The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it. — George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

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Gentlemen May Cry: An Essay on Anti-Federalism, Part 1

November 26, 2013   ·   By   ·   4 Comments

Page 1 of the Articles of Confederation

Page 1 of the Articles of Confederation

In 2012, Citizens United created a Tea-Party-friendly film called, Our Sacred Honor, which detailed the period from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the framing of our current Constitution in 1787.

While better than most because of its emphasis on moral virtue, this film presented the views of several of today’s right-wing pundits as truth, including the flawed propaganda that the Articles of Confederation failed “to define the relationship between the ‘federal’ government and the States—[that there was] no Presidency, no Executive Branch, no Judicial Branch—a unicameral, (that is a one-house) Congress with each state represented equally, and very little power given to that central authority.”

Or as many of us have heard throughout our lives, the Articles of Confederation were too weak a form of government, and a new Constitution was needed that would create a stronger government with more centralized power.  The film does present the fact that there were opponents to the 1787 Constitution, but only mentions George Mason as being one of them.

Patrick Henry was probably one of the best-known Anti-Federalists, and his cry for Virginians to come to the aid of Massachusetts in 1775 is said to have been the driving force that enabled Americans to unite and win our War for Independence.  He was paraphrasing the book of Jeremiah when he said,

“Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace.  The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!  Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle?  What is it that gentlemen wish?  What would they have?  Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

But just what is an Anti-Federalist, and what did they believe?  Simply put, the Anti-Federalists were the “radicals” who wanted to be free of the tyranny of the British Empire, and fought for the right of each of their States to be Sovereign, Free, and Independent.

Although their politics varied and they existed in every State, today they would be likened to what our own Department of Homeland Security calls, “right-wing extremists.”   But back then, they formed groups like the “Sons of Liberty” and the “Committees of Correspondence” to both stir up trouble and hold the politicians for each of their States accountable to call for an end of colonial subservience to a far-off King and Parliament which neither represented nor respected them.

By contrast, it was the loyalists to the Crown who were considered “conservative.”  The loyalist faction did not want to declare independence.  In fact, they saw their colonial charters as binding them, as corporations were bound, by the whims of the British King.

But once radicals like Samuel Adams got their way and the Declaration of Independence was signed, these same “conservatives” fought tooth and nail for reconciliation with Britain, and a speedy end to the war on unfavorable terms.

After the war was over, they did not give up.  Their faction (led by James Wilson in the Congress and Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention,) pushed for an all-powerful central government and began laying the groundwork for monarchy to take root again in America.   Disliking the fact that sovereignty remained with the States under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the “conservatives” began calling themselves “Federalists” and pushing for yet another Constitution.  Contrary to what we have been told in school, the Articles of Confederation were the first and only American Constitution which adhered to the ideals of a federal republic.

The draft of the Articles was begun in 1776, and though completed in 1778, disagreements over Western land claims (especially on the part of Maryland,) prevented the states from confederating until 1781.  It should be noted that Virginia (not Delaware) was the first State to agree to form the Union, and Maryland (not Rhode Island) brought up the rear.

We enjoyed seven years, and hence seven Presidents under the Articles of Confederation, as Presidents were merely to do that: preside over the deliberations of Congress.  Unlike today, it was not a contest among celebrities—the President was chosen by the Congress from among their own members, and in the tradition of the Roman Republic, was required to relinquish power at the end of one year, being ineligible for re-election for three years thereafter.

Many today excuse this away, insisting that a government cannot run successfully with a constant turnover of elected officials, but those same people ignore that Patrick Henry’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, or George Clinton’s 1-year terms as Governor of their states were also limited to one year, and their legacies are both great and limited in that capacity.  Shorter terms of office and a guaranteed turnover ensures that a greater part of the People will participate in government, and that our elected servants will not become too comfortable in their offices and forget whom they serve.

The founders knew that too much power in government was dangerous to liberty, and it is no less true today.  All States had to ratify any changes to the Constitution unanimously as well—unlike today, where ¾ of the States can bind the remainder.  Nevertheless, thanks to Thomas Burke who went to Congress in 1777 and would later become Governor of North Carolina (again, a 1-year term,) the Articles of Confederation were made whole by the insertion of Article 2, which states unequivocally that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.”  A watered-down version of this article would become the 10th Amendment to our current Constitution, but the version in the Articles of Confederation expresses the clear intent of the Declaration of Independence, which also states that “These United Colonies are of right and ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES…and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

Think about those words for a moment.  Federalists argued that those words meant the States were only free to do those things together as if they were a single entity.  Anti-Federalists rightly dissented from this view, holding each state to be Sovereign on its own.  If States were not sovereign, then they had no power to dissolve the Perpetual Union.  If States are sovereign, (what Luther Martin called “States AS States,”) then they have the right to alter or abolish their chosen form of government at any time they choose, without having to get permission from on outside power.

When you realize that each state signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation separately, and that each State is noted in the Treaty of Paris which ended the War with Britain separately; it should be clear that each State was a sovereign government unto itself.

All efforts to combine the States into a single, consolidated government were therefore acts of usurpation.


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Robert Broadus (aka Brutus) is a writer and course instructor for Institute on the Constitution, an educational outreach that presents the Founders’ American View of Law and Government. Broadus is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and as Navy Veteran he is not a Republican or a Democrat — he is an Anti-Federalist. Broadus hosted the East-Coast Anti-Federalist radio show on Liberty Works Radio, and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives from the state of Maryland. Robert has contributed to Fox News, AOL News, The New York Times, CBS, Rush Limbaugh Show, Washington Times, and more
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  • WXRGina

    Great column! I’m always wondering why people are always citing the Federalists and their papers but not the Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists have arguments every bit as good, if not better, than the Federalists. The Anti-Federalists feared the very thing we have today: tyrannical, centralized federal government.

    • http://www.americanclarion.com/ Bob Ellis

      The Federalists won the day, so they got all the press, but it seems the Anti-Federalists are having the last laugh. Only I’m sure they wouldn’t be laughing at our current situation.

      I do still believe the federal government needed more strength than the Articles provided for, but the dangers therein are being played out before our very eyes.

      John Adams was right that there was only one way the U.S. Constitution could work:

      we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

      And the Left is Hell-bent on making us anything but a moral and religious people.

      Lately I’ve started saying that if King George were still alive today, he would rightly have cause to demand an apology from America. In other words, we are blissfully putting up with far more intrusion and oppression from our own government that King George ever forced on us.

      • WXRGina

        You’re so right, Bob. King George was mild compared to our current regime.

        The balance between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was just about the best system in the history of the world: the U.S. Constitution. And as you pointed out, what President Adams said makes or breaks it.

  • The Blue Tail Gadfly

    Interesting, Glenn Beck is promoting the same revisionism. To suggest Anti-Federalists wanted to be free and the Federalists didn’t, is nothing more than a completely false straw-man argument.

    Funny, Thomas Jefferson commented on the Federalist Papers and referred
    to them as, “the best commentary on the principles of government which
    ever was written.”

    Robert Broadus, aka “Brutus”, is warping and twisting history to support his subversive agenda.

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