There Is Only One Political Debate In US History

‘… The new constitution in its present form is calculated to produce despotism, thraldom and confusion, and if the United States do swallow it, they will find it a bolus, that will create convulsions to their utmost extremities. Were they mine enemies, the worst imprecation I could devise would be, may they adopt it. For tyranny, where it has been chained (as for a few years past) is always more cursed, and sticks its teeth in deeper than before. Were Col. [George] Mason’s objections obviated, the improvement would be very considerable, though even then, not so complete as might be. The Congress’s having power without control-to borrow money on the credit of the United States; their having power to appoint their own salaries, and their being paid out of the treasury of the United States, thereby, in some measure, rendering them independent of the individual states; their being judges of the qualification and election of their own members, by which means they can get men to suit any purpose; together with Col. Mason’s wise and judicious objections-are grievances, the very idea of which is enough to make every honest citizen exclaim in the language of Cato, 0 Liberty, 0 my country! Our present constitution, with a few additional powers to Congress, seems better calculated to preserve the rights and defend the liberties of our citizens, than the one proposed, without proper amendments. Let us therefore, for once, show our judgment and solidity by continuing it, and prove the opinion to be erroneous, that levity and fickleness are not only the foibles of our tempers, but the reigning principles in these states. There are men amongst us, of such dissatisfied tempers, that place them in Heaven, they would find something to blame; and so restless and self- sufficient, that they must be eternally reforming the state. But the misfortune is, they always leave affairs worse than they find them. A change of government is at all times dangerous, but at present may be fatal, without the utmost caution, just after emerging out of a tedious and expensive war. Feeble in our nature, and complicated in our form, we are little able to bear the rough Posting of civil dissensions which are likely to ensue. Even now, discontent and opposition distract our councils. Division and despondency affect our people. Is it then a time to alter our government, that government which even now totters on its foundation, and will, without tender care, produce ruin by its fall?’


The Federalist vs Anti-Federalist debate is really the only debate in US political history. If you’re not familiar with it then you’re not grasping the full meaning of today’s political wrangling. That this debate was never settled has really retarded our political growth. That we can’t settle such a fundamental difference of opinion means we can never move on to the details that need to be settled day to day and year to year, we just keep redrawing the lines on the same old division.

‘How far the clause in the eighth section of the first article may operate to do away with all idea of confederated States, and to effect an entire consolidation of the whole into one general government, it is impossible to say. The powers given by this article are very general and comprehensive, and it may receive a construction to justify the passing almost any law. A power to make all laws, which shall be necessary and proper, for carrying into execution all powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or any department or officer thereof, is a power very comprehensive and definite, and may, for aught I know, be exercised in such manner as entirely to abolish the State legislatures. Suppose the legislature of a State should pass a law to raise money to support their government and pay the State debt; may the Congress repeal this law, because it may prevent the collection of a tax which they may think proper and necessary to lay, to provide for the general welfare of the United States? For all laws made, in pursuance of this Constitution, are the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of the different States to the contrary notwithstanding. By such a law, the government of a particular State might be overturned at one stroke, and thereby be deprived of every means of its support.

It is not meant, by stating this case, to insinuate that the Constitution would warrant a law of this kind! Or unnecessarily to alarm the fears of the people, by suggesting that the Federal legislature would be more likely to pass the limits assigned them by the Constitution, than that of an individual State, further than they are less responsible to the people. But what is meant is, that the legislature of the United States are vested with the great and uncontrollable powers of laying and collecting taxes, duties, imposts, and excises; of regulating trade, raising and supporting armies, organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, instituting courts, and other general powers; and are by this clause invested with the power of making all laws, proper and necessary, for carrying all these into execution; and they may so exercise this power as entirely to annihilate all the State governments, and reduce this country to one single government. And if they may do it, it is pretty certain they will; for it will be found that the power retained by individual States, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States; the latter, therefore, will be naturally inclined to remove it out of the way. Besides, it is a truth confirmed by the unerring experience of ages, that every man, and every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over everything that stands in their way. This disposition, which is implanted in human nature, will operate in the Federal legislature to lessen and ultimately to subvert the State authority, and having such advantages, will most certainly succeed, if the Federal government succeeds at all. It must be very evident, then, that what this Constitution wants of being a complete consolidation of the several parts of the union into one complete government, possessed of perfect legislative, judicial, and executive powers, to all intents and purposes, it will necessarily acquire in its exercise in operation.’



5 thoughts on “There Is Only One Political Debate In US History

  1. What-ifs are difficult to predict. It was definitely reasonable for the anti-federalists to express grave concerns about a constitution that was produced in secret and in violation of the powers delegated by Congress to reform the Articles of Confederation. And as you demonstrate, many of the fears of the anti-Federalists have come true, though they didn’t happen overnight.

    I think that the presence of George Washington and Ben Franklin, among others, generated support for the new constitution that otherwise wouldn’t have existed at all. Even so, it took the addition of the Bill of Rights to persuade the final states to accept it. Eventually even Patrick Henry was won over.

    On the whole, the powers between the states and the federal government was pretty well-balanced at this time. The states paid the federal taxes, not the people. The states took care of most of their own internal improvements. Even the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government at the time, leaving states to regulate speech and state religion. The 10th Amendment still applied.

    But the federal government did gradually overstep its authority as originally designed, but it took quite a while for this to get out of hand. (Seventy years, actually.)

    The trouble with the Articles of Confederation, perhaps even an amended Articles, is that they risked the country going the other way. Instead of gradually consolidating into one overwhelming central government, the federal government very possibly could have slowly disintegrated in favor of the states. Nullification, the cutting off of federal funds, and eventually secession could have led to a century of wars and insurrections and external meddling much like events in South America during the 19th century.

    It’s hard to complain about the way things turned out for the first 170 years of the constitution’s existence, and I say this in spite of the wasteful hell of the Civil War. The country turned out pretty well till the 1960’s, though the seeds of destruction came out of the ashes of the 1860’s.

    But perhaps I miss the point. The debate today still remains one of federal power versus state power. However, we seem to be getting ready to move on to the next debate: us versus them, the simple struggle to survive as a people.

    • Good comment.
      I think a century of organised warfare between states would have been preferable to the us vs them fight you refer to. Organised warfare has defined boundaries, I think we’re looking at something like the Middle East or the Mexican border and there won’t be anywhere to go to get away from it; it will effect every state and eventually even Canada.

      My kid may live in very trying times.

      • Would you rather that our children live in trying times, or in a dystopia of unrestricted soul-less pleasure, gadgets, and an ever-watchful nanny state?

        It will be a time of hell on earth, but it will also be a time of glory.

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