June 22, 2003

Lessons from the US Anti-Federalist movement

The Articles of Confederation were in effect from 1781 until 1789 when the US Constitution took effect.

In the debate over the European "Constitution", a growing number of references and comparisons have been made to the US constitutional process. It is now perhaps adequate to remember that notable men such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine and George Clinton were actually opposed to the US Constitution.

One of the most influential Anti-Federalist Papers were the "Cato" letters. Here is a small excerpt from "Cato" Letter VII, that remains as relevant now as when it was first published in The New-York Journal of January 3, 1788:

"Hitherto we have tied up our rulers in the exercise of their duties by positive restrictions_if the cord has been drawn too tight, loosen it to the necessary extent, but do not entirely unbind them. -- I am no enemy to placing a reasonable confidence in them but such an unbounded one as the advocates and framers of this new system advise you to, would be dangerous to your liberties; it has been the ruin of other governments, and will be yours, if you adopt with all its latitudinal powers -- unlimited confidence in governors as well as individuals is frequently the parent of deception [despotism?]. -- What facilitated the corrupt designs of Philip of Macedon, and caused the ruin of Athens, but the unbounded confidence in their statesmen and rulers? Such improper confidence Demosthenes was so well convinced had ruined his country, that in his second Philippic oration he remarks "that there is one common bulwark with which men of prudence are naturally provided, the guard and security of all people, particularly of free states, against the assaults of tyrants -- What is this? Distrust. Of this be mindful; to this adhere; preserve this carefully, and no calamity can affect you." -- Montesquieu observes, that "the course of government is attended with an insensible descent to evil, and there is no reascending to good without very great efforts. " The plain inference from this doctrine is, that rulers in all governments will erect an interest separate from the ruled, which will have a tendency to enslave them. There is therefore no other way of interrupting this insensible descent and warding off the evil as long as possible, than by establishing principles of distrust in your constituents, and cultivating the sentiment among yourselves."