Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Constitutional Debate

Gary L. Gregg and Bill Kauffman remind us it wasn't settled in 1787 — Debating the Constitution: Were the Anti-Federalists Right? I stand with those whom the latter says "stood for decentralism, local solutions, anti-militarism, and a deep suspicion of far-off governments." An excerpt from my post on the Anti-Federalist Papers from last year — The Way and Virtue of Anti-Federalism:
    Ralph Ketcham, in his edition of The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates, says of the ultimate victors in the debate, "The federalists on the whole saw and sought the benefits more effective, energetic government could bring," namely "English-style commercial growth, domestic prosperity, and world power." The contrasting view:

      Perceiving these aspirations and purposes, the anti-federalists were at once skeptical and disheartened. They saw in federalist hopes for commercial growth and international prestige only the lust of ambitious men for a "splendid empire" where, in the time-honored way, the people would be burdened with taxes, conscriptions, and campaigns.... The anti-federalists looked to the Classical idealization of the small, pastoral republic, where virtuous, self-reliant citizens managed their own affairs and shunned the glory of empire....

      To the anti-federalists this meant retaining as much as possible the vitality of local government where rulers and ruled could see, know, and understand each other... Each "district," furthermore, would be a town or ward or region conscious of its own, particular identity rather than being some amorphous, arbitrary geographic entity....

      If the basic decency in human nature, most evident among ordinary people at the local level, amid family, church, school, and other nourishing institutions, could impinge directly and continuously on government, then perhaps it too might be kept virtuous and worthy of confidence... Anti-federalists saw mild, grassroots, small-scale governments in sharp contrast to the splendid edifice and overweening ambition implicit in the new Constitution. The first left citizens free to live their own lives and to cultivate the virtue (private and public) vital to republicanism while the second soon entailed taxes and drafts and offices and wars damaging to human dignity and thus fatal to self-government...

      The anti-federalists... sought a society where virtuous, hard-working, honest men and women lived simply in their own communities, enjoyed their families and their neighbors, were devoted to the common welfare, and had such churches, schools, trade associations, and local governments as they needed to sustain their values and purposes.

    (From the above, it seems almost as if the Anti-Federalists could have been using the LVVVth Chapter of the Tao Te Ching as their guidebook, evidence of the universality of good ideas.)
That said, my summer read this year has been the Federalist Papers, in which I have been struck by both the often convincing sincerity of the arguments and the fact that many of the Anti-Federalist fears dismissed have come to pass. Still, I understand that a return to the Constitution of the United States is our last, best hope.

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Blogger Dauvit Balfour said...

Having grown up in the "tradition" of the John Birch Society, I always thought of myself as a Constitutionalist. The Constitution was clearly crafted by men of good will and Godly mind and was The Right Way to start off a new republic.

It's only been in the past year that I've given any thought to the anti-federalist position. I've read the Federalist Papers. Perhaps I should read the Anti-Federalist as well.

I do agree with you though, that given where we are, the best we can conceivably hope for would be a return to the Constitution... well, that or dissolution...

I wonder if anyone with any talent has bothered to write an alternate history of America under the Federalist Papers... it could be fun.

9:36 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I think you may have meant "an alternate history of America under the Anti-Federalist Papers" and I sketched one out three-and-a-half years ago -- Scrap the Constitution! Here's what I said:

"Let's imagine an alternative history of America under the Articles. We would have had to contend with a Shays' Rebellion every so often, but perhaps the United States would have ended up like a New World Switzerland. The westward expansion would have been slower; perhaps other independant countries, Indian ones, would have been born. There would have been no Mexican War, but perhaps the Texas and California Republics would still be around. Slavery would have disappeared peacefully as it was economically unsound, and hundreds of thousands of lives would not have been lost. The Hawai'ian Kindgom would be an independant monarchy still, and the Phillippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico would never have been under the American Switzerland. No Wilsonian interventionism would have resulted in a different outcome in the Great War, meaning no Hitler or Lenin, and no second war. The British, French, and Japanese Empires would still have collapsed, since empire is a losing business economically, just as Spain had learned centuries earlier. Korea would have won its own independence. With no Soviet Union there would have been no Red China, North Korea, or North Vietnam, and thus no major conflicts."

The comments were lost when Haloscan became Echo and started charging money, but I lost a long-time neocon reader who called my vision Marxist.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Dauvit Balfour said...

I actually meant the Articles of Confederation. No coffee today.

Interesting. I was thinking of an alternate history in novel form, but I like the analysis. I wonder how many further attempts would have been made an unifying under a stronger government, if any. Pure speculation of course. How anyone can call that vision Marxist just baffles me. People must love war...

10:19 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Mine was just a sketch. I'm unaware of a novel; only paleo geeks like us are interested in this stuff.

I recommend the Anti-Federalist Papers highly. I just wish I had read them with the Federalist Papers back to back, rather than a year apart. My initial antipathy toward Madison, Jay, and even Hamilton has waned, but I still think the Anti-Federalists have been proved right. That said, the Federalists would be appalled by what they would see today.

By the way, you're a lucky man to have been raised in the JBS tradition. It wasn't until I was in my '30s that I got any inkling into any of this.

10:47 PM  

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