Sunday, March 27, 2011

The American Non-Revolution and Anti-Federalism

Stephen B. Tippins reminds us that "our revolution was not rooted in the fanciful notions of natural rights but was a sustained effort to preserve liberties long secured by English law," reviewing a book which "firmly places the constitutional origins of America not in abstract principles but in a sound legal tradition, one that separates us not just from the rest of the world but from most of the West" — Jefferson’s Mistake.

Of the man mentioned in the title, the author writes: "He literally helped shape the nation; he built a proverbial, secular wall that still stands; and he left us with an abstract, philosophical legacy that has contributed to a deficiency in our historical perspective, the price of which is the erosion of Madison’s republican vision and eventual loss of our distinct culture."

Earlier in the review, the author informs us that "the tension between Britain proper (the 'metropolis') and her North American colonies (the 'peripheries') stemmed from competing interpretations of the British constitution," elaborating that there were "two governments, one imperial in scope and exercising full general powers over foreign affairs, war and peace, and external trade and the other a colonial government that ‘was peculiarly his own.’" He goes on to say, "The allocation of powers within our federal system, a recurring issue in American politics, is nothing if not an echo of the challenging constitutional arrangement of imperial Britain."

The leads me to conclude that while we reject Jefferson's "abstract, philosophical legacy," we need not accept "Madison’s republican vision," that of the Federalists, in favor of "the metropolis" (the Federal government) against "the peripheries" (the several States).

The Anti-Federalists were right. Ralph Ketcham, in his edition of The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates, clearly demonstrates that while they may have been "philosophical," they were anything but "abstract," and were clearly rooted "the peripheries," unlike their rivals, the ultimate victors in the debate, about whom he says, "The federalist on the whole saw and sought the benefits more effective, energetic government could bring," namely "English-style commercial growth, domestic prosperity, and world power." Mr. Ketcham:
    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.

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Blogger Hume's Bastard said...

Isn't this reductionist? I'm torn between the joy of observing laypeople honestly debate their civic traditions and the pain of observing ideologues isolate threads of what became "American thought" for their own partisan purposes. As much as I adore historical deconstruction and reconstruction, what's most exciting is the rise of new movements - including, I should stipulate, even the Tea Party.

9:58 AM  
OpenID said...

Relearning the history of the revolution really helped free me to explore a very different way of looking at the American experience--even my own personal experience.

I never read this particular work, but there was one that did a masterful job of comparing the American revolution to the French one, though I cannot remember the name.

I've been enjoying following your blog for the last couple of weeks. Beautiful art and interesting thoughts. Cheers!

2:27 PM  

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