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.

* * *

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.

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Liberty has been on my mind, because of a book I’m reading, Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. I’m in the middle of the book at present. I wrote some preliminary thoughts in response. One thing is clear at this point. He has an atypical view of “liberty” (Kindle Locations 433-436):

There is something incredibly profound about this insight that liberty implies limitation and not just protection or privilege. This restrictive side of liberty is often overlooked, because the word “liberty” itself tends to be associated with the word “freedom.” Yet “liberty,” as is now evident, implies something more complex. It refers to both freedom and restriction, or, to put it another way, liberty refers to the freedoms that are made possible by living together under restrictions.

This is the second book by him that I’ve read. The earlier book is Liberty In America’s Founding Moment. I haven’t finished that book either, but I’ve been going back to it from time to time. In that book, he had his academic hat on. He was originally a religious studies professor, which gives him a grounding in dealing with historical texts and contexts.

His newer book feels more personal, although the notes in the back of the book show how thorough is his thought process. He says that Beyond Liberty Alone is a book he worked on for a long time. It is part of his own development as an individual, specifically in his career. The story of how he left academia is telling (Howard’s End by Jonathan Mahler):

A few days before Howard Eilberg-Schwartz was scheduled to launch the Jewish studies program at San Franisco State University, he was persuaded by the school’s director of human resources to attend an all-day seminar for select faculty members, students, and local Jewish leaders. It was to be Eilberg-Schwartz’s introduction to the school’s Jewish community, and, understandably, he was nervous. As part of the program, participants were asked to respond to a series of provocative questions by moving to a designated area of the room. When the question “How central is Israel to Judaism?” was posed, he self-consciously took a spot among the smallish group that answered “Not terribly.” And when attendees were asked if they thought the statement “Zionism is racism” was anti-semitic, Eilberg-Schwartz — who sees the movement to create a Jewish state within the broad context of European colonialism — shuffled over toward the corner designated “No.” This time he stood virtually alone.

“I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying how disappointed they were that I had been named head of Jewish studies,” Eilberg-Schwartz realls now, more than two years later. “That’s when I knew i wasn’t in sync with the local Jewish community. From that moment on, I was branded.”

Indeed, that fateful morning in the summer of 1994 would set the stage for a year of conflict between Eilberg-Schwartz and the local Jewish community, one that would culminate in his preipitious departure from the university — and academia altogether — in the fall of 1995.

This offers some insight why liberty is a personal issue to him. He obviously is an advocate of liberty of conscience and liberty of free speech. He was willing to stand up for what he considered right, despite the very real costs.

I’ve interacted with Schwartz some this past year, including a recent discussion on his Facebook page. I was following his blog for quite a while and would comment there. I had forgotten that he was an author and that I owned one of his books, as I own more books than my memory can keep track of. He reminded me that I had written a comment to an Amazon review of his first book on liberty, a comment that I didn’t remember, as I leave more comments than my memory can keep track of. (There are many issues with my memory.)

It is an enjoyable experience to read a book while also interacting with the author. I did that while reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, as he has an interesting blog as well. Corey Robin is one of the many authors that complement Schwartz’s writings. It is Robin who can help explain why the political right has its limited view of liberty, whereas Schwartz in his new book dissects that limited view and offers an alternative.

The alternative view presented by Schwartz has to do with a balance of values, a balance of rights and responsibilities. He is making an argument grounded both in common sense and in the nuanced understanding of the founding generation of American thinkers and leaders. He demonstrates how shallow and downright dysfunctional is the view of liberty on the right side of the spectrum, what he calls the liberty-first position. That right-wing view has come to prominence in recent decades, but it fails on many accounts, including its lack of principled application. More importantly, in their ideological dogmatism, liberty-first advocates ignore basic facts of human nature and human society.

In reading Beyond Liberty Alone, I became curious about what the author might have to say about the commons. As I had the Kindle version, I did a search for the term and found some references to it. He only directly speaks of the commons in one paragraph and a note to that paragraph. Here is the relevant part of the paragraph (Kindle Locations 4190-4193):

The way to address this problem is to seriously treat the ocean, water, air, and wildlife as property in common, in the sense that we are all tenants in common. Tenants in common does not mean it is a free -for-all, which is the supposition of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 45 There can be ownership in common and regulations about the use of the commons.

And here is the note (Kindle Locations 5579-5585):

45 . I take this to be one of the original points of Garrett James Hardin in his original essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and one point I agree with. In my reading of Hardin’s original essay, his point is that the commons becomes a tragedy only if it is not regulated and that regulation is needed to protect it. One example he gives is the national parks, which are owned in common (public property) but must be regulated to protect them. His point is that without regulation, things cannot be owned in common successfully. It is beyond the present context to discuss the extensive subsequent scholarship and popular discussion of whether the commons always ends in tragedy or not, and I do not agree with some of Hardin’s subsequent moral conclusions, such as his moral conclusions about preventing immigration in his metaphor of “Living on a Lifeboat.”

Even though his direct mention of the “commons” is limited to this, he writes extensively about that which is held in common and that which offers common usage and benefit. The word “common” comes up a lot in the text. Much of this talk is about social capital, although he doesn’t use that term at all. He does talk about externalities quite a bit, which is about the cost to the commons or the costs held in common, although in reality it is usually the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of those costs.

Schwartz makes a strong argument for the commons, not just as natural resources, but as the entire inheritance of the human species. He makes it clear how much society invests in every individual and how this implies a responsibility of the individual toward society. It is overwhelming all that we take for granted. Everyone of us is the product of immense resources and opportunities given to us. We earned and deserved none of it, except as our shared inheritance in having been born.

In thinking of the commons, my mind always wanders to Thomas Paine. He came of age during the time when the land enclosure movement was having a major impact in England. It was the ending of the last vestiges of feudalism and in its wake it left a mass population of landless peasants. A peasant without the commons to live on is a very desperate person. The population of the unemployed and homeless grew as the commons were privatized or, from the perspective of the commoners, stolen.

This impoverished population flooded into London. Food riots followed. So did the early organizing of labor unions, which happened around the time Paine was in London. The lower classes became concentrated in numbers never before seen and London was where all the action was. The poor weren’t just desperate, for they were also feeling optimistic about new opportunities. Even though they were banned from the universities, the poor took what spare money they had and hired lecturers to teach them about various subjects. Paine joined in this new movement of education and it would set him on his path. He got a taste for the power of learning, the potential in reading and writing.

Paine knew about the commons and what the loss of the commons meant for most people. You can hear the echoes of the commons in some of his later writings. In “Agrarian Justice”, Paine gives a good definition of the commons:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

He further on emphasizes the significance of public land being made private:

I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The argument Paine makes is for a land tax that would have funded an early version of Social Security. The privatizing of land was a direct causal factor for impoverishing those forced into a landless condition. The public should be compensated for what was taken from the public:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

This is the basic framework also being used by Schwartz to make his own argument. The difference is that Schwartz has a wider focus on what is held in common, but in essence he is carrying forward Paine’s vision of America. However, he doesn’t mention Paine at all in his most recent book and only makes brief mentions of Paine in his other book on liberty. In neither book does he mention “Agrarian Justice”. So, it seems that Schwartz came to this view independent of Paine’s writings.

When thinking of Paine, I then also think of John Dickinson. Both were raised with Quaker influence, although neither became Quakers. Still, they each maintained close ties to Quakers, specifically in Pennsylvania. Dickinson had ties to the Quaker elite and Paine had ties to the radical Free Quakers. They shared a commitment to Quaker-influenced abolitionism (Dickinson having gone so far as to free the slaves he inherited). Most interestingly, these two great thinkers were also the greatest and most inspiring of the revolutionary pamphleteers. Their Quaker-tinged visions helped shape two separate traditions of political philosophy, Federalism and Anti-Federalism, Dickinson and Paine respectively. These were two major voices in the early debates about liberty and rights.

Schwartz does have a fair amount to say about Dickinson. The main purpose that Dickinson serves is as a foil to Thomas Jefferson. Throughout Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Dickinson is brought up mostly in reference to Jefferson, as they had two competing views of rights (Kindle Locations 3954-3967):

To summarize, we have seen that within a year of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Dickinson offer their congressional colleagues two different versions of American rights. Neither of these versions of rights is what would be called a classical natural rights theory, like that adopted by the First Continental Congress and put forward by thinkers like James Wilson. Jefferson is still avoiding natural rights language and putting emphasis on the emigration of the ancestors as a justification for American rights. When he does allude to a broader conception of rights, which is buried in the body of his essay, he alludes to the “sacred deposit” provided by God and makes no allusion to reason or rights of nature. Dickinson’s language moves much closer to the natural rights tradition, though he evokes the religious and theological subtradition that places emphasis on God’s role in founding liberty. But Dickinson also appeals to common sense and reverence for the creator as justifications and foundation for liberty. It is arguable that Congress preferred Dickinson’s version not simply because it toned down the view of the colonies as “independent” entities, but also because it provided a broader justification of rights than did Jefferson’s, one closer to the Bill of Rights for which they had already fought so hard to achieve consensus in September 1774.

In any case, the point here is that while others were appealing to a classic version of a natural rights philosophy, Jefferson himself had not abandoned his argument based on emigration. Once again, Jefferson’s view was essentially rejected. Instead, the Congress endorsed a quasi-religious statement of rights, influenced by the natural rights thinking to be sure, but not quite Lockean in the way that some American writers including the First Congress would have articulated it.

It should be noted that Jefferson and Paine were close friends and political allies. They influenced each other’s thinking on many issues. To speak of the ideas of one is to speak of the ideas of the other. So, even though Schwartz speaks so little of Paine, he indirectly invokes Paine every time he mentions Jefferson. For example, the emigration view of rights fits into arguments Paine made. As he wrote in “Common Sense,” it was simply “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent.”

As such, the contrasts and conflicts between Dickinson and Jefferson were also those between Dickinson and Paine. More specifically, this is also about the Quaker elite that governed Pennsylvania and those who sought to challenge that power. But this was also about the Quakers larger history and the traditions that developed from that.

Schwartz, in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, dedicates an entire section of several pages to Dickinson’s views, “John Dickinson and the Avoidance of Natural Rights Arguments”. I want to tackle this section because there is a context missing that would add greatly to the analysis.

That missing context is of the Quakers. In neither book does he mention the Quakers. He also makes no mention of the Middle Colonies, at least not in those terms. The Middle Colonies had a different place and played a different role in the colonial scheme of the British territory in America, different that is from New England and the South, as I previously explained (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty):

The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been.

This is the world that Dickinson was born into. It was also the place that Paine. like Franklin before him, would adopt as his home. To understand Pennsylvania is to understand Dickinson and to understand why he came into conflict with the likes of Paine (and Franklin). The Quakers always found themselves in a precarious position, both back in England and in the colonies. Having experienced persecution and oppression as religious dissenters, they came to highly prize security and moderation, which they saw as the foundation of any genuine freedom.

I point to the word ‘freedom’ in contradistinction to ‘liberty’, the latter being the focus of Schwartz’s writings. This is important, as I noted in another post of mine (The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation):

There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.

As far as I know, Schwartz does not explore the origins of these terms. He discusses Dickinson without pointing out that word ‘liberty’ was not included in the Articles, the original constitution. That seems like a key detail to my mind. It signifies the importance of Quakerism to Dickinson. It was freedom, not liberty, that was the core value to be defended. The argument Schwartz makes, in Beyond Liberty Alone, by broadening liberty to include responsibility is actually more resonant with the Quaker worldview of freedom. It is interesting that he comes to this understanding, despite his primary focus on Jefferson.

In the specific section on Dickinson, Schwartz writes (Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 2352-2355),

Is it everywhere assumed or is Dickinson hedging his bets and avoiding the question of government’s origin and the validity of the social contract? That seems possible especially given Dickinson’s appeal to the ideas of philosopher David Hume in the above citation. Hume was a critic of Lockean natural rights theory and argued that Locke’s natural rights arguments were as much a political ideology as the divine right theory that justified kingship.

This is where knowing Dickinson’s Quaker background would have offered insight. Dickinson didn’t need Hume’s writings to be critical of natural rights. Quaker tradition itself was based on a mistrust of natural rights, and so this probably is the more fundamental influence. Hume’s ideas simply corresponded with the worldview Dickinson was raised in. Also, Hume’s criticisms of natural rights allowed for a non-religious formulation of that aspect of the Quaker tradition. Quakers had no use of Lockean social contracts and so that wasn’t an issue for Dickinson. Quaker constitutionalism was based on the belief in a personal relationship to God, a divine spark that existed within (see a fuller discussion in my post The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation, in which I note that the historian Joseph Ellis also seems unaware of the Quaker position). A constitution was, as Quaker-influenced Paine described, “a compact between God and man” (from a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights).

Let me continue with some more of Schwartz commentary from the section on Dickinson (Kindle Locations 2369-2384):

The only time that Dickinson offers a justification of colonial rights is when he quotes the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress, which he had earlier drafted but which avoided the use of natural rights. Quoting the third resolve of the Stamp Act Congress, and referring to these resolves as the “American Bill of Rights,” this is as close as Dickinson gets to offering a philosophical basis of liberty.

III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that No Tax‡ be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”13

We have no way of knowing in these letters how Dickinson grounded “the essential freedom of a people” and “undoubted right of Englishmen.” Only on one occasion (Letter Seven) does Dickinson quote Locke: “If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. ‘There is nothing which’ we ‘can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—what property have’ we ‘in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”14 This quote from Locke is apropos. Locke here is talking about the duty of people to support government with taxes. Locke makes clear in this passage that paying taxes must be with their consent, as defined by the vote of the majority. While Dickinson brings Locke’s authority to bear in supporting the idea that there should be “no taxation without consent,” he does not invoke Locke’s notions of social contract or natural rights.

At least at one point Dickinson seems to assume a very different source of colonial rights than his colleagues. Specifically, he assumes that the rights of the colonies were granted by Great Britain in exchange for the benefits that the colonies brought the mother country. Strikingly, Dickinson includes the right of property as a privilege conferred by Great Britain on the colonies, rather than an inherent right.

Schwartz struggles here to pinpoint exactly where Dickinson is coming from. He is able to discern bits and pieces from Dickinson’s words, but the motivating vision behind those words eludes him. Further on, Schwartz does show he realizes the importance of the religious angle, even though not specifically in the context of Quakerism (Kindle Locations 2390-2394):

It is striking that the colonial right to property is here described not as a natural right, but as a “recompense” or payback from Great Britain to America for the benefits that accrued to the mother country. The colonies’ rights were the result of a trade or contract. No one arguing strictly from natural rights directly would ground the American right of property this way. Moreover, the religious overtones in Dickinson’s essays, though not frequent, are obvious here when he invokes scripture rather than Locke or reason to prove his point.

He then clarifies the importance of religion (Kindle Locations 2399-2405):

Quoting the New Testament, Dickinson appeals to freedom as a grant from God. The absence of natural rights language or at least a fully articulated rights theory in Dickinson would seem consistent with his ongoing commitment that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. Dickinson rejects any talk of the colonies as “independent states” which are part of a larger federated empire. “But if once we are separated from our mother country, what new form of government shall we adopt, or where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.”18 Dickinson, as is well known, would later refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing in July 1776 that there was still some hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain.

Schwartz is touching upon so much here, but he can’t quite bring it together. The Quakerism piece is missing. All of this makes sense, though, when that Quaker piece is put into place. To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant of a collective people as a community. It is not a piece of paper or the words on them. To be separated from their mother country was quite the challenge to that worldview. The community needed to be redefined and the covenant needed to take new form.

Jane E. Calvert, in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, details what this means for Dickinson and how this differs from Jefferson (Kindle Locations 9708-9742):

For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was first occasioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not our own,” which meant joining one another on specific terms and with a particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man’s primary impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained, merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather, ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created in us by the decrees of Providence.”20

On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson on occasion, conflated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson’s, with nature not overshadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source, from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth…They are born within us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights, or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If this seems to us an overly fine distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keeping with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary and historical criticism that his work consisted of “fine-spun theories and hair-splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Refining too much.”24 But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their process of legal discernment from others.

From my perspective, this additional insight strengthens the case Schwartz is making.

The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.

When put together, all of these pieces form a greater vision of what America has been and could be. Schwartz’s writings are part of a larger conversation. No single voice can capture every aspect and nuance. What matters is the broadening of debate. It is an exciting time to add one’s voice to the chorus, even if at times it sounds more like cacophany, something the founders could sympathize with.

The historical context is important for a deeper understanding. Even so, any given fact and detail isn’t what matters most. Studying such things should serve the purpose of helping to see what was hidden, to remember what has been forgotten, to revive the senses that became numb. The disappearance of the commons is a profound loss. It isn’t just the loss of public land and their resources. As Schwartz makes clear, it is a loss of shared identity and meaning, loss of a unifying set of values. We are made small as our vision of rights narrows. We are made weaker.

When we lose the knowledge of what we lost, we lose the knowledge that something is lost. That is not a good place for a people to find themselves. It is to be lost without a map. Fortunately, those who came before us left markers for the path we are on and the paths we might take.

We Need a Miracle

I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.

* * *

The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.

What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.

John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.

Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.

* * *

That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?

I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.

A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.

A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.

It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.

* * *

Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.

Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?

We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution’: from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.

Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?

Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.

Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.

Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.

The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.

It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?

An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?

What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.

Basically, we need a miracle.

* * *

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:

The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso

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.