Gentlemen May Cry…

An Essay on
Anti-Federalism (Part 1 of 3)

In 2012, Citizens United created a Tea-Party-friendly film called, “Our Sacred Honor,” which detailed the period from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the framing of our current Constitution in 1787. While better than most because of its emphasis on moral virtue, this film presented the views of several of today’s right-wing pundits as truth, including the flawed propaganda that the Articles of Confederation failed “to define the relationship between the ‘federal’ government and the States—[that there was] no Presidency, no Executive Branch, no Judicial Branch—a unicameral, (that is a one-house) Congress with each state represented equally, and very little power given to that central authority.” Or as many of us have heard throughout our lives, the Articles of Confederation were too weak a form of government, and a new Constitution was needed that would create a stronger government with more centralized power. The film does present the fact that there were opponents to the 1787 Constitution, but only mentions George Mason as being one of them. Patrick Henry was probably one of the best-known Anti-Federalists, and his cry for Virginians to come to the aid of Massachusetts in 1775 is said to have been the driving force that enabled Americans to unite and win our War for Independence. He was paraphrasing the book of Jeremiah when he said,

“Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”


But just what is an Anti-Federalist, and what did they believe? Simply put, the Anti-Federalists were the “radicals” who wanted to be free of the tyranny of the British Empire, and fought for the right of each of their States to be Sovereign, Free, and Independent. Although their politics varied and they existed in every State, today they would be likened to what our own Department of Homeland Security calls, “right-wing extremists.” But back then, they formed groups like the “Sons of Liberty” and the “Committees of Correspondence” to both stir up trouble and hold the politicians for each of their States accountable to call for an end of colonial subservience to a far-off King and Parliament which neither represented nor respected them. By contrast, it was the loyalists to
the Crown who were considered “conservative.” The loyalist faction did not want to declare independence. In fact, they saw their colonial charters as binding them, as corporations were bound, by the whims of the British King. But once radicals like Samuel Adams got their way and the Declaration of Independence was signed, these same “conservatives” fought tooth and nail for reconciliation with Britain, and a speedy end to the war on unfavorable terms. After the war was over, they did not give up. Their faction (led by James Wilson in the Congress and Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention,) pushed for an all-powerful central government and began laying the groundwork for monarchy to take root again in America. Disliking the fact that sovereignty remained with the States under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the “conservatives” began calling themselves “Federalists” and
pushing for yet another Constitution. Contrary to what we have been told in school, the Articles of Confederation were the first and only American Constitution which adhered to the ideals of a federal republic.

The draft of the Articles was begun in 1776, and though completed in 1778, disagreements over Western land claims (especially on the part of Maryland,) prevented the states from confederating until 1781. It should be noted that Virginia (not Delaware) was the first State to agree to form the Union, and Maryland (not Rhode Island) brought up the rear. We enjoyed seven years, and hence seven Presidents under the Articles of Confederation, as Presidents were merely to do that: preside over the deliberations of Congress. Unlike today, it was not a contest among celebrities—the President was chosen by the Congress from among their own members, and in the tradition of the Roman Republic, was required to relinquish power at the end of one year, being ineligible for re-election for three years thereafter. Many today excuse this away, insisting that a government cannot run successfully with a constant turnover of elected officials, but those same people ignore that Patrick Henry’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, or George Clinton’s terms as Governor of their states were also limited to one year, and their legacies are both great and limited in that capacity. Shorter terms of office and a guaranteed turnover ensures that a greater part of the People will participate in government, and that our elected servants will not become so comfortable in their offices that they forget whom they serve. The founding generation knew that too much power in government was dangerous to liberty, and it is no less true today. All States had to ratify any changes to the Constitution unanimously as well—unlike today, where three-fourths of the States can bind the remainder. Nevertheless, thanks to Thomas Burke who went to Congress in 1777 and would later become Governor of North Carolina (again, a one-year term,) the Articles of Confederation were made whole by the insertion of Article 2, which states unequivocally that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.” A watered-down version of this article would become the 10th Amendment to our current Constitution, but the version in the Articles of Confederation expresses the clear intent of the Declaration of Independence, which also states that “These United Colonies are of right and ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES…and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” Think about those words for a moment. Federalists argued that those words meant the States were only free to do those things together as if they were a single entity. Anti-Federalists rightly dissented from this view, holding each state to be Sovereign on its own. If States were not sovereign, then they had no power to dissolve the Perpetual Union. If States are sovereign, (what Luther Martin called “States AS States,”) then they have the right to alter or abolish their chosen form of government at any time they choose, without having to get permission from on outside power. When you realize that each state signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation separately, and that each State is noted in the Treaty of Paris which ended the War with Britain separately; it should be clear that each State was a sovereign government unto itself. All efforts to combine the States into a single, consolidated government were therefore acts of usurpation.