Channelling George Washington: The Return of the Anti-Federalists

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Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“What do you think of the 2010 elections?”

I sensed a wry humor in our first president’s voice. “I get the feeling you’ve already formed an opinion.”

“Of course.  I always enjoy elections.  It’s a wonderful chance to find out what the country is really thinking.  I never pay the slightest attention to those ridiculous people you call pollsters.  The ballot box is the only true test.”

“Do you think the Tea Party enthusiasts had a big impact?”

“Of course they did.  But I think they’re totally misnamed.  Those Yankees who pulled off the Boston Tea Party weren’t trying to influence anybody’s election.  They were starting a revolution. You moderns have no idea how shocked people were in other parts of America by what they did.  That tea was worth a lot of money.  Well over a million dollars in today’s depreciated greenbacks.  Ben Franklin was by no means the only man who thought they ought to pay for it.”
“Ben was so anxious to keep the peace, he offered to pay for it himself.”

“That’s understandable.  He was a Bostonian.  Down in Virginia, we thought it was a flat-out disgrace.  Nobody liked the Yankees in 1773.  They were always so self-righteous and moralistic—while never taking their eyes off  how to make a quick dollar.”

“How did they get to be heroes?”

“We can thank George III and his dimwitted friends for that one.  Their reaction to the tea party was so extreme, they turned everybody, including yours truly, into revolutionists.  They sent in troops and started rewriting the charter of the Massachusetts colony.  No American could tolerate that sort of arrogance.”

“Who do you think the Tea Party people 0f 2010 should have adopted as their heroes?”

“It isn’t a question of adoption.  They can call themselves anything they please.  But it might help to understand they’re anti-Federalists.”

“I have to confess you’ve boggled my mind with that one.”

“Like most people, you’re an admirer of Alex Hamilton and Jemmy Madison—the Constitutionalists.  But in 1787, when that wonderful document was approved at the Convention in Philadelphia and started circulating around the county, Jemmy and Alex weren’t heroes to a lot of people.  They were evil conspirators, out to destroy the central heritage of the Revolution:  LIBERTY!”

“Wait a minute. Weren’t you in favor of the Constitution?”

“That’s the understatement of the millennium.  Of course I was in favor of it.  It was our only hope of remaining a nation.  But I didn’t go out on the hustings and argue for it.  I stayed above the battle.  I thought it was crucial to provide a sense of unity, no matter what happened next.  Through a combination of fate and luck, I’d emerged from the Revolution as some sort of symbol.  I didn’t want to damage that, in case we had to fall back on it.  Thank goodness it didn’t come to that.”

“Tell us what the anti-Federalists stood for.”

“They were passionately hostile to power.  Especially presidential power.  I’ll never forget the moment in the Constitutional Convention when one of Jemmy Madison’s allies, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, moved that the new nation’s executive should consist of “a single person.”  A long uneasy silence followed.  You could almost hear a lot of teeth grinding.”

“What about congressional power?”

“For some strange reason, the anti-Federalists remained blind to congressional power, which I considered then—and now—a lot more dangerous.  I see the presidency as an antidote to that disease.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because when Congress goes awry, no one can be held responsible.  The great thing about the presidency is, the man or woman in that seat can’t evade responsibility.  But anti-Federalists couldn’t see that back in 1787.  To them the president was a king in a clever disguise.  That obscured everything else.”

“What else did the anti-Feds believe?”

“Government is always corrupt.  It’s much too influenced by the rich.  Or by people who want to seize power and use it to get rich.  That was another reason why they didn’t want to surrender any power to a federal government.”

“All politics is local?”

“That’s what they want to believe.  But American politics is both. That’s the genius of our system.  We combined the three types of politics that had evolved since the Greeks—rule by one man, by a few men, or by the people.  No one had figured out how the people could govern a big country.  America was already big in 1787 – we had one thousand miles of seacoast and thirteen semi-independent states.  That was the genius of Jemmy Madison—he saw how to combine rule by one and the many in a single package.”

“What else did the anti-Federalists believe?”

“A lot of them thought we should have an explicit bill of rights.  Jemmy Madison didn’t think so.  Neither did Ham.  I confess I didn’t see a need for one, either.  But Jemmy agreed to present a bill to our first Congress.  It was voted into law and I signed it.  That may well be the anti-Federalists great contribution to the our federal government.”

“What happened to the anti-Federalists?”

“They realized they needed a better name.  So they called themselves Republicans, and chose Tom Jefferson as their leader.  But their tendency to talk about being the voice of the people eventually led to calling themselves Democrats.”

“They didn’t go away?”

“They’ve never gone away.  They’ve been with us through two centuries.  Every so often their descendants erupt and call for more liberty at the local level.  They yell about not being in charge of their lives.”

“Do you think that’s a good thing?”

“On the whole, I do.  Liberty is always what America has been about.  But it can easily get out of hand.  In the nineteenth century, some extreme Democrats refused to use the Post Office.  They thought it was a dangerous example of federal power.  More recently another group of anti-Federalist descendants has coalesced around the right to carry a gun.  Home schoolers also have anti-Federalist instincts.” 

“It’s an argument that isn’t going to go away.”

“Nope.  It helps if we recognize it—and learn to deal with it.  We should never forget anti-Federalists are Americans, too.”

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