Dickinson’s Purse and Sword

A lesser known founding father is John Dickinson, but he should be more well known considering how important he was at the time. His politics could today be described as moderate conservatism or maybe status quo liberalism. During conflict with the British Empire, he hoped the colonial leaders would seek reconciliation. Yet even as he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, not based on principle but prudence, he didn’t stand in the way of those who supported it. And once war was under way, he served in the revolutionary armed forces. After that, he was a key figure in developing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

Although a Federalist, he was highly suspicious of nationalism, the two being distinguished at the time. It might be noted that, if not for losing the war of rhetoric, the Anti-Federalists would be known as Federalists for they actually wanted a functioning federation. Indeed, Dickinson made arguments that are more Anti-Federalist in spirit. An example of this is his warning against a centralized government possessing both purse and sword, that is to say a powerful government that has both a standing army and the means of taxation to fund it without any need of consent of the governed. That is what the Articles protected against and the Constitution failed to do.

That warning remains unheeded to this day. And so the underlying issue remains silenced, the conflict and tension remains unresolved. The lack of political foresight and moral courage was what caused the American Revolution, the problems (e.g., division of power) arising in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution still being problems generations later. The class war and radical ideologies from the 17th century led to the decades of political strife and public outrage prior to the official start of the American Revolution. But the British leadership hoped to continue to suppress the growing unrest, similar to how present American leadership hopes for the same and probably with the same eventual result.

What is interesting is how such things never go away and how non-radicals like Dickinson can end up giving voice to radical ideas. The idea of the purse strings being held by a free people, i.e., those taxed having the power of self-governance to determine their own taxation,  is not that far off from Karl Marx speaking of workers controlling the means of production — both implying that a society is only free to the degree people are free. Considering Dickinson freed the slaves he inherited, even a reluctant revolutionary such as himself could envision the radicalism of a free people.

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On a related thought, one of the most radical documents, of course, was Thomas Jefferson’s strongly worded Declaration of Independence. It certainly was radical when it was written and, as with much else from that revolutionary era, maintains its radicalism to this day.

The Articles of Confederation, originally drafted by Dickinson, were closely adhering to the guiding vision of the Declaration.  Even though Dickinson was against declaring independence until all alternatives had been exhausted, once independence had been declared he was very much about following a course of moral principle as set down by that initial revolutionary document.

Yet the Constitution, that is the second constitution after the Articles, was directly unconstitutional and downright authoritarian according to the Articles.  The men of the Constitutional Convention blatantly disregarded their constitutional mandate in their having replaced the Articles without constitutional consensus and consent, that is to say it was a coup (many of the revolutionary soldiers didn’t take this coup lightly and continued the revolutionary war through such acts as Shay’s Rebellion, which was violently put down by the very Federal military that the Anti-Federalists warned about).

But worse still, the Constitution ended up being a complete betrayal of the Declaration which set out the principles that justified a revolution in the first place. As Howard Schartz put it:

“The Declaration itself, by contrast, never envisioned a Federal government at all. Ironically, then, if one wants to see the political philosophy of the United States in the Declaration of Independence, one should theoretically be against any form of federal government and not just for a particular interpretation of its limited powers.”
(Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 5375-5378)

It does seem that the contradiction bothered Dickinson. But he wasn’t a contrarian by nature, much less a rabblerouser. Once it was determined a new constitution was going to be passed, he sought the best compromise he saw as possible, although on principle he still refused to show consent by being a signatory. As for Jefferson, whether or not he ever thought the Constitution was a betrayal of the Declaration, he assumed any constitution was an imperfect document and that no constitution would or should last beyond his own generation.

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Letters from a Farmer
Letter IX

No free people ever existed, or can ever exist, without keeping, to use a common, but strong expression, “the purse strings,” in their own hands. Where this is the case, they have a constitutional check upon the administration, which may thereby be brought into order without violence: But where such a power is not lodged in the people, oppression proceeds uncontrolled in its career, till the governed, transported into rage, seek redress in the midst of blood and confusion.

Letter II

Nevertheless I acknowledge the proceedings of the convention furnish my mind with many new and strong reasons, against a complete consolidation of the states. They tend to convince me, that it cannot be carried with propriety very far—that the convention have gone much farther in one respect than they found it practicable to go in another; that is, they propose to lodge in the general government very extensive powers—powers nearly, if not altogether, complete and unlimited, over the purse and the sword. But, in its organization, they furnish the strongest proof that the proper limbs, or parts of a government, to support and execute those powers on proper principles (or in which they can be safely lodged) cannot be formed. These powers must be lodged somewhere in every society; but then they should be lodged where the strength and guardians of the people are collected. They can be wielded, or safely used, in a free country only by an able executive and judiciary, a respectable senate, and a secure, full, and equal representation of the people. I think the principles I have premised or brought into view, are well founded—I think they will not be denied by any fair reasoner. It is in connection with these, and other solid principles, we are to examine the constitution. It is not a few democratic phrases, or a few well formed features, that will prove its merits; or a few small omissions that will produce its rejection among men of sense; they will inquire what are the essential powers in a community, and what are nominal ones; where and how the essential powers shall be lodged to secure government, and to secure true liberty.

Letter III

When I recollect how lately congress, conventions, legislatures, and people contended in the cause of liberty, and carefully weighed the importance of taxation, I can scarcely believe we are serious in proposing to vest the powers of laying and collecting internal taxes in a government so imperfectly organized for such purposes. Should the United States be taxed by a house of representatives of two hundred members, which would be about fifteen members for Connecticut, twenty-five for Massachusetts, etc., still the middle and lower classes of people could have no great share, in fact, in taxation. I am aware it is said, that the representation proposed by the new constitution is sufficiently numerous; it may be for many purposes; but to suppose that this branch is sufficiently numerous to guard the rights of the people in the administration of the government, in which the purse and sword are placed, seems to argue that we have forgotten what the true meaning of representation is. I am sensible also, that it is said that congress will not attempt to lay and collect internal taxes; that it is necessary for them to have the power, though it cannot probably be exercised. I admit that it is not probable that any prudent congress will attempt to lay and collect internal taxes, especially direct taxes: but this only proves that the power would be improperly lodged in congress, and that it might be abused by imprudent and designing men.

Letter XVII

It is said, that as the federal head must make peace and war, and provide for the common defense, it ought to possess all powers necessary to that end: that powers unlimited, as to the purse and sword, to raise men and monies, and form the militia, are necessary[168] to that end; and, therefore, the federal head ought to possess them. This reasoning is far more specious than solid: it is necessary that these powers so exist in the body politic, as to be called into exercise whenever necessary for the public safety; but it is by no means true, that the man, or congress of men, whose duty it more immediately is to provide for the common defense, ought to possess them without limitation. But clear it is, that if such men, or congress, be not in a situation to hold them without danger to liberty, he or they ought not to possess them. It has long been thought to be a well-founded position, that the purse and sword ought not to be placed in the same hands in a free government. Our wise ancestors have carefully separated them—placed the sword in the hands of their king, even under considerable limitations, and the purse in the hands of the commons alone: yet the king makes peace and war, and it is his duty to provide for the common defense of the nation. This authority at least goes thus far—that a nation, well versed in the science of government, does not conceive it to be necessary or expedient for the man entrusted with the common defense and general tranquility, to possess unlimitedly the powers in question, or even in any considerable degree.

You might be an Anti-Federalist and not know it

If you’re an American who doesn’t know what the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were fighting about or doesn’t even know that such a fight happened, you need to immediately learn about it.

The actual debates framed in these terms began during the American Revolution. But the larger debate had been going on in the American colonies since the English Civil War, the time when a king was beheaded long before the French Revolution. The revolution as a struggle had been happening for generations prior to the official revolution. It was a fight that took its most clear form against colonial elites in conflicts such as the War of Regulation, turned into revolution against imperialism and elitism during the American Revolution, and then continued to flare up after the revolution in struggles against continued injustice and oppression as seen with Shay’s Rebellion and the slave revolts.

Right from the beginning, it divided the country into two factions that at times fought almost as ruthlessly with one another as they had done with the British soldiers. A two party system formed out of it, something many of the founders wanted to avoid and saw as a sign of failure. The debate and struggle of power would continue, the last founders living long enough to see the growing conflicts that would eventually overtake the country during the Civil War.

It was far more than a war of words, but words matter because they are powerful in shaping our minds. It is through words that we know the past which determines how we are able to envision the future. This old debate is at the heart of every conflict in US history, not even primarily a fight between the left and right. The revolution never ended. It just constantly took new forms and was fought on new battlefields. It was less violent at times, but it has never gone dormant.

The first thing to know about this is a point of confusion. The Anti-Federalists were the strongest supporters of Federalism. But they lost the war of rhetoric, partly because the (pseudo-)Federalists smashed their printing presses and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, basically making free speech illegal only years after free speech was used to win the revolution.

The Anti-Federalists (AKA the real Federalists) warned about many things that have since come to pass. Many of their predictions were proven true even in their lifetime, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Anti-Federalists were trying to prevent the problems before they happened. But the oligarchic (pseudo-)Federalists didn’t see concentrated wealth and power as a problem, as many of them wanted a ruling elite to act similarly to the British monarchy and aristocracy.

Here is the tricky part. Obviously, the Anti-Federalists lost power and that is why we have the present dysfunctional political system. It is easier to prevent problems than to solve them after they’ve been entrenched for centuries. Regaining the original Anti-Federalist vision that inspired the American Revolution and founded a new nation is much more difficult because almost all memory of it has been written out of the mainstream history books, censored from political debate, and so erased from public memory.

A good first step would be for more people to simply learn about it. There is no way for Americans to fight for freedom and liberty, justice and fairness when they lack comprehension of what those values mean within the American tradition. Those values were betrayed. The Anti-Federalists can help Americans understand why that happened and what was lost.

The voice and echo of the Anti-Federalists was heard…

When Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty or give me death”… When Paine advocated for a basic income in compensation for the privatization of the commons… When women voted in New Jersey right after the American Revolution… When the citizens of Vermont abolished slavery almost a hundred years before the rest of the country…

When Lincoln stated that, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital”… When FDR pushed for a Second Bill of Rights… When Eisenhower warned of the Military-Industrial Complex…

When Thoreau went to prison for not paying taxes that supported war of aggression… When Darrow fought for the separation of church and state within public education… When Debs spoke out for the working man… When MLK demanded freedom and justice for all…

When third party candidates such as Nader have challenged the two-party stranglehold… When the largest protest movement in world history formed to oppose the Iraq War, a war of aggression, before it even began… When Americans desecrate symbols of oppression and violence… When Americans demand their forces be heard as authoritarianism threatens…

And on and on. It continues.

We Anti-Federalists are still here. And we will go on reminding our fellow Americans what real Federalism is about. If you believe in a free democratic society, if you support basic human rights and civil liberties, if you oppose injustice and oppression, then you might be an Anti-Federalist and not know it.

Join the revolution! But remember, the revolution begins in the mind.

By What Right?

Quo warranto.

It’s part of obscure legal terminology. Literally, it translates as “by what warrant”. It is a legal formulation that questions authority in ruling over others, acting in an official manner, demanding compliance, claiming ownership, possessing economic benefits, making use of natural resources, declaring rights, etc. More than anything, it’s the last in the list that is most relevant to the modern mind. By what right?

Quo warranto has a specific legal meaning based on almost a millennia of Anglo-American history. But the idea itself is quite basic and intuitive, not to mention more broad and older (such as settling territorial disputes in the ancient world, “Do you not possess that which Chemosh, your god, has given into your possession? And shall we not possess that which our God has given into our possession?”; Judg. 11:24). This question of authority is at the heart of every challenge to anyone who has demanded or denied something to another. It’s an issue of what kinds and what basis of rights, who gets them and who enforces them.

Every teenager implicitly understands this, an age when arbitrary power becomes clear and burdensome. This sense of unfairness is far from limited to teenagers, though. It concerns every person who was ever taxed without representation, enslaved, indentured, debt bondaged, imprisoned, tortured, sentenced to death, had their land taken away, made homeless, put in a reservation or ghetto or camp (concentration camp, internment camp, or refugee camp)—anyone who felt disempowered and disenfranchised, who experienced power that was unjust and abusive, oppressive and overreaching.

Even the powerful sometimes find themselves demanding by what authority something is being done to them or to what they own. Such as governments forced to deal with revolts and revolutions, kings who have been deposed and sometimes beheaded, politicians confronted by mobs and protesters, and company owners having their businesses shut down by strikers. Authority ultimately is enforced by power and power comes in many forms, typically from above but sometimes from below. Of course, in a real or aspiring democracy, the issue of quo warranto takes on new meaning.

In the United States, quo warranto is most well known in its form as states rights. The history of this involves the secession and Civil War, Native American treaties and land theft, the American Revolution and early colonial relations with the British Parliament and Crown. As such, states rights are directly related to charter rights, as the colonies all had official charters and sometimes were operated as corporations. Charter organizations were once a far different kind of political and economic entity.

The later states of the United States were no longer treated as having charters for, in the early US, they were considered the ultimate source of authority as representatives of the people, not the federal government. It was (and still is) the role of states, instead, to give out charters—and, based on past British experience of the sometimes oppressive abuse of charters, the early states were extremely wary about giving out charters and extremely restrictive in the charters they did give. They wanted to be clear by whose authority charters were upheld or revoked.

This is a long way off from the origins of quo warranto. It first became a serious legal precedent in English law with King Edward I. His actions in challenging particular charters inadvertently helped to institutionalize those and other charters, specifically Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Initially, his focus was on the charters of boroughs, in their self-governance which at the time meant rule by local aristocracy.

This related to feudalism, the commons, and the rights of commoners—as they developed over the centuries. Feudalism formed the basis of later corporatism that became so important during the colonial era. Also, the notion of rights transformed over time as well. The commoners had their rights in relation to the commons. Once the commons were enclosed and privatized, the commoners became landless serfs. This led to centuries of social upheaval, from the English Civil War to the American Revolution.

When the first colonies were established, they quickly began to grow. England had to come to terms with its developing role as an empire. What were the rights of Englishmen as related to the rights of imperial subjects, Englishmen and otherwise. Many colonists sought to maintain rights of Englishmen while some in power sought to take them away. There was the additional problem that an increasing number of British and colonial citizens were not ethnically English. They were also Welsh, Scottish, and Irish; French, German, and Dutch—not to mention enslaved Africans and native populations.

Empire building is messy and complicated. If you want to rule over people, you have to justify your rule to compel compliance. Empires before had faced this dilemma, such as the Roman Empire, which eventually led a Roman emperor to declare all free inhabitants (no matter ethnicity, religion, or place of birth) to be Roman citizens with the rights thereof.

As Roman republicanism was an inspiration for the American founders, I’m sure this historical detail didn’t pass unnoticed—certainly not by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, a learned man about ancient history. Thomas Paine noted the problem of a multicultural empire; and, using different words, essentially brought up quo warranto: If a large number of colonists weren’t English, then by what right do the English have to rule such a vastly diverse and distant population? Even John Dickinson, no fan of revolution, ultimately defended the right if not the principle of revolution based on the precedence of quo warranto in constraining governmental power.

The colonial aspect is inseparable from that of corporations. Early charters didn’t clearly distinguish between types of official organizations. All charters were creations by the government and supposedly served the purposes of the public good. Chartered organizations were public institutions, having no independent rights other than what a government gave them and those rights necessitated obeisance to law and order, a public duty to country and countrymen, and a set of social obligations with a proscribed reason for existence and only for a set period of time before requiring renewal or forfeit.

Technically, even to this day, corporations as chartered by governments remain public institutions, not private organizations. Corporate charters can be revoked at any time for numerous reasons. But a corporate charter isn’t required to operate a business. A corporate charter simply gives legal and economic protections to a business in exchange for serving or at least being in compliance with the public good. What has changed is that, in corporations gaining power over the government, they’ve declared their own private interests to be primary—so defining public interests according to private interests instead of the other way around as it had been defined for all of previous history.

In early America, the idea of corporate personhood would not only have been an alien and oppressive idea but likely even sacreligious. The American founders and the generations that followed knew the dangers of corporate charters to act as oppressive agents of government or to take power for themselves in co-opting the power of government, even gaining influence over government. They regularly warned against this and wrote laws to protect against it. The acute awareness of this danger continued into the early 20th century, only having been forgotten in recent times.

Finding ourselves in an era of corrupt and oppressive corporatism, of a rigged political system and what at this point appears to be a banana republic, of a distant government disconnected from our lives and our ability to influence, of a militarized police state in endless war, we the people are confronted with questions of legitimacy. These are same questions faced by generations before us, by centuries of protesters and revolutionaries. By what right are we being ruled, if it isn’t by the authority of we the people in governing ourselves? Quo warranto?

* * *

Quo warranto
Wikipedia

Quo warranto (Medieval Latin for “by what warrant?”) is a prerogative writ requiring the person to whom it is directed to show what authority they have for exercising some right or power (or “franchise”) they claim to hold. […]

In the United States today, quo warranto usually arises in a civil case as a plaintiff’s claim (and thus a “cause of action” instead of a writ) that some governmental or corporate official was not validly elected to that office or is wrongfully exercising powers beyond (or ultra vires) those authorized by statute or by the corporation’s charter.

REAL Democracy History Calendar July 4-10

King Edward I, first to utilize the “quo warranto” written order
Quo warranto is a Medieval Latin term meaning “by what warrant?” It’s a written order by a governing power (e.g. Kings in the past, legislatures early in U.S. history, and courts in the present) requiring the person to whom it is directed to show what authority they have for exercising a claimed right or power. It originated under King Edward I of England to recover previously lost lands, rights and franchises.

This power was transferred to states following the American Revolution. State legislatures utilized “quo warranto” powers to challenge previously chartered or franchised corporations that acted beyond their original privileges granted by the state. The result was frequent revocation of corporate charters and dissolution of the corporations — in the name of affirming sovereignty/self-governance.

All 50 states still retain elements of quo warranto. The authority concerning the creation and dissolution of corporations was meant to be a legislative power, not judicial.

Real Democracy History Calendar April 4-10

State ex rel. Monnett v. Capital City Dairy Co., 62 OS 350 (1900) – example of corporate charter revocation
It was common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries for state legislatures and courts to revoke the charters or licenses of corporations that violated the terms or conditions of their charters. The legal procedure for this was called “quo warranto” in which the state demanded to know what right the corporation possessed to act beyond the terms of its state-granted charter.

Some states were more active than others in utilizing this democratic tool. Here’s an example of the language from an Ohio State Supreme Court “quo warranto” charter revocation decision:

“Quo warranto” may be invoked to stop corporation’s disregard of laws in conduct of authorized business, and to oust corporation if abuse be flagrant….The time has not yet arrived when the created is greater than the creator, and it still remains the duty of the courts to perform their office in the enforcement of the laws, no matter how ingenious the pretexts for their violation may be, nor the power of the violators in the commercial world. In the present case the acts of the defendant have been persistent, defiant and flagrant, and no other course is left to the court than to enter a judgment of ouster and to appoint trustees to wind up the business of the concern.”

A Better Guide than Reason: The Politics of John Dickinson
by M.E. Bradford

Yet still he felt obliged to deny the principle of revolution, even as he maintained the right. As he had done in the Farmer’s Letters. As he had done since his first appearance in public office, as a member of the Delaware assembly in 1760. For, like no other American political thinker, John Dickinson had absorbed into his very bones the precedent of 1688. In abbreviated form, that creed might be abstracted as follows: The English political identity (the Constitution in its largest sense, including certain established procedures, institutions, chartered rights and habits of thought) is a product of a given history, lived by a specific people in a particular place. Executive, judicial, and legislative arms of government are bound by that prescription and must deal with new circumstances in keeping with its letter and its spirit. The same configuration qua Constitution should be available to all Englishmen, according to their worth and place, their deserts. And any man, upon his achievement of a particular condition (freeholder, elector, magistrate, etc.) should find that his rights there are what anyone else similarly situated might expect. Finally all Englishmen are secure against arbitrary rule under this umbrella and have an equal right to insist upon its maintenance. To so insist, even to the point of removing an offending component by force, is loyalty to the sovereign power.[3] To submit to “dreadful novelty” or dangerous innovation,” even if its source is a prince or minister who came rightfully to his position, is treason.[4] For the authority belongs to the total system, not to persons who operate it at a given time. Or rather, to such persons as “stand to their post” and attempt with and through it nothing contrary to the purpose for which it has been developed. It was this historic and legal identity, formed over the course of centuries by so much trial and error and with such cost in turmoil, which was deemed to be worth whatever efforts its preservation might require—given the danger of being called a rebel—because it was the best known to man.[5] And therefore the most “natural” and conformable to reason. To correct any declension from such experienced perfection was thus clearly more than patriotic. Like the Glorious Revolution itself, it could be called an assertion of universal truth.

[3] Dickinson cites Lord Camden and the statute quo warranto 18th of Edward I. See The Political Writings of John Dickinson, 1764-1774 (New York: Da Capo Press, 19701, edited by Paul L. Ford (originally published 1895), p. 485. From Lord Coke to Chatham ran the argument that law bound King and Parliament. See the famous Dr. Bonham’s Case, 8 Coke 118a (1610). Also Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970).

“Why Process Matters,” By Bruce Frohnen
by Peter Haworth

It is worth noting, here, that we Americans owe our liberty, in no small measure, to a rather obscure set of circumstances going back eight hundred years in England. This set of circumstances arose from the greed and desire for power of a king, which were somewhat ironically channeled in a direction favorable to liberty by the procedural tool he chose in his quest.

First signed in 1215, Magna Carta generally is credited with institutionalizing due process in the English tradition. By committing the king to prosecute subjects only according to “the law of the land,” Magna Carta bound him to abide by procedures already existing throughout his kingdom, solidifying a powerful bulwark against arbitrary arrest and punishment. But the binding nature of law on kings was far from assured by this one document. It was significantly bolstered later in the thirteenth century by a series of events that combined elements of custom, law, and contract and related to the humble English borough.

Medieval English boroughs were relatively important towns with their roots in military encampments. Over time, many of these communities gained charters from the crown giving them significant rights of self-government. Whether awarded to them for special services or monetary donations, or rooted in customary relations from time out of mind, these charters were precious to those who held them. In theory, kings could only revoke such charters for cause, or for failure to exercise their rights. King Edward I (1272-1307) sought to bring boroughs more closely into his power by reviewing all their charters at essentially the same time. To do this he used an old common law writ called “quo warranto.”

Quo Warranto (or “by what right”) was a proceeding by which a person or community claiming a right to do something (say, appoint their own tax collectors or keep goods found on the local beach from a wrecked, unclaimed vessel) was ordered to show by what right they exercised their claimed powers. Before Edward, kings occasionally had revoked borough charters, either under quo warranto or through unilateral action. Edward had a grander scheme, by which he made every borough answer the question of by what right they exercised their powers of local self-government. If the party answered the writ successfully they would keep their rights, but if not the charter would be confiscated or held void. […]

Edward sought, not the elimination of all borough charters (he had not the power to make that kind of scheme succeed over time) but to better define which boroughs had what rights and to establish that a borough could have its charter revoked for abuse or noncompliance with its provisions. […] Perhaps the most important, if unintentional, byproduct of Edward’s aggressive program of quo warranto was institutionalization of Magna Carta. His grand, universal scheme required formal procedures, establishing due process rights that guaranteed, in the formula of the time, “each man’s own liberty, warranted by a charter, upheld in the courts.” […] Under Edward’s general quo warranto investigation, due process went so far as to show that the king, as a person, was not above the law.

Colonial self-government, 1652-1689
by Charles McLean Andrews
p. 17

The king’s interest in his revenues, as well as the demands of commerce and trade, the nation’s jealousy of Holland, and the influence of men like Clarendon and Downing, must be taken into account if we would understand the navigation acts, the founding of new colonies, the establishment of new boards and committees, and the quo warranto proceedings to annul colonial charters between 1660 and 1688. The colonies were the king’s colonies, and his also was the burden of providing money for the expenses of the kingdom.

Since the attempt to cripple the Dutch by the navigation act of 1651 proved a failure, the act of 1660, in repeating the shipping clause of the earlier act, made it more rigorous. Thenceforth ships must not only be owned and manned by English- men (including colonists), but they must also be built by Englishmen, and two-thirds of the seamen must be English subjects. In later acts of 1662 and 1663, provision was made whereby real or pretended misunderstandings of this clause might be prevented ; and one of the most important functions of the later committees of trade and plantations was, by means of rules as to passes, denization and naturalization, and foreign-built ships, to prevent trade from getting into the hands of foreigners.

American History
by Macrius Willson
p. 310

About the close of King Philip’s War, the king’s design of subverting the liberties of New England were revived anew, by the opportunity which the controversy between Massachusetts, and Mason and Gorges, presented for the royal interference, when New Hampshire, contrary to her wishes, was made a distinct province and compelled to receive a royal governor. ‘Massachusetts had neglected the Acts of Navigation— the merchants of England complained against her—she responded by declaring these Acts an invasion of the rights and liberties of the colonists, “they not being represented in parliament,” and when finally the colony refused to send agents to England with full powers to settle disputes by making the required submissions, a writ of quo warranto was issued and English judges decided that Massachusetts had forfeited her charter. Rhode Island and Connecticut had also evaded the Acts of Navigation, yet their conduct was suffered to pass without reprehension. It was probably thought that the issue of the contest with the more obnoxious province of Massachusetts would involve the fate of all the other New England settlements.

Throughout this controversy, the general court of Massachusetts, and the people in their assemblies, repeatedly declared they would never show themselves unworthy of liberty by making a voluntary surrender of it ; asserting, “that it was better to die by other hands than their own.”—The resolute, unbending virtue, with which Massachusetts defended the system of liberty which her early Puritan settlers had established, and guarded with such jealous care, deserves our warmest commendation. The Navigation acts were an indirect mode of taxing the commerce of the colonies for the benefit of England; and the opposition to them was based, mainly, on the illegality and injustice of taxation without representation—a principle on which the colonies afterwards declared and maintained their independence.

pp. 320-1

In his relations with the American colonies, James pursued the policy which had been begun by his brother. The charter of Massachusetts having been declared to be forfeited, James at first appointed a temporary executive government, consisting of a president and council, whose powers were to extend over Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New Plymouth; and soon after he established a complete tyranny in New England, by combining the whole legislative and executive authority in the persons of a governor and council to be named by himself. Sir Edmund Andros received the office of governor-general.

It being the purpose of James to consolidate all the British colonies under one government, measures were immediately taken for subverting the charters of Rhode Island and Connecticut, both of which colonies were now charged with making laws repugnant to those of England. Writs of quo warranto were issued against them, but the eagerness of the king to accomplish his object with rapidity caused him to neglect to prosecute the writs to a judicial issue, and the charters were thereby saved from a legal extinction, but Andros arbitrarily dissolved the institutions of these colonies, and by the authority of the royal prerogative alone assumed to himself the exercise of supreme power.

The government of Andros, in obedience to the instructions of his royal master, was exceedingly arbitrary and oppressive, and he often took occasion to remark “that the colonists would find themselves greatly mistaken if they supposed that the privileges of Englishmen followed them to the ends of the earth; and that the only difference between their condition and that of slaves, was, that they were neither bought nor sold.”

In 1688 New York and New Jersey submitted to the jurisdiction of Andros. A writ of quo warranto was issued against the charter of Maryland also, and that of Pennsylvania would doubtless have shared the same fate had not the Revolution in England arrested the tyranny of the monarch. “When some vague intelligence of this event reached New England, the smothered rage of the people broke forth, and a sudden insurrection over threw the government of Andros—sent him prisoner to England—and restored the ancient forms of the charter governments.

The important events in England, of which the new settlement of the crown and the declaration of rights are the closing scenes, are usually designated as the English Revolution, or, the Glorious Revolution of I688. This Revolution gave to England a liberal theory of government, based on the avowed principle that the public good is the great end for which positive laws and governments are instituted. The doctrine of passive obedience to the crown, which the princes of the house of Stuart had ever labored to inculcate—which the crown lawyers and churchmen had so long supported, henceforth became so obnoxious to the altered feeling and sentiments of the people, that succeeding sovereigns scarcely ventured to hear of their hereditary right, and dreaded the cup of flattery that was drugged with poison. This was the great change which the Revolution effected—the crown became the creature of the law;—and it was henceforth conceded that the rights of the monarch emanated from the parliament and the people.

This Revolution forms an important era in American, as well as in English history—intimately connected as the rights and liberties of the colonies then were with the forms and principles of American of government that prevailed in the mother country. From this time, until we approach the period of the American Revolution, the relations between England and her colonies present great uniformity of character, and are marked by no great excesses of royal usurpation, or of popular jealousy and excitement. Hence that portion of our colonial history which dates subsequent to the English Revolution, embracing more than half of our colonial annals; has but a slight connection with the political history of England. The several important wars, however, in which England was engaged during this latter period, extended to America; and an explanation of their causes and results will show a connection between European and American history, that will serve to give more enlarged and accurate views of the later than an exclusive attention to our own annals would furnish.

Moreover, these wars, in connection with the growing importance of colonial commerce, exerted a powerful influence in acquainting the several colonies with each other; thereby developing their mutual interests.—softening the asperities and abating the conflicting jealousies which separated them—and, finally, gathering them in the bonds of one political union. The early portion of our colonial history presents a continuous conflict between liberal and arbitrary principles, and shows why we are a free people:—the latter portion, subsequent to the English Revolution, exhibits the causes which rendered us a united people.

The Hidden Desire of the Imperial Subject

Anti-Federalists were to Federalists as Marxists were to Stalinists. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real federalists, similar to how some Marxists have thought of themselves as the real communists.

The Federalists and Stalinists turned out to be just different varieties of imperialists, something the Anti-Federalists and Marxists opposed. That is what the Cold War ended up being about, which imperialism would control the world. Oddly, the rhetoric of Anti-Federalism and Marxism was sometimes used to this end, as a rationalization of and distraction from the real purpose of accumulated power.

People are so easily deceived by rhetoric. But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I’ve recently thought that people accept the rhetoric even though at some level they know it’s propaganda. Many people simply want to be lied to by their political officials because it gives them plausible deniability. That way, they don’t have to admit they too want an empire.

It’s understandable, this divide in the public mind. We’ve been taught that empires are supposed to be bad. And no one wants to think of themselves as a bad person or as part of a bad society. Yet as imperial subjects, we gain many benefits: cheap products, freedom to travel, a protected life, etc. As long as an individual doesn’t challenge that power, the individual can live a good life within the empire. We grow accustomed to such benefits and they make it easier for us to quiet the voice of our conscience.

It’s hard to gain the self-awareness, social understanding, historical perspective, and moral courage to speak out against injustice and immorality. Few ever do so.

Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost

I’m a divided person about American history, about how American society began and where it has gone.

This inner conflict is symbolized by my two favorite founding fathers: Thomas Paine and John Dickinson.They both embody the principled politics of the Quaker tradition along with the worldview of the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania. However, they both had very different lives and found themselves on the opposite end of many issues.

The two represent different responses to their times. What does one do when demands for reform fail? What does one do when revolution is the only recourse for justice or else when revolution simply has become unavoidable? Despite their different paths, they shared a visionary understanding about the prospect of a “United States”. They both believed something greater was possible, in terms of representative government and political justice.

I’m reluctant to conclude they were wrong about their idealized America, not just yet.

Like Paine, I believe justice is worth fighting for, even to the extent of starting a revolution if need be. But like Dickinson, I think there is a very high bar of justification for any revolution.

My criticism of the American Revolution is that it was proven a failure by its own standards. Most Americans weren’t any more free after the revolution than before. In fact, many of those who remained loyal to Britain such as slaves gained way more freedom by fighting against the revolution. Only the upper classes in the colonies clearly gained benefit and advantage. Worse still, taxes on Americans were even higher and no more representative. Very few people were eligible to vote or hold office. The monarchy was replaced with a plutocracy. Meanwhile, the lower classes who fought the revolution found themselves in debt while holding worthless money paid to them by the government and because of this many lost their property to the same wealthy interests who had co-opted the new government.

One major justification for the American Revolution was the moral obligation to create a new kind of government, a unique political experiment toward freedom and liberty. That was what was attempted with the Articles of Confederation, but that idea was scrapped. The United States quickly devolved into just another nation-state and colonial empire. Many of the warnings of the Anti-Federalists turned out to be true which was becoming evident in the earliest years of the new government.

By the very close vote of 89 to 79, Virginia finally did ratify the Constitution. But Madison had not been deaf to the disquiet and mistrust expressed on the convention floor; he had grasped the delegates’ panic and their sense of loss at joining the Union. The next year he would respond to some of their concerns about individual liberties and federal powers by steering a bill of rights through Congress that amended the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment addressed, though in the mildest of terms, the anxiety of Virginians and other Americans about federal encroachments on the sovereignty of states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

But a few years later, Madison would make an about-face, distressed when he realized that Alexander Hamilton, spouting plans for a national bank and for vigorous industrial development, sought to turn the nation into precisely the kind of consolidated powerhouse that the antifederalists had feared. Madison even began to echo Patrick Henry as he wrote a series of articles in the National Gazette in 1792 warning against “a consolidation of the states into one government.”
~ Susan Dunn, Dominion of Memories (Kindle Locations 1688-1695)

The vision of America that inspired the entire revolution has existed in permanent limbo. We Americans aren’t sure we actually liked the revolution and what it stood for. We pay lip service to it, but the point of the whole thing still strikes us as radical to the extreme. We are no better off (in some ways worse) than the Canadians that remained loyal to the Crown and at some level I think all Americans realize this. We know there were lost opportunities when this country was founded and it isn’t just that the revolutionary ideals were betrayed back then but that every generation has betrayed them ever since. If we could do it, many Americans would turn those lost opportunities into entirely forgotten opportunities, erased from the national consciousness and obliterated from the history books. It stings our national pride that we are a country of failed idealism; worse still, other than a few malcontents it has been a willingly chosen (and often an oppressively enforced) failed idealism.

That is what our country was founded on, not idealism but failed idealism. This idealism didn’t fail with Obama or Bush, LBJ or Roosevelt, not even with Lincoln. No this idealism died in the crib. Some of the founding fathers even realized it and those that reached old age lamented the loss, although even they often couldn’t fully put their finger on what was lost. It wasn’t a manifest reality that was lost, but an ephemeral potential. For a brief moment, this nation dreamed large and envisioned moral greatness. And early Americans put their lives on the line for it, many of them having lost their lives for that opportunity to change the world.

I would clarify my message so as to not be dismissed by those who might perceive me as being dismissive.

It’s not that nothing worthwhile has been accomplished in this country. It’s just everything worthwhile that has been accomplished has been done so through endless fighting against the established social order. Most of the freedoms and rights we do have weren’t gained by fighting against the British government and political elite but by fighting against the American government and political elite. Centuries of fighting and relatively so little to show for it or at least not much more to show than any other major developed Western nation.

Maybe this should have been predictable from the first battle of the American Revolution that began with the War of Regulation when the lower classes fought for the right of self-governance against the local colonial political elite. Also, that conflict between the lower classes in debt to the capitalist class foreshadowed the rebellions that followed the official ending of the revolution. That 18th century class war then continued on into the 19th century with demands for democratic reforms, beginning with the Jacksonian Era and ending with the Populist Era. The entire history of this country has been a near endless class war.

We had a revolution. Maybe its time to finally complete the revolution, to finally live up to our own ideals. We can go on fighting the same old class war until our nation itself ends or we could work together toward building a democratic society that benefits all classes (all races, all ethnicities, all religions, all Americans).

I won’t claim to to know what was possible for the founding generation. Could the Articles of Confederation effectively been improved upon? Is there a reason a confederation of states with strong local self-governance has to fail? Must we cynically conclude that centralization of power and wealth is always inevitable? Was violent and destructive civil war the only way slavery could have ended here? These questions and many more.

No one knows for certain what are the answers to these questions. I’d simply point out that early on in our country Americans had the opportunity to find out answers to these questions. Something entirely new could have been attempted. This country could have been a moral exemplar for all the world. That would have been an interesting experiment, but maybe the experiment didn’t entirely fail. Every generation has the chance to try anew the experiment of democracy. I’m of the opinion that we should at least try something before discarding it.

Many countries have tried the experiments of large nation-states and expansionary empires, of plutocracy and other forms of oligarchy. We already know where that leads. Why not start again where the revolutionaries left off? If after putting it to the test everything the American revolutionaries fought for proves wrong, at least we would finally know that the failure was in the ideals rather than just in our lack of collective will. Then we could try another experiment.

In reading about the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution, I don’t feel so certain about where I fall on the Federal vs Anti-Federalist spectrum. Over time, I’ve slowly moved in the Anti-Federalist direction. I’m not Anti-Federalist on principle, but living during a time like this it is easier to see the failings of the Federalism that have since followed from that earlier era.

It is interesting that Dickinson fell more into the Federalist camp and Paine into the Anti-Federalist camp.

All in all, I side more with Dickinson in his resistance to revolution because he seems to have foreseen many of the problems that ensued. Dickinson, like Burke, wisely emphasized slow reform. Paine also was for reform, but once he got the idea of revolution in his head he ran with it like no other.

Once the revolution was begun and even moreso once independence was gained, I think Paine’s insights gained the upperhand on Dickinson’s pre-revolutionary wisdom. Paine probably had the best understanding about the promise of America. He also had the most uncompromising vision of morality and justice. Paine makes most of the founding fathers look pathetic in comparison. That is because Paine grasped that moment of history and went far beyond self-interest in fighting for what was right.

So, Dickinson was the better advocate of reform and Paine the better advocate of revolution. But I’ll give them both credit for having the ability to seek moderation among extremes. Dickinson was a true statesman when he sought balance with the Articles of Confederation, our country’s first constitution. As for Paine, his attempt at being a moderate in immoderate revolutionary France was beyond heroic.

A point I’ve made before is that America’s failure is twofold. Early Americans didn’t heed Dickinson’s warnings about revolution. Nor did the elite heed Paine’s call for justice. So, we didn’t get the best possible benefits of reform or revolution, but instead we became stuck somewhere in between. The losers on both ends outnumbered the winners.

As a side note, I’ve been struck by how much the long revolutionary era in America, from War of Regulation to Shay’s Rebellion, had to do with monetary issues.

Like the Bonus Army of WWI veterans protesting in demand of pay, the rebellions in the 1780s and 1790s were led by revolutionary war veterans. Like no other demographic, veterans embody the legitimacy of a government or lack thereof. They represent the genuine civic-minded citizen who is willing to put his life on the line in defense of his country. When a government treats its veterans unjustly, it says a lot more about the government than about the veterans protesting that injustice.

Debt was a major concern during the revolutionary era. The rural farmers of North Carolina experienced drought which caused them to fall into debt which the political and economic elites sought to take advantage of by seizing their property. This is what led to War of Regulation. The loss of value of money is what caused many revolutionary veterans to go into debt and also lose their land. This resulted later on in laws that made it illegal to take someone’s property, no matter how far in debt they fell (in the South, this was called homestead exemption).

Meanwhile, some of the planter elites were in debt as well which motivated many of them to support revolution. Many other elites ended up in debt following the revolution, some even ended up in debtor’s prison, a topic discussed by David Lefer in The Founding Conservatives. There was a whole lot of war profiteering and land speculation, some of it paid off which in case of war profiteering led to some trials but the land speculation led to a bubble that burst. Buyers became wise to all the land speculators trying to sell worthless or overpriced land.

After the revolution, the entire U.S. government was in debt. Many issues of politics revolved around this interlinking of public and private debt, especially the issue of Federalism vs Anti-Federalism. Who controlled government directly related to who controlled monetary policies and debt enforcement. No matter which policy was implemented, there would be both losers and winners. It wasn’t just about debt but also what debt means; also, how and when it is paid back and who is paid back with what. Money is about social value and hence what in society backs that money, but revolution turned the social order on its head.

Monetary policy was a mess at the beginning of the country. It eventually led to a massive crash. This was one of the issues favored the federalist position since it was the lack of a government-backed money supply that caused so much fraud and made trade difficult. Banks printed their own money and were supposed to back it themselves, but it didn’t always work out so well.

These issues were still being argued about all the way to the Populist and Progressive Eras. Class war was never just about abstract notions of class identity. It was about real world problems of markets and civil rights, the latter being obvious with examples like debt peonage. Monetary issues always goes hand in hand with revolution and populism because money is a symbol of power, how that power is shared or denied, how the social order is enforced or reformed.

This is what connects us now back to those during the Revolutionary Era. After the American Revolution, economic inequality had grown. And once again, we are at a time when economic inequality has grown. Large wealth disparities create unstable social orders. Stability was only maintained in early America because the poor had access to cheap land and so the government essentially used that to buy off the populists from making even greater demands of justice and equality, but now the government has fewer ways to buy off the lower classes that are growing discontented. The bread and circus of welfare and consumerism can only release so much of this building pressure.

Interestingly, this old economic debate between Federalism and Anti-Federalism isn’t just rooted in elitism vs populism but also rooted in capitalism vs agrarianism (all of which fed into the Civil War). It wasn’t accidental that the revolution was begun by and so many of the later rebellions were caused by farmers. And it wasn’t accidental that so few of the framers of the constitution were farmers. This is the form class war took at that time. The death of the family farm has transformed this particular aspect, but the social division is far deeper than particular types of work. Issues of civil rights and independence are just as important for working class people today as they were for farmers from centuries past.

It says a lot about our society right now that the Anti-Federalists are increasingly seen in a positive light. They were the underdogs of their time. Many people today want to root for them for we identify with them. With hindsight, it is easy to see the Anti-Federalists as speaking more to our modern democratic inclinations. Anti-Federalism held a strain of genuine democracy that was stamped out by elites and one has to wonder what might have happened if it had been allowed to take its natural course of development.

Anti-Federalists weren’t just a dissenting voice. They represented the very democratic value of dissent, of public discourse, of listening to all sides. The Federalists, instead, represented stifling dissent by oppressive law (Alien Sedition Acts) and corporate power (the majority of printing/publishing/newspaper businesses were owned by Federalists, the big biz MSM of their day). We now live in a time when voices of dissent are growing, not just a tolerance for dissent but the ability for dissenters to make themselves heard. The equivalent of Federalists today have even more massive media control in some ways, but they also have less ability to stifle dissenting voices that can spread uncontrolled across social media.

The last section below includes several passages I came across recently. In perusing various books I own, I was trying to grasp the meaning of the Articles of Confederation and Anti-Federalism. It is, of course, complex. But more importantly, it is a lot more interesting than the bullshit you were taught in school, than what you saw on the History Channel, and than you read in most mainstream history books. The following gives you a sense of some of the voices that were largely silenced and overlooked. Enjoy!

The more characteristic Federalist position was to deny that the choice lay between confederation and consolidation and to contend that in fact the Constitution provided a new form, partly national and partly federal. This was Publius’ argument in The Federalist, no. 39. It was Madison’s argument in the Virginia ratifying convention. And it was the usual argument of James Wilson himself, who emphasized the strictly limited powers of the general government and the essential part to be played in it by the states.30 The Anti-Federalists objected that all such arguments foundered on the impossibility of dual sovereignty. “It is a solecism in politics for two coordinate sovereignties to exist together….” A mixture may exist for a time, but it will inevitably tend in one direction or the other, subjecting the country in the meantime to “all the horrors of a divided sovereignty.”31 Luther Martin agreed with Madison that the new Constitution presented a novel mixture of federal and national elements; but he found it “just so much federal in appearance as to give its advocates in some measure, an opportunity of passing it as such upon the unsuspecting multitude, before they had time and opportunity to examine it, and yet so predominantly national as to put it in the power of its movers, whenever the machine shall be set agoing, to strike out every part that has the appearance of being federal, and to render it wholly and entirely a national government.”32

The first words of the preamble sufficiently declare the anti-federal (in the strict sense) character of the Constitution, Patrick Henry thought; and his objection thundered over the Virginia convention sitting in Richmond:

[W]hat right had they to say, We, the People? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, who authorised them to speak the language of, We, the People, instead of We, the State ? States are the characteristics, and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated National Government of the people of all the States.33

The clearest minds among the Federalists agreed that states are the soul of a confederacy. That is what is wrong with confederacies: “The fundamental principle of the old Confederation is defective; we must totally eradicate and discard this principle before we can expect an efficient government.”*34

Here lies the main significance of the mode of ratification in the proposed Constitution. The new procedure—ratification by special state conventions rather than by Congress and the state legislatures and provision that the Constitution shall be established on ratification of nine states (as between them), rather than all thirteen states as required under the Articles of Confederation—was not merely illegal; it struck at the heart of the old Confederation. It denied, as Federalists like Hamilton openly admitted, the very basis of legality under the Articles of Confederation. The requirement in the Articles of Confederation for unanimous consent of the states to constitutional changes rested on the assumption that the states are the basic political entities, permanently associated indeed, but associated entirely at the will and in the interest of each of the several states.*35 Even if it were granted that government under the Articles had collapsed (which most Anti-Federalists did not grant), there was no justification for abandoning the principles of state equality and unanimous consent to fundamental constitutional change.

Storing, Herbert J. (2008-12-02). What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution (Kindle Locations 269-299). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

One of the striking and, to many readers, surprising aspects of the debate over the Constitution is the conservative posture of the opposition. The Anti-Federalists did not deny the need for some change, but they were on the whole defenders of the status quo. They deplored departures of the Constitution from “the good old way” or “the antient and established usage of the commonwealth.” They shook their heads at “the phrenzy of innovation” sweeping the country: “The framing entirely new systems, is a work that requires vast attention; and it is much easier to guard an old one.” They warned that constant change would leave Americans “always young in government.”1 Some expressed the primitive conservative view that whatever is old is good. Others revealed profound (but seldom explored) misgivings about the modern political principles on which the Constitution was so wholeheartedly based.*2 Ordinarily, however, their conservatism was neither so shallow nor so deep. In the main, they saw in the Framers’ easy thrusting aside of old forms and principles threats to four cherished values: to law, to political stability, to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to federalism.

The Anti-Federalists often objected even to entering into debate on the Constitution because of legal irregularities in the proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention. They argued that that Convention had been authorized “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation,” and had no right to propose any radical change in the government of the Union.3 While not invincible, this argument is very powerful; but it became less pertinent every day simply because the Constitution was in fact before the people and its merits under discussion. The threshold had been crossed, and the Anti-Federalists had little choice but to follow the Federalists over it. But there were other legal objections. The Convention proposed that Congress and the state legislatures should be bypassed in favor of special ratifying conventions and that the Constitution should come into effect when nine states ratified. For neither of these proposals was there any legal basis. They ran counter to Congress’s commission to the Convention, and they violated the mode of amendment established in the Articles of Confederation.

The proposals of the Framers were self-defeating in their casual disregard of the forms of legality: “the same reasons which you now urge for destroying our present federal government, may be urged for abolishing the system which you now propose to adopt; and as the method prescribed by the articles of confederation is now totally disregarded by you, as little regard may be shewn by you to the rules prescribed for the amendment of the new system. …” “Charters,” Rawlins Lowndes warned, “ought to be considered as sacred things….” The Anti-Federalists saw in the proceedings and proposals of the Philadelphia Convention a threat to that “publick faith and confidence,” which “bind[s] and cement[s] the community” and “establishes] them as a body politick.”4 Of course the Anti-Federalists agreed that the people have a right to alter their governments; but they insisted that any revolution (including the one most of them had proudly aided) must be secured by an initially fragile political stability. They criticized the Federalists, in typical conservative fashion, for threatening this precious stability. “The late revolution having effaced in a great measure all former habits, and the present institutions are so recent, that there exists not that great reluctance to innovation, so remarkable in old communities, and which accords with reason, for the most comprehensive mind cannot foresee the full operation of material changes on civil polity….” Hasty and blind adoption of government will lead to hasty and blind alterations, “and changes must ensue, one after another, till the peaceable and better part of the community will grow weary with changes, tumults and disorders, and be disposed to accept any government, however despotic, that shall promise stability and firmness.”5

Far from straying from the principles of the American Revolution, as some of the Federalists accused them of doing,6 the Anti-Federalists saw themselves as the true defenders of those principles. “I am fearful,” said Patrick Henry, “I have lived long enough to become an old fashioned fellow: Perhaps an invincible attachment to the dearest rights of man, may, in these refined enlightened days, be deemed old fashioned: If so, I am contented to be so: I say, the time has been, when every pore of my heart beat for American liberty, and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American.”7 The Anti-Federalists argued, as some historians have argued since, that the Articles of Confederation were the constitutional embodiment of the principles on which the Revolution was based:

Sir, I venerate the spirit with which every thing was done at the trying time in which the Confederation was formed. America had then a sufficiency of this virtue to resolve to resist perhaps the first nation in the universe, even unto bloodshed. What was her aim? Equal liberty and safety. What ideas had she of this equal liberty? Read them in her Articles of Confederation.8

The innovators were impatient to change this “most excellent constitution,” which was “sent like a blessing from heaven,” for a constitution “essentially differing from the principles of the revolution, and from freedom,” and thus destructive of the whole basis of the American community. “Instead of repairing the old and venerable fabrick, which sheltered the United States, from the dreadful and cruel storms of a tyrannical British ministry, they built a stately palace after their own fancies…” 9

The principal characteristic of that “venerable fabrick” was its federalism: the Articles of Confederation established a league of sovereign and independent states whose representatives met in congress to deal with a limited range of common concerns in a system that relied heavily on voluntary cooperation. Federalism means that the states are primary, that they are equal, and that they possess the main weight of political power. The defense of the federal character of the American union was the most prominent article of Anti-Federalist conservative doctrine. While some of the other concerns were intrinsically more fundamental, the question of federalism was central and thus merits fuller discussion here, as it did in that debate.

Storing, Herbert J. (2008-12-02). What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution (Kindle Locations 138-192). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

In 1781, when the thirteen state legislatures had ratified the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” they agreed never to alter them without unanimous consent. Six years later, during the winter of 1786– 87, every state but Rhode Island elected delegates to a federal convention, to be held in Philadelphia the following summer. The meeting had been called, as Congress observed, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Delegates were to propose amendments that would take effect only after clearing Congress and every state legislature. 6 The members of the Philadelphia convention decided to ignore these instructions, proposing not to alter the Articles of Confederation but to abolish them. The regime they created would begin exercising sovereignty not when it was endorsed by Congress and all thirteen state assemblies, as the Articles required, but as soon as it received the approval of nine state ratifying conventions. Whatever else it was, the process that resulted in the U.S. Constitution was indisputably, according to the rules in place at the time, unconstitutional.

In defense of their unorthodox methods, the Framers of the Constitution boldly avowed that they had decided to ask their fellow citizens to assert the same prerogative they had insisted upon in 1776— their right of revolution. 7 The difference, of course, was that the Federalists, like the Shaysites, were rebelling against their own republic . Like the Massachusetts insurgents, some of the Framers claimed they simply had no choice. “The House on fire must be extinguished,” Pennsylvania attorney James Wilson declared, “without a scrupulous regard to ordinary rights.” 8

The members of the federal convention did not suddenly come up with the idea of junking the Articles of Confederation after they all arrived in Philadelphia. Many, in fact, had decided years earlier to try to establish a new national government. 9 In plotting to ignore the instructions they had received from the state assemblies, the delegates displayed an extreme version of the belief that the elected representative is not simply an instrument of his constituents’ will. He is instead an independent thinker who ought to execute justice as he himself defines it.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, and other delegates brought proposals for overthrowing the Articles of Confederation with them to Philadelphia . But they did not discuss their intentions publicly. If they had, assemblymen in their home states probably would not have chosen them. It is an unsettling but inescapable fact that several of the principal authors of the U.S. Constitution, which has served as a model for representative governments all over the world, would never have made it to Philadelphia if their constituents had known their real intentions. There is more. If the various proposals to create a new national government drafted in the spring of 1787 had been made public, several state legislatures might have joined Rhode Island in steering clear of the convention altogether. The Constitution that the delegates were writing would consolidate the thirteen previously sovereign states into a single nation, John Lansing of New York declared three weeks into the deliberations, and his state “would never have concurred in sending deputies to the convention, if she had supposed the deliberations were to turn on a consolidation of the States.” 10

It has frequently been noted that hardly any of the federal convention delegates tilled the soil for a living. Since nine in ten free Americans were farmers, the Framers were, demographically speaking, unrepresentative in the extreme. And yet for all that, the nation’s agricultural majority did exert a significant influence on the convention. In fact, farmers had begun to influence it even before it opened. As the delegates traveled to Philadelphia late in the spring, they were looking over their shoulders. Had they been confident that their constituents would meekly acquiesce in whatever plan they produced, the delegates who wished to overthrow the Articles of Confederation would not have felt the need to conceal their intentions.

Holton, Woody (2008-10-14). Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Kindle Locations 3067-3099). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

What most troubled Roane was the Court’s assertion of the primacy of the federal government over the states and its expansive formulation of “implied powers.” Surely the word “necessary” (in the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause) restricted the meaning of that phrase, Roane argued.

Jefferson was elated to read Roane’s “Hampden” letters. Like Roane, he disputed the Supreme Court’s claim to serve as the final arbiter of constitutional questions, either within the federal government or between the federal government and the states. He, too, lambasted Marshall for spearheading a movement designed to transform the American government into one “as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” Jefferson even took strong issue with Marshall’s way of delivering court opinions as if they were unanimous, rarely recording minority opinions and thus virtually silencing any dissenting members of the Court. “An opinion is huddled up in conclave, perhaps by a majority of one,” Jefferson wrote, “delivered as if unanimous, with the silent acquiescence of lazy or timid associates, by a crafty chief judge, who sophisticates the law to his mind, by the turn of his own reasoning.”

The sweep of the McCulloch decision dismayed Madison, too. While the case had obviously called for a judicial decision, Madison wrote to Roane, it had not called for such a broad and expansive interpretation of the “necessary and proper” clause. Marshall’s opinion in that case, Madison added, had the ominous effect of bestowing on Congress a discretion “to which no practical limit can be assigned.” The Court’s decision had simply empowered the “ingenuity” of the legislative branch to exercise any and all powers-including unconstitutional ones. The danger was that such judicial rulings might lead to a complete transformation of the federal system, converting “a limited into an unlimited Government.”

Madison found himself even sympathizing with his old foes, the antifederalists. Many federalists, he ventured, would have joined forces with the antifederalists in rejecting the Constitution, had they suspected that the Court would impose such a “broad & pliant” construction of the Constitution.

Susan Dunn. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia (Kindle Locations 1771-1782). Kindle Edition.

That growing sense of backcountry identity provides an important background for the main political event of 1787, when another group of people in eastern Pennsylvania went to work on another sort of political blueprint, the federal Constitution. Given the upsurge of recent scholarship on agrarian unrest in the Revolutionary era, the relationship between farmers and the Framers now stands in sharper contrast. In Unruly Americans, a book that picks up where Forced Founders ended and expands its view to Constitution-making, Woody Holton reminds us that in a nation in which nine out of ten free Americans were farmers, there were no yeomen directly involved in the Constitution-making process; the Framers were “demographically speaking, unrepresentative in the extreme.”192 Still, Holton argues, even though formally excluded from the framing process, yeomen did gain an implicit sort of representation among the men who went to Philadelphia in 1787. Agrarian protests had been a consistent force of internal pressure on government, repeatedly pushing state officials for various forms of redress—religious toleration, or at least relief from paying taxes to support a religious establishment; paper money, or at least relief from paying taxes in scarce specie; and greater political representation, or at least relief from the power of entrenched elites. The rural uprising that swept Massachusetts in 1786–87—commonly, but erroneously, called Shays’s Rebellion—has become the most historically visible among these movements, and it still generates a good share of historians’ attention.193 As Holton notes, however, Massachusetts was not the only state to experience unrest in that period: neighboring New England states—New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island—also witnessed an upsurge of protest, as did other states down the eastern seaboard, from New Jersey to Virginia to South Carolina.194 Many elite political leaders looked on with frustration at the concessions rural folk wrung out of their state governments, and part of their purpose in calling for a new national framework of government was to correct the alleged excess of democracy they deplored. “From the Founders’ perspective,” Holton explains, “the policies adopted by the state legislatures in the 1780s proved that ordinary Americans were not entirely capable of ruling themselves.”195 And yet any attempt to assert greater control over the various state governments still had to take account of the popular protests that had made those states concede to their people. “As the delegates traveled to Philadelphia late in the spring,” Holton notes, “they were looking over their shoulders”—fearful, even forced, Framers, wary of unruly ordinary folk who still seemed less than fully reconciled to the results of the Revolutionary settlement. Even though the Framers enclosed themselves in secret session inside the Pennsylvania State House, “the temper of the times,” as Sean Wilentz usefully puts it, “seeped into the room.”196

That seepage proved to be significant. Historians who focus primarily on the men inside the room at the Constitutional Convention often portray the Framers as an enclosed, if often contentious, intellectual community who, for “all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views,” as Franklin so famously put it, still produced a “system approaching so near to perfection as it does.” But the debates among the delegates that Madison so carefully recorded were only one part of the convention’s controversies. The degree of disagreement among the Framers on the inside seems comparatively pale when compared to the passionate opinions of ordinary people on the outside, who increasingly claimed recognition for the role—and the rights—they had established during the Revolution. No matter how much the men who created the Constitution might have hoped to establish a government that relied on the guidance of a “natural aristocracy”—men such as themselves, for instance—they could not do as they pleased. To “secure domestic tranquility,” the architects of the Constitution realized, meant more than designing a central government that could suppress internal insurrection; it also meant, as Holton notes, disguising their antidemocratic intentions:

“If the federal convention delegates had not feared that the nation’s agrarian majority would reject it, they would have created a considerably more elitist document.”197

Even so, the document they did create did not receive a free pass from farmers. Richard Beeman, whose Plain, Honest Men provides a perceptive, inside-the-State-House analysis of the Framers’ debates, also turns his attention beyond Philadelphia to the nature of the subsequent ratification debate in rural regions. In Pennsylvania, he notes, the combination of urban professionals and artisans and tradesmen in Philadelphia along with “surprisingly strong showings in some of the western counties” gave the Federalists a decided edge, but some rural Antifederalists attacked the elitist-seeming Constitution with “a rhetoric of grassroots populism that was well suited to their backcountry constituencies.” In Virginia, voters in the Piedmont and backcountry likewise opposed the new Constitution, as did backcountry inhabitants of North Carolina, where a “hearty distrust of central authority was deeply entrenched, … dating at least to the so-called Regulator movements of the 1760s.” The more recent Regulation in Massachusetts also weighed on the delegates to that state’s ratifying convention, and residual sympathy for the insurgents’ grievances remained a factor in the debate, which “turned on issues of social and economic conflict.” Although Beeman does not directly engage Charles Beard’s economic analysis of the ratification vote—indeed, Beard’s name does not appear in the book—he does remind us that resistance to ratification became most prominent in the countryside and that such resistance often spoke “the language of populist democracy” to the power of the new political system.198

Rural resistance was not just a flash in the political pan. “Something strange happened in the Pennsylvania countryside in the years following the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787,” Bouton reports: “large numbers of farmers closed the main road that led in and out of their communities,” and he counts sixty-two such incidents for the next eight years, until 1795. Rural people apparently took such action, he explains, to defend themselves from the encroaching power inherent in two recently ratified constitutions, the federal Constitution of 1787 and the new Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790, a Federalist-sponsored effort to overturn the state’s dramatically democratic constitution of 1776. In both cases, farmers feared, the new political systems represented a threatening victory on the part of the financial and political elites, and they closed the roads to try to protect themselves from the external agents of the state, particularly tax collectors, magistrates, and justices. The road closings had a short-term practical effect, slowing the operations of court proceeding and sheriffs’ auctions for debt, but they also symbolized a more general retreat from the larger political arena into overly localized isolation. “In this hostile new environment, ordinary folk who wanted to uphold their vision of the Revolution urgently needed to find ways to work together,” Bouton observes. Instead, they barricaded roads, a politically feckless step that cut them off from each other and undercut common action.199

This pattern of localized yeoman resistance began to take a decidedly different turn in 1794, however, when rural people in Pennsylvania reached beyond their local communities and joined in a more widespread expression of protest that challenged both state and national officials. Like the so-called Shays’s Rebellion of the previous decade, the “Whiskey Rebellion” has received fresh scholarly attention, beginning with the implications of the liquid commodity in question. To be sure, whiskey had something to do with the rise of unrest, not just as a commodity of trade and eventual target of taxation but, as Patrick Griffin notes, a symbol of “the sense of alienation, anti-authoritarianism, and violence that permeated many of the poorer settlements.”200 Yet the too-easy use of the label “Whiskey Rebellion,” a dismissive term first coined by Alexander Hamilton, tends to limit our view to local events and reinforces Hamilton’s original ridicule, leaving a simplistic image of “drunken, gun-wielding hillbillies,” Bouton writes, “frightening but too comical to be taken seriously.” Taking the resistance quite seriously and, equally important, locating it in the larger political context of the longer Revolutionary era, Bouton and Griffin underscore the chronological and geographical connections to events elsewhere in time and place. Engaging in familiar forms of protest reaching back through the Revolutionary era, “the whiskey men drew upon the lessons learned during their own period of politicization,” Griffin explains. To underscore that longer period of political connection, Bouton argues for calling the regional unrest the “Pennsylvania Regulations,” adopting a term that links the actions of the western settlers in the 1790s to other recurring attempts of rural people to control or correct the actions of their government officials, from the Carolinas in the pre-Revolutionary years to Massachusetts and other parts of New England in the 1780s. “The 1790s uprisings in Pennsylvania,” Bouton argues, “fit seamlessly into this pattern of popular regulation.”201

Young, Alfred F.; Nobles, Gregory (2011-09-01). Whose American Revolution Was It?: Historians Interpret the Founding (Kindle Locations 3715-3788). NYU Press short. Kindle Edition.

Wherever they lived, Anglicans (now Episcopalians) and Quakers, the two major religious groups least committed to the Revolution, were lopsidedly in the camp of hard money and property, well-empowered government, readmission of former loyalists, ratification of the Constitution, and the politics of incipient Federalism. That at least suggested religion as a factor.”

Other wartime religious political alignments were also transformed. Presbyterians, especially on the Scotch-Irish frontier, generally opposed the cosmopolitan, pro-ratification, and Federalist side, which included their old commander-in-chief, George Washington. The principal exception came in New Jersey, where many of the Federalist-leaning Presbyterians were transplanted Yankees with Congregationalist antecedents. Congregationalists themselves, generally cohesive during the war, split during the 178os along caste and class lines. The poor, rural, and anti-Tory became anti-Federalists, while the coastal and commercial cosmopolitans of New England, over the next generation, became the single most important national support base of the Federalist Party.

This regrouping of elites around a partial counterrevolution stood 1775-1776 relationships on their heads. Even though one hundred thousand Tories and loyalists had left the United States, two or three hundred thousand would have remained, plus at least as many neutrals. Within a few years of independence, conservative factionalists in some states were openly recruiting them or, in the case of emigres, enlisting their return. In loyalist districts of southern Delaware and eastern Maryland, few had ever moved.

Kevin Phillips. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America (Kindle Locations 3875-3883). Kindle Edition.

Critics of the Constitution quickly perceived the compromises of 1787. Somewhat more gradually, they developed ideas about what those compromises indicated about the rest of the framers’ design. As antislavery became a significant, if not ubiquitous, theme in the debate over the Constitution during the fall and winter, federalists were forced to respond. North of Virginia, they developed four main justifications, or excuses, for the place of slavery in the Constitution. They celebrated compromise. They admitted the presence of necessary evils. They projected blame onto the Deep South. And they exaggerated the Constitution’s antislavery implications.

During the ratification debates , more framers, like the authors of The Federalist, went public with their disavowals of slavery, in order to help get the Constitution passed by majority votes in key state conventions. Yet the state -by-state nature of ratification made it easier for the federalists to stress different, even contradictory, aspects of the Constitution to different constituencies. The responses on the local level, and the rebuttals offered by the framers and their allies, established a pattern for the volatile mix of slavery, constitutionalism, and American party politics in the nineteenth century.

Antislavery, in its antifederalist mode, ultimately lost in the struggle for ratification, as antislavery would lose repeatedly in mainstream politics for the next several generations thanks in part to the Constitution’s rules. Its localism, in the end, was its great strength and its fatal weakness in a struggle against a nationalist silencing of the slavery issue. Still, antifederalist criticisms of slavery’s Constitution— and especially arguments about how compromises over slavery reflected and papered over related political problems— were heard. Antislavery politics gained publicity, credibility, and further refinement. Some antifederalists even called the framers on their selective federalism: their willingness to allow slavery in particular to escape from the oversight of the nation-state. Thanks to the antifederalists’ doomed struggle against the Constitution, antislavery became part of an American tradition of dissent.

Waldstreicher, David (2010-06-15). Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (Kindle Locations 1441-1458). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

While Madison wanted large representative districts for Congress to ensure the election of responsible gentlemen like himself, Anti-Federalists preferred that legislators “resemble those they represent. They should be a true picture of the people.” Melancton Smith of New York, a prominent middling Anti-Federalist, did not object to representatives being persons of education and influence, but they “should also include ordinary people.” In Massachusetts the fate of the Regulators created “a widespread fear of the governing elite,” which fed Anti-Federalism: “Every critic, it seemed, envisioned the ‘little people’ being stomped on by ‘the well-born,’ ‘the gentlemen,’ and ‘the aristocracy.'”62

For a variety of reasons, most Anti-Federalists championed the virtues of localism in politics as well as economic affairs.63 Although not all Anti-Federalists were egalitarian democrats, they looked on “democracy” far more favorably than their opponents did. Federalists rarely referred to “democracy” approvingly. Some elite Anti-Federalists also shared with Federalists a more restricted view of public opinion and the public sphere and held reservations regarding the wisdom of ordinary folk. But Federalists, again, were more skeptical of the common man’s judgment. They assumed that gentlemen would debate issues among themselves and guide the decisions of those below them. Middling and plebeian Anti-Federalists (and even some elite Anti-Federalists), however, possessed a much broader conception of the public sphere.64

“Popular” Anti-Federalists advocated a more inclusive public sphere “filled with debate in newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides and speeches . . . [and] imagined a form of robust politics defined by a free press and free speech that would extend across the whole of America. They were, as a result, quick to challenge efforts to mobilize traditional legal rules of libel, sedition, and prior restraint.”65 They also called attention frequently to the Federalists’ ability to dominate public opinion through control of most newspapers. It has been estimated that Federalists controlled as many as seventy-five newspapers, while Anti-Federalists could rely on never more than twenty; moreover, the latter came under economic pressure from “the merchant-banker-lawyer community that was anxious for quick ratification,” while “cancelled advertisements and discontinued subscriptions took their toll.” Anti-Federalists complained also—not without cause—of the blocking of the circulation of Anti-Federalist newspapers along the seaboard by unfriendly postmasters. When news of New York’s ratification reached Manhattan in July 1788, a mob celebrated by marching to the Anti-Federalist New York Journal and smashing furniture and typecases.66

Formisano, Ronald P. (2008-02-25). For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s (Kindle Locations 815-836). University of North Carolina Press – A. Kindle Edition.

These various conceptual tensions are indicative of the difficulties of the founding generation’s unprecedented effort to theorize the place of dissent in democracy. This would be a decades-long process and one never completely embraced by mainstream American thinkers. But the Anti-Federalist movement was a critical turning point, because it reflected the first sustained effort to conceptualize and practice a democratic dissent. In the end, the ratification crisis and the “Great Debate” it engendered would broach but not resolve many of the significant issues raised by those seeking to give dissent pride of place in democratic theory. For starters, there was the very real question of whether dissent should be rejected as a kind of treason. And if it was to be allowed, should anonymous dissent be permitted despite the mask it provides to prejudice and self-interest? Or should it be encouraged, in order to neutralize the overawing “authority of names” like Washington? On a more practical level, the dynamics of dissent were yet to be seriously explored, especially the power of those who controlled the terms of debate or the various institutions of discourse (most important, the press and the post office). Ultimately, there was the more conceptual, epistemological question of the nature of truth: was the truth revealed by discourse or created by it? Or, as Another of the People claimed, was truth merely sullied by dissent?

Amid other fundamental issues raised in the ratification debates, early Americans wrestled with these questions, drawing on episodic colonial efforts to answer them. The proper role of popular disorder—even violence—was always in the background, but it largely stayed there. As even Centinel admitted, the regulation in western Massachusetts had colored the ratification debate. The riot in Carlisle had been preceded by a Federalist mob’s intimidation of Anti-Federalist convention delegates in Philadelphia, but, in fact, violence was rare.10 As we shall see, Philadelphiensis captured much of the most insightful Anti-Federalist thinking, and while he felt that an avid Federalist printer deserved to be hanged in effigy, he would not encourage it: “I am sensible of the danger of inflaming the multitude under a free government” since justice is rarely done.11

The evolution during the eighteenth century of a theory of democratic dissent occurred in parallel with the narrowing of the legitimacy of popular disorder. Just as the tradition of quasi-legitimate popular disorder had roots in Britain and early colonial America, so the emergence of popular nonviolent dissent had roots in limited opposition to monarchical power and its delegated colonial authorities. But this development was still a struggle: both Puritanism and republicanism stressed consensus and consent. For Puritans, their covenant with God was communal, requiring community-wide acquiescence and active, not just passive, obedience. Famously, meaningful opposition in early Puritan settlements led to chosen or forced exile for some (e.g., Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson).

Similarly, though republicanism allowed for limited (and often elite) self-government and some disagreement, ideally such dissent was only a prelude to a self-sacrificing consensus that held dissension, factionalism, and ultimately anarchy at bay. In 1760, for example, two gentlemen who disagreed with the prevailing view of a public hearing felt the need to publish complaisant apologies for their mild dissent, thereby demonstrating that all opposition was presumed illegitimate.12 In the aftermath of the tumult and popular participation of the War, Americans began to allow for some contestation, but they worried about how it might be expressed. As Richard Hofstader long ago explained, “They also valued social unity or harmony” and saw opposition groups as destructive. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 70 demonstrates this general ambivalence: “Differences of opinion” in a legislature can bring “circumspection” but when a “resolution … is once taken, the opposition must be at an end.”13

Martin, Robert W.T. (2013-07-01). Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought In the Early American Republic (Kindle Locations 1224-1255). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

From Articles of Confederation to the Constitution

I’ve become increasingly fond of or at least seriously curious about federalism. I’ve often been attracted to libertarianism, albeit more leftist versions, which relates to federalism and states rights (also, the paired concepts of republicanism and democracy). What got me thinking more about federalism over the years are my ongoing studies of regionalism from the colonial era to the present. The distinctly separate colonies set the stage for both regionalism and federalism.

One thing that increased my interest in federalism is its relationship to the Articles of Confederation. This past year I learned that the Articles of Confederation had largely been the creation of John Dickinson, a Quaker-raised colonist and reluctant revolutionary from the Middle Colonies. The Middle Colonies created the theoretical justification and the practical working model for uniting the colonies into a single “United States” (or actually isn’t that plural?). The reason for this is that only the Middle Colonies had a regional culture of multiculturalism which meant there was a ready made vision and operating political system of balancing unity and diversity (Diversity within unity? Or unity through diversity? Or Both?).

When the Articles of Confederation needed improvement, the founders set about creating a constitution. However, the original intent was to create a constitution that would improve on the Articles of Confederation, not replace it. The first mistake of American politics was the creation of a constitution that did replace it and, one could argue, that mistake has led to an endless cascade of problems ever since.

The federalist support of the American Constitution came to be seen as opposite to and opposing of the anti-federalist position, but some of the anti-federalists weren’t against a constitution in principle or even against federalism in principle. They were against a federalist constitution that went contrary to the vision that motivated and justified the revolution.

Federalism, unlike it’s often been portrayed, wasn’t inherently in contradiction to the Articles of Confederation. It supposedly wasn’t meant to create a new nation-state or empire in the style of European countries, but that is what it later came to mean or anyway those were the consequences, intended or unintended. Federalism versus Anti-Federalism was a question of the balance between localized and centralized governance, not a question of a federal government ultimately being able to trump state governments in all matters. The role of the federal government was to mediate and moderate between the state governments, not to act completely independent of state governments. We long ago lost that notion of balance and moderation.

The anti-federalists argued that they were the true federalists. “Another complaint of the Anti-Federalists,” as the Wikipedia article explains, “was that the Constitution provided for a centralized rather than Federal Government (and in the Federalist papers James Madison admits that the new Constitution has the characteristics of both a centralized and federal form of the government) and that a truly federal form of government was a leaguing of states as under the Articles of Confederation.” The anti-federalists have been proven correct in their fears and warnings.

John Dickinson,who some consider to be a moderate federalist despite his being the main author of the Articles of Confederation, described his ideal constitutional government in his Fabius Letters. He explained that, “a territory of such extent as that of United America, could not be safely and advantageously governed, but by a combination of republics, each retaining all the rights of supreme sovereignty, excepting such as ought to be contributed to the union; that for the securer preservation of these sovereignties, they ought to be represented in a body by themselves, and with equal suffrage.” Whatever the United States has become, it certainly couldn’t be described as a “combination of republics” or rather, one could say, a confederation of republics. We’ve strayed far from that vision.

This confederation-based federalism wasn’t immediately destroyed by the Constitution that empowered the slave aristocracy and the capitalist plutocracy, but the seed of its destruction was planted within it. Soon after the signing of the Constitution, factions were already forming to take control of the federal government. Various factors gave the Southern colonies great power that extended into the early federal era. This allowed the Southern states to initially take control of the federal government. This power led them to try to force their social order and their slave laws onto the rest of the country. This angered the residents of the non-slave states and the settlers in the territories who had little desire to become slave states. Thus federalism died at the hands of the slavocracy and plutocracy. Those who rule with concentrated power and wealth have a tendency to further concentrate power and wealthy… surprise, surprise.

The Northern alliance of states wrested control following the Civil War. Northerners then did the same thing to the South that Southerners, before the Civil War, had done to the North. Politics had fully become a game of power and factionalism. What came to rule was partisan politics, special interests, and big money lobbyists; thus, setting the stage for the following century. Still, this was just the inevitable results of the anti-confederation and anti-libertarian constitutional order itself that was built on oligarchy (i.e., slavery, political oppression, aristocracy, plutocracy, and class-based inequality). It took different forms as the country developed, but this basic social order remains to this day.

Most Americans don’t understand what was lost when federalism ended, especially when confederation-based ‘true’ federalism ended, and why the constitution was such a failure of political vision (or rather the success of the wrong political vision). Federalism was what made the American experiment so unique. Yet we’ve just become another vast empire.

In fact, we became a full-fledged empire the moment that Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, although the imperialist vision was present long before that (almost implicit in the early justifications of American independence as, in Paine’s words, “Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”). From that point on, America began its steady expansion across the North American continent and its steady expansion by way of attacking independent nations/peoples and claiming their territory when possible (the attacks on Canada and on Cuba being two of the failures of this imperialist project). This has led America, like the colonial empires before it, to now have in its possession vast territories not just on a single continent but also on various islands, from incorporated territories such as Hawaii to unincorporated territories such as Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam (a total of 6 inhabited unincorporated territories, 7 uninhabited unincorporated territories, and 3-5 depending on how you count former territories).

This colonial imperialism also has led America to be such a diverse country. It is ironic that those who praise America’s greatness because of its power often criticize the diversity that was the inevitable result of this imperialist project. You can’t have one without the other, as has been demonstrated with every great empire that has ever existed from the ancient empires of Rome and Hellenistic Greece to the later colonial empires of Spain, France, Netherlands and Britain.

Federalism allowed for a different kind of unity within diversity. The Southern colonies and later states favored monoculture that was strictly forced by a hierarchical social order. Some of the Northern governments/elites, however, embraced, encouraged and/or tolerated multiculturalism. Early federalism allowed these regional governments to have a fair amount of local control over their respective immigration policies, along with local control of their own ports and borders. It was the failure of federalism that led to proposals of secession. It wasn’t just Southerners that sought secession but also Northerners as well.

Even as federalism failed, the conditions that made it possible continue to exist.

Now that we have an empire, we can’t easily reverse the path we’ve taken. We could give independence back to the Native Americans, the Southwestern Hispanics, and the various island peoples. We could do that, but at this point many of these individuals and communities feel as American as the rest of us and they likely don’t want to have their American citizenship taken away from them.

A better solution would be to re-create confederation-based federalism by returning some of the power to local governments, local communities, and local populations. If Southerners want to be xenophobic, then let them be as xenophobic as they want within their own state boundaries. But I don’t want Southerners forcing their xenophobia onto me nor forcing onto me their fundamentalism and elitist class-based social order. Also, I don’t want to force my Midwestern values onto anyone else. Just let us Midwesterners do our own thing. I say let every state and every region do what it wishes, within some basic limits along the lines of the model of the Articles of the Confederation. Some states would choose to have tightly controlled borders and some open borders, some more democratic governance and others less so, some more capitalist and others more socialist, some with tough-on-crime laws and others full of a bunch of pot-smoking hippies getting gay married, and all of that would be perfectly fine.

Since some people are so obsessed about original intent, let us do what was originally intended. Let us make a constitution that improves upon, rather than replaces, the Articles of Confederation.

One context for my thinking is, oddly, the movie Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought this movie would be a fun note on which to end.

In that fictional world, there is a central government that has come to gain control over all the people. The different regions, I’m not sure how large, are divided up into districts. It seems these districts are relatively isolated, either geographically or by carefully controlled borders.

It is standard divide-and-conquer strategy. One of the ways this division is maintained is by the Hunger Games. These annual contests served a similar diversionary purpose as American elections. Everyone obsesses over who is going to win, but no matter who wins nothing is essentially going to change for those in power remain in power (or rather those behind the power remain behind the power).

This division of districts reminds me of all kinds of divisions in America. It was the regional divisions that led to the local political factions to seek to take over the centralized ‘federal’ government and enforce their political will onto the entire country. I was the formation of political parties, of which Washington warned about, that led these regional factions to become so nationally powerful. It was the divisions of religion, race and ethnicity that served as constant distraction and animosity among the lower classes which were then manipulated and exacerbated by the upper classes in consolidating their own power.

A centralized government only ever serves the interests and agendas of those with centralized power and wealth. Also, it is the centralized government that allows the continued centralization of power and wealth. Generation after generation, this has led to an ever-growing Establishment of hereditary plutocracy and political family dynasties.

The states no longer act as independent or even semi-independent republics. They are no longer functioning ‘states’ for they have fully come under the control of the federal government. This isn’t just about states rights for that can simply mean power centralized in the state governments. Self-governance is also about individuals, all individuals (lower classes and minorities included). Self-governance is also about communities which means a society built on individuals, families, churches, neighborhoods, militias, grassroots organizing, and actually functioning democracy.

We Americans aren’t as far away from the Hunger Games as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. Certainly, the post-9/11 centralization of power has brought us closer to such an extreme dystopia or else some other variant (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale). Worse still, so many Americans have bought into the propaganda that, if we just fight for our faction (our race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever), we will finally have the America we want and the America we like to project onto the past. As with the Hunger Games, it is a vision of the ultimate win-lose scenario where the only way our faction can win is for all other factions to lose. This isn’t a road to unity, whether with diversity or not. Instead, this is the road to oppression and a second revolution.