Friday, October 1, 2010

The Anti-Federalists Were the Conservatives

Patrick Deneen reminds us "that the Constitution was a document that sought a centralizing 'consolidation' from the very outset" — Is There a Conservative Tradition in America? He continues:
    I speak of the extensive writings of the varied authors called “Anti-federalists,” – that group of men who Herbert Storing categorized as the “conservatives” in the ratification debate. It was for varied reasons that the Anti-federalists opposed ratification of the Constitution, but in many cases saw and predicted tendencies in the document that have reached full flourishing in our own day. Their witness renders problematic the view that the Constitution has been substantially misinterpreted by today’s liberals, and rather suggests that the Constitution, too, had a logic like the Declaration that has taken time to work out, but which in the end has come to realize exactly those fears expressed by the Anti-federalists in the 1780s.

    I would list primary among their fears the following – first, that the Constitution had at its basic aim “consolidation” and the eventual usurpation of State power. Second, that the Constitution not only was silent on the moral requirements for human flourishing, but regarded humans in largely Hobbesian terms and thus aimed only at the management of conflict rather than an inculcation in virtue; third, that the Constitution mainly sought the ends of national glory and ambition, and would put the nation on the course of empire and entanglements with foreign power as well as lead to the creation of a “standing army” that would be solely under the command of the Central government; fourth, that its heavy emphasis upon the promotion of national and international commerce would lead to a tendency toward “luxury” or the love of profit and gain, which was regarded by many Anti-federalists as the death of republican liberty, leading to materialism, softness, and the loss of virtue; and fifth, that the new Constitutional system would attract the “great and ambitious” at the expense of the ordinary man, and put the nation on the course of being ruled by a set of self-selected elites who would govern in the name of their enlightened perspective (mainly promoting empire and commerce) at the expense of the ordinary virtues of the country’s yeomen. Without lingering on the particulars of the debate, I think it’s fair to simply state that while the Anti-federalists were often wrong in many particulars, they were stunningly correct in their overarching concerns and that, in each instance, their early fears have come to pass.

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Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Russell Kirk would disagree. For Kirk, the Federalists (with both a small and capital "F") were the conservatives. See his discussion of both Adams and Hamilton in The Conservative Mind and the Essential Conservative Reader. The anti-federalists were reactionaries, but not conservatives.

And the analysis you cite to the Constitution is incorrect. Again, I would send you to Kirk, this time his magnificent book Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution. But one point I would make immediate. The Constitution does not authorize a "standing army." It says that Congress has the power "To raise and support Armies," but not money may be appropriated for such activities for longer than 2 years at a time. Conversely, Congress does have the power "To provide and maintain a Navy."

The fact that the Constitution may have been distorted after its ratification does not invalidate the Constitution itself.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Theodore Harvey said...

What about those of us who identify neither with the Federalists nor the Anti-Federalists but with the defeated Loyalists? As a monarchist, I say, "a plague on both their houses."

7:37 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Loyalists get to move to Canada.

12:07 PM  

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