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Massachusetts Anti-Federalists Take a Skeptical View of Federal Power

The ratification of the United States Constitution was the subject of intense discussion, debate, and dissent during the period 1787-1789. Democracy was yet a largely untried experiment, and those who pondered what form the new constitution should take grappled with basic questions concerning everything from the unreliability of elected officials to how to organize elections. Small farmers from the interior regions of states like Massachusetts and New York were especially wary of concentrating too much power in a centralized federal government. While the artisan class and merchant elite of coastal urban areas saw themselves benefiting from such an arrangement, Anti-Federalists such as the three authors of this article from April 1788 were far more suspicious of placing power in the hands of a government "possessed of the sword in one hand and the purse strings of the people in the other."

We suppose it next to impossible that every individual in this vast continental union, should have his wish with regard to every single article composing a frame of government.  And therefore, although we think it more agreeable to the principles of republicanism, that elections should be annual, yet as the elections in our own state government are so, we did not view it so dangerous to the liberties of the people, that we should have rejected the constitution merely on account of the biennial elections of the representatives—had we been sure that the people have any security even of this.  But this we could not find. For although it is said, that "the House of Representatives shall be chosen every second year, by the people of the several states" etc., and that "the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof," yet all this wholely superseded by a subsequent provision, which empowers Congress at any time to enact a law, whereby such regulations may be altered, except as to the places of choosing senators.  Here we conceive the people may be very materially injured, and in time reduced to a state of as abject vassalage as any people were under the control of the most mercenary despot that ever tarnished the pages of history, will us to say, it may be possible, if not probable, that the congress may be composed of men who will wish to burden and oppress the people.  In such case, will not their inventions be fruitful enough to devise occasions for postponing the elections? And if they can do this once, they can do this twice, they can thrice, so by degrees render themselves absolute and perpetual. Or, if they choose, they have another expedient.  They can alter the place of holding elections.  They can say, whatever the legislature of this state may order to the contrary, that all the elections of our representatives shall be made at Mechias, or at Williamstown.  Consequently, nine-tenths of the people will never vote.  And if this should be thought a measure favorable to their reelection, or the election of some tool for their mercenary purposes, we doubt not it will be thus ordered.  But says the advocates for the constitution, "it is not likely this will ever happen; we are not to expect our rulers will ever proceed to a wanton exercise of the powers given them,"  But what reason have we more than past ages, to expect that we shall be blessed with impeccable rulers? We think not any.  Although it has been said that every generation grows wiser and wiser, yet we have no reason to think they grow better and better. And therefore the probability lies upon the dark side.  Does not the experience of past ages teach, that men have generally exercised all the powers they had given them, and even have usurped upon them, in order to accomplish their own sinister and avaricious designs, whenever they thought they could do it with impunity?  This we presume will not be denied.  And it appeared to us that the arguments made use of by the favorers of the constitution, in the late convention at Boston, proceeded upon the plan of righteousness in those who are to rule over us, by virtue of this new form of government.  But these arguments, we confess, could have no weight with us, while we judge them to be founded altogether upon a slippery perhaps.

When we take a forward view of the proposed congress—seated in the federal city, ten miles square, fortified and replenished with all kinds of military stores and every implement; with a navy command on one side and a land army on the other—we say, when we view them thus possessed of the sword in one hand and the purse strings of the people in the other, we can see no security left for them in the enjoyment of their liberties, but what may proceed from the bare possibility that this supreme authority of the nation may be possessed of virtue and integrity sufficient to influence them in the administration of equal justice and equity among those whom they shall govern.  But why should we voluntarily choose to trust our all upon so precarious tenure as this?

Source | Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, vol. 6 (University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Creator | Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, Samuel Field
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, Samuel Field, “Massachusetts Anti-Federalists Take a Skeptical View of Federal Power,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 18, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/918.

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