I don't mean to offend. It's probably going to happen anyway.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Anti-Anti-Federalist Federalists...

This semester so far has been fascinating. I am taking a course in Constitutional Law, and it's given me rather a lot to think about.

I like to keep my ideals open to scrutiny and criticism. As such, some of the talk of the early days of the constitution was somewhat uncomfortable and thought provoking. I couldn't decide whether I liked the Federalists or Anti-Federalists more, or what I thought of John Marshall. It is easy for me to look at the constitution and say "This is awesome" but looking at the way it came to be, plus the immediacy of court cases that have political motivation is dizzying, confusing, and troubling.

Lets take a look at some ideologies.

The Federalists grew out of a frustration with the Articles of Confederation. They saw the failures of a weak national government time and time again, notably with Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts. The myriad currencies floating around, the interstate tariffs, the repeated rights violations across the fledgling nation, all made it abundantly clear that things were not so good in the social experiment started a decade earlier.

The Federalist answer to this, as perhaps you might have figured out from the name, was to strengthen the federal government. They saw the failures and squabbling of the states, and sought to rectify, by fiat if need be. A party made up of primarily merchants, plantation owners, and others who could be described as bourgeoise, they feared the destruction of their wealth by people like Daniel Shays. They sought to protect their positions.

Many of them sought the creation of an American Elite, such that the reins of power would always stay within the hands of those who would remain sympathetic. They feared democracy and the will of the mindless masses.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking "Euch, those evil Federalists are behind everything wrong with our country!" Others may be saying "Oh come now, be fair. The Federalists did lots of good stuff! Besides, half the stuff you couch in those critical terms are actually good!" If you're thinking either of those things, I've succeeded so far. Bear with me.

The Anti-Federalists in turn, well... The name basically said it all. Mostly small farmers and other landowners, (Since at the time, suffrage was based on land ownership. Stake in the game and all that) the Anti-Federalists opposed the Federalists in most things. Highly distrustful of the national government, having just fought a nasty war to get rid of a despotic government, they sought to maintain power in the states. Thomas Jefferson was something of a figurehead for the movement, and the Declaration of Independence was as a manifesto to them.

They foresaw a government run amok, with all things shoehorned under its purview. They foresaw a state of people utterly dependent on their overlords in government, who were themselves, though still technically answerable to the people, little less than full blown nobility. They saw the fundamental rights of humans tossed aside as blithely as a crisp wrapper.

Unfortunately, they didn't really have any ideas as to how to stop any of that either.

So, here we have on the one hand the centralization oriented Federalists, and the Anti-Federalists trying to be irritating and idealistic. And somewhere in all this conflict, we got a brilliant document that has stood the test of time remarkably well.

So, how do you get from point A to point B? Frankly, by doing what the Federalists want.

Reading the Federalist Papers is always a fascinating pursuit. While I think it in everyone's best interest to read all of them, you might as well start with the common ones, Federalist #10 and #51.

I am distinctly dubious of the modern federal government. Most of the things that the Anti-Federalists predicted have in fact come true. We have families that exist for politics. The Bill of Rights is under the sort of fire that wants to know what the meaning of 'IS' is. We have a federal government that is a picture perfect example of horrific bloat. We have a government debating my right to even write this post.

The thing is, I don't know of anything in a document that could have stopped this from happening. We've seen in places like Massachusetts, California, and New York that the states are not necessarily any better at preventing excess, and we know they are a good sight worse at some things, national defense for example. Reading the Constitution, specifically Article 1 Section 8, we should have had a government that would do precisely what it was needed to, and absolutely nothing more.

The problem is that people very quickly deviated from what was on the page. John Marshall is a fascinating case, in that while I haven't come across anything he stated yet that I think was wrong (not true of later courts) I know just how much his opinions have been used to justify ridiculous excess. Interstate Commerce clause anyone? The thing is, how do you stop someone from violating the Constitution with the Constitution? It's the same concept as stopping Alexis Aaron with JOML. (Just One More Law)

The opinion I have come to feels like something of a wash. Both the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists were right.

The AFs had remarkable foresight about the downsides of the Federalist system, and did something hugely needful in the creation of the Bill of Rights. (See the bit where just because it doesn't say the government can do something, it doesn't mean they won't, which was Madison's argument)

The Federalists in turn walked a very fine line of "Yes, this is flawed, but it seems to be the best bet we've got." Reading Federalist 10 and 51, Madison at least had no reservations about the fact that people were liable to screw stuff up royally. The Constitution can be read as just another political document, or it can be read, in conjunction with the Federalist Papers, as one of the most astute and shrewd analyses of human nature to have yet turned up in our long history.

No governmental system will ever be perfect. It's part of that whole "imperfect humans" thing, or, to be more crude about it, GIGO. The Federalists walked the razor's edge in creating a system that did just enough and no more. The fact that it took 150 years for Roosevelt to smarm in and screw it all up is a testament in and of itself to the document.

I've given this rather a lot of thought this semester, but I don't claim to be infallible. If you have any points to make, either in support or criticism of the position here, I absolutely welcome them. I do ask that you be polite, but my commenters tend to be really good about that, so I'm not worried.

Please pass this along if you found it interesting or informative. Until next time, Cheerio!

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