What We can Learn from the Anti-Federalists

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The Federalist Papers are widely studied because their authors took the apparently winning side of the debate: They favored adopting the Constitution, and we adopted it. But the Antifederalist Papers deserve as much attention and greater reverence: The antifederalists were not opposed to a national constitution — they opposed the Constitution as originally presented, because they feared a national government of unlimited power. It is thanks to the antifederalists that we have the Bill of Rights.

The federalists, by comparison, seemed not to grasp the dangers of government bureaucracy. Alexander Hamilton, the worst of our Founding Fathers, favored an essentially unlimited government and hoped he might be in charge of it. Writing in Federalist 23, he expresses the dangerous view that “there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community.” In other words, the government can do anything in the name of public safety. Screw your freedom.

Hamilton was in this case advocating for the power of direct taxation, so that the government would not be reliant upon raising revenues from the states. He lost this point, and, until the passage of the 16th Amendment, our government operated largely as intended, without the power to tax individuals.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard, “It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one-tenth part of their time, to be employed in its service.” What might he have thought of a government that demanded closer to one-third or one-half of the life’s work of its citizens?

Even in the earliest days it was obvious that bureaucracy would grow just as quickly as it was allowed to. When Jefferson became president, he wrote to Monroe that he had discovered “agencies upon agencies in every part of the earth, and for the most useless or mischievous purposes, and all of these opening doors for fraud and embezzlement far beyond the ostensible profits of the agency. These are things the existence of which no man dreamt.”

A year after leaving office, Jefferson wrote to David Howell: “I have been ever opposed to the party so falsely called federalists, because I believe them desirous of introducing, into our government, authorities hereditary or otherwise independent of the national will. These always consume the public contributions and oppress the people with labour and poverty.”

In response to Hamilton’s Federalist 23, the anti-federalist called “Brutus”, whose true identity remains unknown, criticizes the Constitution as proposed for granting Congress “general and unlimited” authority to borrow money: “By this means, they may create a national debt, so large, as to exceed the ability of the country ever to sink [that is, to pay it off]. I can scarcely contemplate a greater calamity that could befall this country, than to be loaded with a debt exceeding their ability ever to discharge. If this be a just remark, it is unwise and improvident to vest in the general government a power to borrow at discretion, without any limitation or restriction.”

Brutus writes that the unrestricted power to borrow, tax, and raise armies would combine to grant “unlimited authority and control over all the wealth and all the force of the union… It seems to me as absurd, as it would be to say that I was free and independent, when I had conveyed all my property to another, and was tenant to him, and had beside, given an indenture of myself to serve him during life.”

The antifederalists believed that the more control government had over money and force, the more disconnected it would become from the will of the people. To what might this ultimately lead?

It might lead to a government so all-powerful that it could compel its citizens to close their businesses, lock themselves in their homes, cover their faces in public, and test an experimental drug en masse.

It might lead to a government so corrupt that it would leave billions of dollars of military equipment — helmets, rifles, machineguns, trucks, tanks, helicopters, and planes — to our enemies simply so it can have an excuse to buy brand-new helmets, rifles, machine guns, trucks, tanks, helicopters, and planes from the military-industrial complex.

It might lead to a government so despotic that, in the name of public safety — that quality which Hamilton regarded as paramount — it would intercept, store and read all the private electronic communications of all its citizens.

It is no surprise that “Committee of Public Safety” was the title chosen by the French revolutionaries for the first organization in history that resembles a modern secret police — a proto-Gestapo.

The greatest abuses of power are perpetrated by governments, because they have the most power to abuse. The only way to limit a government’s potential for evil is to limit the government — this was the central piece of wisdom the antifederalists attained and the federalists lacked.

We are right to be concerned about domestic terrorism — right to be concerned about the federal government using its tremendous power to terrorize and dominate its own citizens. We may have guns, but the federal government has guns and organization. One at a time, it can put the troublemakers into special prisons until the rest of us are too scared to criticize.

Our greatest enemy is not the avowed leftists who work in the open to destroy America. It is the Republicans who pay lip-service to freedom and then vote to expand government power. The Republicans who act to protect their long-serving colleagues over the challenges of the MAGA insurgency. The Republicans who fail to support election integrity. The Republicans who vote for massive new infrastructure spending. We have supported them blindly for decades, but they haven’t simply failed us — they have betrayed us. They have helped bring about precisely those abuses which the antifederalists feared most.

If your local, state, or national representative is one of these Republicans, make sure you know who is challenging him in the primaries. If no one is challenging him, challenge him yourself. Fire your local Mitch Mconnell, your state-level Mitt Romney, your congressional Lindsay Graham. The only real qualifications for political office are those of the antifederalist: a love of America and a deep suspicion of government. If that’s you, this is your time.

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