Mises Daily Articles
The Antifederalists Were Right
September 27 marks the anniversary of the publication of the first of the Antifederalist Papers in 1789. The Antifederalists were opponents of ratifying the US Constitution. They feared that it would create an overbearing central government, while the Constitution's proponents promised that this would not happen. As the losers in that debate, they are largely overlooked today. But that does not mean they were wrong or that we are not indebted to them.
In many ways, the group has been misnamed. Federalism refers to the system of decentralized government. This group defended states rights — the very essence of federalism — against the Federalists, who would have been more accurately described as Nationalists. Nonetheless, what the so-called Antifederalists predicted would be the results of the Constitution turned out to be true in most every respect.
The Antifederalists warned us that the cost Americans would bear in both liberty and resources for the government that would evolve under the Constitution would rise sharply. That is why their objections led to the Bill of Rights, to limit that tendency (though with far too little success that has survived to the present).
Antifederalists opposed the Constitution on the grounds that its checks on federal power would be undermined by expansive interpretations of promoting the "general welfare" (which would be claimed for every law) and the "all laws necessary and proper" clause (which would be used to override limits on delegated federal powers), creating a federal government with unwarranted and undelegated powers that were bound to be abused.
One could quibble with the mechanisms the Antifederalists predicted would lead to constitutional tyranny. For instance, they did not foresee that the Commerce Clause would come to be called "the everything clause" in law schools, used by centralizers to justify almost any conceivable federal intervention. The 20th-century distortion of the clause's original meaning was so great even the vigilant Antifederalists could never have imagined the government getting away with it.
And they could not have foreseen how the Fourteenth Amendment and its interpretation would extend federal domination over the states after the Civil War. But it is very difficult to argue with their conclusions from the current reach of our government, not just to forcibly intrude upon, but often to overwhelm Americans today.
Therefore, it merits remembering the Antifederalists' prescient arguments and how unfortunate is the virtual absence of modern Americans who share their concerns.
One of the most insightful of the Antifederalists was Robert Yates, a New York judge who, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, withdrew because the convention was exceeding its instructions. Yates wrote as Brutus in the debates over the Constitution. Given his experience as a judge, his claim that the Supreme Court would become a source of almost unlimited federal over-reaching was particularly insightful.
Brutus asserted that the Supreme Court envisioned under the Constitution would become a source of massive abuse because they were beyond the control "both of the people and the legislature," and not subject to being "corrected by any power above them." As a result, he objected to the fact that its provisions justifying the removal of judges didn't include making rulings that went beyond their constitutional authority, which would lead to judicial tyranny.
Brutus argued that when constitutional grounds for making rulings were absent, the Court would create grounds "by their own decisions." He thought that the power it would command would be so irresistible that the judiciary would use it to make law, manipulating the meanings of arguably vague clauses to justify it.
The Supreme Court would interpret the Constitution according to its alleged "spirit", rather than being restricted to just the "letter" of its written words (as the doctrine of enumerated rights, spelled out in the Tenth Amendment, would require).
Further, rulings derived from whatever the court decided its spirit was would effectively "have the force of law," due to the absence of constitutional means to "control their adjudications" and "correct their errors". This constitutional failing would compound over time in a "silent and imperceptible manner", through precedents that built on one another.
Expanded judicial power would empower justices to shape the federal government however they desired, because the Supreme Court's constitutional interpretations would control the effective power vested in government and its different branches. That would hand the Supreme Court ever-increasing power, in direct contradiction to Alexander Hamilton's argument in Federalist 78 that the Supreme Court would be "the least dangerous branch."
Brutus predicted that the Supreme Court would adopt "very liberal" principles of interpreting the Constitution. He argued that there had never in history been a court with such power and with so few checks upon it, giving the Supreme Court "immense powers" that were not only unprecedented, but perilous for a nation founded on the principle of consent of the governed. Given the extent to which citizens' power to effectively withhold their consent from federal actions has been eviscerated, it is hard to argue with Brutus's conclusion.
He further warned that the new government would not be restricted in its taxing power, and that the legislatures war power was highly dangerous: "the power in the federal legislative, to raise and support armies at pleasure, as well in peace as in war, and their controul over the militia, tend, not only to a consolidation of the government, but the destruction of liberty."
He also objected to the very notion that a republican form of government can work well over such a vast territory, even the relatively small terrority as compared with today's US:
History furnishes no example of a free republic, anything like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world.
Brutus accurately described both the cause (the absence of sufficient enforceable restraints on the size and scope of the federal government) and the consequences (expanding burdens and increasing invasions of liberty) of what would become the expansive federal powers we now see all around us.
But today, Brutus would conclude that he had been far too optimistic. The federal government has grown orders of magnitudes larger than he could ever have imagined (in part because he was writing when only indirect taxes and the small federal government they could finance were possible, before the 16th Amendment opened the way for a federal income tax in 1913), far exceeding its constitutionally enumerated powers, despite the constraints of the Bill of Rights. The result burdens citizens beyond his worst nightmare.
The judicial tyranny that was accurately and unambiguously predicted by Brutus and other Antifederalists shows that in essential ways, they were right and that modern Americans still have a lot to learn from them. We need to understand their arguments and take them seriously now, if there is to be any hope of restraining the federal government to the limited powers it was actually granted in the Constitution, or even anything close to them, given its current tendency to accelerate its growth beyond them.