“Let Me Conjure You to Consider”: An Introduction to the Anti-Federalist Papers

Thomas Jefferson believed in an educated populace. He believed that in order for a constitutional republic to succeed, citizens needed to know “their rights and responsibilities, understand the political and historical legacy of important documents and government actions, and meet the expectations of citizenship.”1 Jefferson urged a course of study that included Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. A far cry from the curriculum in today’s schools. Were he around today, he would no doubt be dismayed to learn that not only are the ancient Greek and Roman writers virtually absent in American education, but also that most citizens are ignorant of their own nation’s history.

One of those legacies of American history that many know little about are the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist Papers. These papers appeared in newspapers throughout the nation after the Constitution was proposed for ratification. The general public was expected to read and engage with the arguments presented therein. Today, however, most public school students wouldn’t even be able to understand them. This is to our hurt as a nation. The legacy of these two sets of documents provides a wealth of knowledge about our nation’s history that has been lost on several generations that are more interested in sports, social media, or movies, than in education, knowledge, and serious study. Therefore, over the next several months, I will be summarizing some of the Anti-Federalist Papers in order to (hopefully) rekindle a desire to understand our nation’s history.

After the American War for Independence (1775-1783), several years passed before the Constitution was proposed for ratification. During this time the United States of America existed as a confederation of sovereign states under several different constitutional charters, including the Articles of Confederation. It was during this time that the United States had their first president of the Continental Congress, Peyton Randolph. It was not until 1787 that a convention was held to create the Constitution. (Actually, the convention was called for the express purpose of simply revising the Articles of Confederation. They were soon scrapped altogether.)

The Constitution, however, was not widely embraced by the public. In fact, even some of the Founding Fathers themselves were opposed to it. Luther Martin, for example, refused to sign due to, among other things, the lack of an explicit Christian component in the document. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who had signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, likewise declined to sign the Constitution. George Mason also did not sign the Constitution. Patrick Henry also voiced strong concerns with the Constitution. In the end, Mason, Gerry, and Henry, along with other Anti-Federalists, would help lead the effort to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

The term “Anti-Federalist” was the label “that politicians of 1787 coined in order to lump together all the folks who opposed ratification of the Constitution.”2 Their general view can be summarized as follows:

Speaking in broad brush terms about the Anti-Federalists, theirs was a vision that celebrated localism and feared centralization of authority. The American Revolution, of course, was a revolution that had been fought not simply for freedom, but for localism…The Anti-Federalists carried on the tradition of being very suspicious of any central government, way off, removed from ordinary constituents. Whether the government sits in London or whether it sits in Washington, D.C., it is still quite far-removed from the folks back home. Thus arose great concern about this new government that was being summoned into existence—possibly simply to replace the imperial yoke that had been cast off only a decade before.3

The literary results of these concerns were the Anti-Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper pieces designed to raise awareness about potential dangers inherent in the proposed Constitution. They represent an incredible wealth of wisdom, knowledge, and foresight. (As the posts in this series are published, I encourage you to read the paper in view each time; we won’t cover them all.) The response by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, was the Federalist Papers—worthy of consideration as well. However, for now, let us conclude this introduction to the Anti-Federalist Papers by considering the first one.

Published on September 27, 1787, “Cato 1” was among the first of the Anti-Federalist Papers. Likely written by George Clinton, this was the opening salvo in the great debate. However, it was a cool, calm, and deeply principled piece. In fact, Cato remains neutral as to the proposed Constitution in this paper, choosing instead to remind his readers of the high stakes involved.

What is at stake, he writes, is the American’s “political safety,” his “reputation,” and his life and property. He states his purpose: “Without directly engaging as an advocate for this new form of national government, or as an opponent—let me conjure you to consider this a very important crisis of your safety and character.” After reminding his readers of the amazing feats they have accomplished as Americans over the past decade, he warns, “your fate, and that of your posterity, depends on your present conduct—do not give the latter reason to curse you, nor yourselves cause for reprehension.” Will they leave to their children a “fair political inheritance,” or one contaminated with “the vultures of power”?

What follows is one of the sagest appeals to critical and independent thinking I have ever read. The final sections are worth in-depth consideration.

Deliberate, therefore, on this new national government with coolness; analyze it with criticism; and reflect on it with candor. If you find that the influence of a powerful few, or the exercise of a standing army, will always be directed and exerted for your welfare alone, and not to the aggrandizement of themselves, and that it will secure to you and your posterity happiness at home, and national dignity and respect from abroad, adopt it—if it will not, reject it with indignation—better to be where you are, for the present, than insecure forever afterwards.

Cool deliberation, critical analysis, and candid reflection are what is called for in this endeavor. If you do those things, and so find the Constitution worthy of your support, then by all means support it. But if not, then principle compels you to oppose it. What must be avoided, in any case, is accepting (or rejecting) it without sufficient thought, reflection, and reason.

Next, he perceptively and obliquely touches on that infirmity common to all sons of Adam, the fear of man. The fear of man encompasses our tendency to put undue weight on the approbation of others. We must not, however, ever allow men to unduly influence our reason and judgment.

Beware of those who wish to influence your passions, and to make you dupes to their resentments and little interests—personal invectives can never persuade, but they always fix prejudices which candor might have removed—and those who deal in them have not your happiness at heart. Attach yourselves to measures, not to men.

How many today have attached themselves to “men,” rather than measures! Those who supported Obama would praise everything he did; those who opposed him rejected everything he did. The same could be said of certain Trump supporters. The critical thinker, on the other hand, is prepared to analyze every action, regardless of the man, to see if it conforms to wisdom, prudence, and righteousness.

In his final and masterful appeal, the noble Cato borrows from the Bereans in advocating personal responsibility for all truth claims presented to us by fellow men (and even angels, following Paul’s advice).

This form of government is handed to you by the recommendations of a man who merits the confidence of the public; but you ought to recollect, that the wisest and best of man may err, and their errors, if adopted, may be fatal to the community; therefore, in principles of politics, as well as in religious faith, every man ought to think for himself.

Mere men can err, he reminds us. This means we ought never blindly accept any counsel without thinking for ourselves. The great Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers finds an application here in the civil realm. Just as the principles of Protestantism led believers to read the Bible for themselves, comparing the words of any prelate to Scripture, so too must citizens of a free republic scrutinize any proposal so momentous as a new constitution. Think, think, think, America. Don’t let others do it for you.

Cato ends with a promise to “make such observations on this new constitution” in the days ahead. Without getting into political minutiae, Cato opened the debate with a much-needed appeal to critical, independent thought. The same need exists today. In the days ahead, as I highlight some of the wisdom found in the Anti-Federalist Papers, I likewise commit to making observations that, to the best of my knowledge, will “be justified by reason and truth.”

Notes

1 James Carpenter, “Thomas Jefferson and the Ideology of Democratic Schooling,” Democracy & Education, Vol 21, No 2

2 Akhil Reed Amar, “Anti-Federalists, the Federalist Papers, and the Big Argument for Union,” Yale Law School Faculty Scholarship Series.

3 Ibid.

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