Anti-Federalists and Modern Conservatism
I’ve been continuing my journey through Thomas Pangle’s course Great Debates: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution. The most recent lectures concentrated on the Anti-Federalist arguments in opposition to the Constitution and the ideas which went into it. I’m hearing clear echos of their ideas and beliefs in elements of modern conservatism.
In the classical view of a republic, the leaders were men of great virtue whose task it was to maintain and improve the virtue of the republic and its citizens. In the modern version, proposed by Montesquieu, the republic was made more democratic. In this view, the common people should govern, and the representatives of the people should be like their constituents in as many ways as possible, for instance, in wealth and religion. There are echoes of this in recent conservative commentary, often expressed in terms of anti-elitism, and in a belief in electing the person you most want to have a beer with.
Professor Pangle follows up on this by pointing out the importance of juries in the early years. Whereas juries today are only allowed to decide on points of fact, with judges deciding on points of law, in early America juries decided both. The Anti-Federalists objected quite strenuously to the Constitution’s provisions reserving to the Constitution and the judges the right to decide on matters of law. With this, the judiciary become an elite, distanced from the populace. Echoes again today in more populist conservatism against judicial activism. Among the conservative elite is the notion of strict construction of the Constitution; but among these more populist strains is the notion that we the people should be allowed to decide.
The other element in the Anti-Federalist view was the role of virtue and religion. The Articles of Confederation acknowledged God in the last article, “And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and the authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union.” Here we have a view shared by religious elements of the conservative body in modern times, that God does and should be allowed to guide us as we carry out our duties of government, and that we should acknowledge and appreciate it. Many Anti-Federalists were appalled by the lack of mention of God in the Constitution, and further by the provision that “there shall be no religious test for office.” It is religion which gives us virtue; if there is no religious test for office, non-religious citizens could win office, and how can we be governed by non-virtuous people, those who don’t have a religion, they ask.
This latter notion plays into arguments today about the separation of church and state. In modern conservatism is the echo of the Anti-Federalists, the belief that religion makes us better people and needs to be at the center of public life.
The Federalists countered by emphasizing the role of government in national security and in protecting the nation. As Professor Pangle elucidates the Federalist ideas, I am struck by this feeling that government is “other”, it is this thing which is not quite the body of the people themselves, but an abstraction outside this body. This seems to be what populist conservatives today protest against. For the Anti-Federalists, the government was the body of the citizenry; they objected, as do conservatives today, to this sense of a government with a life of its own beyond the people.
In stepping back, though, I am also struck by the sense that the Anti-Federalists and populist conservatives today operate in a more narrow world. The Federalists argued that the Anti-Federalists wanted small republics on the classical model, where intimacy and relative homogeneity were forces keeping the republic together. They want a republic where everyone is more or less just like them. They believe that the republic is best led by people just like them.
I live in a neighborhood which is fairly diverse racially and ethnically. We had a large gathering at a park for a send-off of some neighbors who were moving away. One of the fellows, who I imagine was a populist, and certainly a religious, conservative, gave a little speech in which he said that the neighbors who were leaving, who were not from the United States, nevertheless looked just like us. Here he was, a white man, looking out over a see of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, African-American, Hispanic, and white neighbors, and yet he saw only white people.
The Federalists argued that we cannot build a viable government on the principles of small republics. And yet much of modern populist conservatism seems to me to be an attempt to imagine a large, rambling, diverse, and complicated nation as if it were a small, homogeneous republic, where everyone is “just like us”.