Jeff Shettler     

History 583

October 18, 2006


Précis: The Other Founders; Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828, Saul Cornell, The University of North Carolina Press, 1999


     In The Other Founders, Saul Cornell examines the history of debate and dissent in the forming of the United States government.  In making his argument, Cornell points out that Anti-Federalist thought was not just a single line of reasoning that can be pigeon-holed into one basic theme.  Instead, the author notes that the views of the Anti-federalists were as varied as the people who held them.  Instead of simply being for “states rights,” as many historians have asserted, Anti-federalists expressed concerns about courts, juries, the rights of the people, the use of the “public sphere” in political debates, and whether the framers had devised a truly federal government or an all-powerful national one.  All of these issues all ran through the commentary and debate that proceeded throughout the ratification period and into the 1790s and beyond.


Part I


     Information from both the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist camps was distributed to the people through various channels.  Through the pamphlets, papers, and, on occasion, manuscripts, the ideas of the Anti-Federalists found their way to the public.  Interestingly, Cornell points out that most of these writings were produced (and sometimes intended) only for small audiences and not reproduced in large quantities.  Even so, the Anti-Federalists’ views found their way into the American discourse of the time.  The debate seemed not only accepted by both sides, but encouraged.  As one writer put it “Those who are competent to the task of developing government, ought to be encouraged to come forward.”

     In the first section of the book, Cornell outlines the arguments that the Anti-Federalists shared.  Among the complaints against the constitution that appeared in the literature were the lack of a bill of rights, the degree of authority granted to federal courts, and the absence of references to express liberties and rights of the citizens.  Many of the items Anti-Federalists wished to see incorporated in the new constitution came directly from the Articles of Confederation, such as the right to bear arms and the fears associated with a standing army.  Size of the government was also a significant concern for the Anti-Federalists since they believed that a government based far from most of the citizens would be unresponsive to them.  They instead maintained that state and local governments would better secure the future of republicanism.     

     Although most Anti-Federalists spoke against stratification of the social order, each social class made a distinct contribution to Anti-Federalist constitutional thought.  The social elite became an important part of the process of dissent.  Cornell points out that having this elite on the side of the Anti-Federalists helped to lend credence to their arguments.  These people with political connections helped to insure that Anti-Federalist ideas would gain widespread circulation.  The middling classes, represented most effectively by writers such as Federal Farmer, spoke out against the aristocracy they saw rising in government and believed that the only way to combat this trend was to have government placed close to home.  For their part, the populist plebeians rose up in violent opposition against the constitution in the Carlisle riots. 

     The Anti-Federalist opposition began to gain a greater footing as states such as New York and Massachusetts agreed to ratify the constitution with the understanding that amendments to the original document would be taken up at a second congress.  With the fear of “mobocracy” lingering in the wake of the Carlisle riots, the more moderate middling democrats distanced themselves from the populist plebeians and began to take control of the Anti-Federalist agenda. As a result, the Anti-Federalists began to focus on working within the new government to bring about the amendments they desired.


Part II


     Once the states ratified the constitution, opposition to the constitution itself seemed to dissipate.  Instead, the Anti-Federalists took their place in government and carried on their tradition of dissent by engaging in debate from within.  From the structure of representation to arguments over the proper wording of the amendments, the Anti-Federalists staked out positions to challenge the Federalists and thereby established for themselves the role of loyal opposition.

     Now that the Anti-Federalists had become part of the government, new alliances began to emerge.  With the advent of the “Court Party” that sought to bring more power to the executive branch of the government, many moderate Federalists began to agree with certain views of their erstwhile opponents.  As many of the former Anti-Federalists’ fears came to be realized, leaders such as Jefferson and Madison began to switch their allegiance and joined the loyal opposition.

     This amalgam of former Federalists and Anti-Federalists became the Democratic-Republicans.  Their opposition to Hamiltonian ideas became the glue that held them together.  The Democratic-Republicans opposed Hamilton’s plan to create a national bank, stating that this initiative fell outside the authority the Constitution had given to the national government.  The controversy over this and later issues such as the use of troops to put down the whiskey rebellion solidified the views of this dissenting group.


Part III


     The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 appeared to many as another example of the national government making a grab for more power.  The opposition responded by exploring new ways to oppose the government.  The compact treaty of federal government proposed that the states, as signatories to the constitution, could put a check on the powers the national government was accruing.  Jefferson and Madison were able to put through resolutions in both the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures attesting to the rights and duty of the states to oppose any unconstitutional acts.

     The tradition of dissent in America was forged in the heat of the debates that occurred at the founding of the nation.  The Anti-Federalists began a line of debate that politicians continue to invoke to this day.  This form of debate helped to defend the rights of the people and limit the powers of the national government; without it, Americans’ liberties would certainly be more circumscribed than they are today.  Through the debate over the constitution to the opposition of Hamiltonian politics and the Alien and Sedition acts, the loyal opposition left its mark on American politics.  Regardless of whether its agenda was accepted or discarded, the nature of the debate changed the way the government was formed and its laws were written.