Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book review - The Anti-Federalists.

Jackson Turner Main's book The Anti-Federalists is subtitled "Critics of the Constitution 1781-1788." The 286 page book was published in 1961.

I had always been interested in the ratification battles concerning the U.S. Constitution so I was eager to read Mr. Main's book. While I did find the read to be tedious at times I was not disappointed. Mr. Main first lays the political foundation for the ratification fight and then breaks down the ratification battles by state. While his delving into state by state politics makes the book drag at times it remains an interesting read.

I was previously aware that such notables as Elbridge Gerry, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and George Mason had opposed the Constitution as establishing a too powerful Federal Government. I was not aware that the they did not have a problem with strengthening the Federal Government as it then existed. Their concern was that the Constitution, as written, gave too much power to what they perceived would be a National, not Federal, government. In fact, several opponents called themselves "real Federalists." They did this because they felt that the true issue was whether or not the United States would have a national government or federal one. A national government was perceived as overshadowing and eventually absorbing the states. A federal system was perceived as the states delegating certain powers to a very limited central government but maintaining their rights to govern their internal affairs as they saw fit.

The proponents of the Constitution countered by stating that the proposed government was not national in nature but federal and would never trample on the states. This won over some anti-federalists but most remained concerned. As intervening history has proven, they had good cause to be so concerned.

Another division that Mr. Main explores is the financial one. Most federalist were well off while the anti-federalists were generally the working class. The middle class was mostly evenly split. This led to some heights of rhetoric which I was surprised at. Some of the opponents of the Constitution called for redistribution of wealth. Somewhat of a contradictory view for those who were concerned about an overreaching federal government.

All in all I give The Anti-Federalists a half a thumb up. While the subject matter is of great interest Mr. Main often becomes bogged down in the minutia of the fight. This leads to his well-researched volume dragging at some key times. A good book for anyone interested in the origins of the Constitution and those who have ever wondered why The Federalist Papers needed to be written.

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