divided into 14 sections based on the conceptual topics discussed, and each section contains excerpts from major anti-federalist writings on these topics. This not only allows for a context that helps us better understand the federalists, but also criticism that helps us see its limits.
Often times, the anti-federalist “context” is little more than the identification of the pocket that the federalists have hit. (“Anti-federalists argued x. Publius showed …”) But here we see serious concerns and meaningful arguments that continue to hold water. The anti-federalists have often overestimated the dangers of the Constitution as it was written and ascribed to the federalists motives that none of them had. Some of them also show a measure of naivety in their desire for a simple, small, virtuous republic. But it cannot be denied that even if their terrible predictions seemed exaggerated at the time, they bear a resemblance to the problems that have arisen in the centuries that have followed.
Consider one of the concerns of “Centinel”. Given his reliance on the Senate for appointments and the ability of Congress to “control” elections, it would be in his best interest to turn to the Senate and never use his veto power to become “the boss” of this aristocratic junto . “That didn’t happen. But what was this about? These” controls in government “can prove to be” only nominal “when a branch has no” propensity to exercise. ” [its] Privilege. “” The appearance of checks can remain, but without operation.
Within a few years of ratification, the Democratic-Republican heirs of the anti-federalists would read the constitution cautiously, while the federalists insisted on broad construction and nebulous powers.
While it doesn’t look like Centinel predicted, hasn’t something similar happened as a result of the organized political party? Publius believed that the constitution provided appropriate “personal motives” by combining the “man’s interest” with the “constitutional rights of the place.” But the allure of power requires combination and collaboration when necessary, and a president who is bound by established political ties to a majority in the Senate is far more powerful than a fully independent president. If a modern president is in the same party as the legislature, isn’t he in some ways similar to Centinel’s “chief of the aristocratic junto”?
And of course this example does not even address the most prescient insight of the anti-federalists regarding the encroachment on federal power.
Involving the anti-federalists also helps us to better understand the (rightly) better known federalist. Think how Brutus’s first letter helps clarify the famous Federalist # 10 argument. Brutus expresses concern about the possibility of real representation of the people in a great republic:
If the people are to consent to the laws of persons chosen and appointed by them, the nature of the election and the number chosen must be such that they possess, dispose, and consequently be qualified to explain the feelings of the people. . . . Now, in a great sprawling country, it is impossible to have [such] a representation. . . without having it [too] numerous and unwieldy [sic].
Furthermore, insofar as such a country could represent its people, it could not draw common conclusions:
In a republic, the manners, feelings and interests of the people should be similar. If this is not the case, there will be constant differences of opinion. and the representatives of one part will continually strive against those of the other. This will delay the business of government and prevent conclusions from being drawn that advance the common good.
We can quickly observe the tension with Madison’s expanded Republic thesis. What Brutus does not see is that the “similar” feelings and opinions in the small republic are often characteristic of factions that rule their will over the few that do not share them. But does Brutus also see something that Publius does not see? After all, Madison’s famous essay does not exactly address the primary anti-federalist concern – that the government of a great republic cannot properly represent the interests of the people or do the common good.
We might then be asked to peek past # 10 for Publius’ response to that objection, where Madison addresses this concern more directly in Federalist # 56: “It is a solid and important principle that the agent should be familiar with the interests and circumstances of their constituents. However, this principle cannot extend beyond the circumstances and interests to which the agent’s authority and care relate. “He continues to emphasize the limited nature of the national powers. Federal government officials do not need to be familiar with the details of the daily life of their constituents, but only because they will not make decisions on such local matters.
Madison’s full response to Brutus, therefore, was not simply that big republics are better, but that the great republic provides the opportunity for the composite federal system that offers the possibility that we could have the best of both worlds: a federal government largely devoid of factional sentiments tackling the most pressing common concerns of it all, while the day-to-day governance needs are met by representatives of smaller republics who truly reflect the opinions of their constituents. But it only works if we are serious about federal borders. (So much for that.)
45 essays separate # 10 from # 56 so the first-time reader is unlikely to put these two together. However, reading the Federalist in the light of Brutus ‘criticism could lead to a more thorough search for Publius’ answer and help make connections that would otherwise be hidden.
If we look at both sides together, we could also draw attention to the ironic reversal that would take place within a decade of ratification. Anti-federalists saw dangers in the seemingly unlimited powers of the constitution, its monarchical presidency and its nationalization tendencies. The federalists assured them of their limited character, the distribution of their powers and the continued central role of the states. Within a few years, the Democratic-Republican heirs of the anti-federalists would read the Constitution in this reluctant way, while the federalists insisted on a broad construction and nebulous powers. A dynamic approach to constitutional interpretation as dictated by political necessity is nothing new.
Gregg and Coleman also provided useful introductions and a series of “Questions for Our Times” for each conceptual section to help students work through the nuances of the arguments and identify their current relevance.
This volume helps the reader approach the ratification debates with the context that reveals the broader meaning of famous ideas. It also promotes appreciation for a divergent tradition in American political thought. Perhaps the best the American founding has to offer is not sacred text at all, but lively debate.