Picking up where I left off in my review of the ratification debate, I want to address the question I raised at the end of last week’s essay, “What was the problem?”
If the government as established under the Articles had so many successes, how did it end up being replaced by the government as established under the Constitution?
There were some perceived and actual weaknesses of the government as established under the Articles of Confederation:
- The national government was too weak as compared to the State governments.
- There was only a unicameral legislature and thus there was not a separate executive department to carry out and enforce the acts of Congress.
- There was no national court system to interpret the meaning of the laws passed by Congress, leaving them open to differing interpretations.
- Congress didn’t have the power to levy taxes. It was instead dependent on State donations, which were levied on the basis of the value of land within the various states.
- Congress did not have the exclusive right to coin money. Each state retained the right to coin money. Without a uniform monetary system the coins of one state might not be accepted in another, hampering commerce.
- There was no mechanism to adjudicate disputes between the states.
- The Individual States were not precluded from having their own foreign policies, including the right to make treaties.
- Each State had one vote in Congress with no respect to size or population.
- It required nine out of the thirteen states to approve the passage of major laws, approve treaties, or declare war.
- The amendment process was cumbersome, requiring a unanimous vote.
Some of these weaknesses caused actual problems during the Articles short tenure, and some were merely perceived as possible sources of problems in the future.
So how did we get from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution?
It was commerce that proved to be the catalyst for the transition between the Articles and the Constitution.
Disputes concerning navigation on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia led the calling of a conference between five states at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786. Alexander Hamilton was one of the delegates. He successfully convinced the delegates that these issues of commerce were too intertwined with primarily economic and political concerns to be properly addressed by representatives of only five states. Instead, he proposed that all of the states send representatives to a Federal Convention the following year in Philadelphia. At first, Congress was opposed to this plan However, when they learned that Virginia would send George Washington they approved of the meeting. Elections of delegates were subsequently held in all of the States except Rhode Island which ignored the summons.
The Convention had been authorized by Congress merely to draft proposals for amendments to the Articles of Confederation. However, as soon as it convened they decided on their own to throw the Articles aside and instead create a completely new form of government.
Was the writing of the Constitution legal? Who gave the Federal Convention authority to discard the Articles of Confederation which had been duly ratified by all thirteen States? Was this a counterrevolution?
The answers to these questions have been debated by historians and constitutional scholars for hundreds of years, but in reality the answers are moot. Whether the Federal Convention had any legal sanction to do what they did doesn’t matter. The action was eventually accepted by the Congress, the ratification conventions were held in the various States, and eventually it was ratified becoming the supreme law of the land.
Now we are ready to look at the Great Debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
First, what about the terms, “Federalist” and “Anti-Federalist” how appropriate were they during the debate?
New Speak is nothing new in politics, and the concept of words having power to shape reality was not invented by George Orwell. Look at the original debate of the ratification of the Constitution, and as a consequence how we have studied, learned, and even shaped the debate in this lecture concerning the ratification of the Constitution.
Think about the central term itself. Federalism refers to decentralized government. Those who supported the Constitution, who advocated that it replace the Articles of Confederation, which if nothing else established a decentralized system of government, called themselves “Federalists,” even though they wanted a more centralized government. This left the supporters of the Articles, who wanted a decentralized government, to be known then and forever as the “Anti-Federalists,” when in fact they were the true Federalists.
So much for the straight forward clarity of Historical fact, everything must be examined and everything interpreted.
In the study of the debate for the ratification of the Constitution, a common mistake made is the shallowness of the study. In a good school, the average student will be exposed to perhaps two of the Federalist Letters and none of the Anti-Federalist Letters, which is like trying to understand an answer without knowing what the question was. In this abbreviated look at the subject, we will look at both sides in general seeking instead an overview of the topic leaving the specifics to a personal study, which will without a doubt enrich the understanding of any who find the motivation for such an endeavor.
The Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers were actually published as newspaper articles for the general public. This in itself tells us much about the comparative state of public education and awareness between the American general public in the late Eighteenth Century and the early Twenty-first. When we examine the two sets of papers and dwell upon the vocabulary and the breadth and depth of the philosophical, political, and economical ideas expressed, we are immediately struck by the fact that the average person in America today would not be able to understand the sophisticated and specialized vocabulary let alone grasp the ideas. And yet these were not published in journals for the educated elite. These were published in general circulation newspapers and were actually debated and referenced across the dinner tables and around the workshops of America.
Next week we will look deeper into these two sets of documents that have had such a profound effect upon America and find out exactly who the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were and why does it matter to us today?
Dr. Robert R. Owens teaches history, political science, religion, and leadership for Southside Virginia Community College. Dr. Owens is the author of “America Won the Vietnam War,” “The Asuza Street Revival,” and called “The Constitution Failed.” He is available for speaking engagements.