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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"It will wait upon the ladies at their toilett..."

Some of the greatest writing in the history of political science occured between 1787 and 1789 during the debate over the ratification of the federal Constitution. A series of famous essays known as the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay and expounded the principal arguments in favor of it. These writings have provided perhaps the most important primary source for constitutional interpretation. Not as widely known but just as important are the Anti-Federalist Papers, a collection of writings and speeches opposed to ratification authored by among others Robert Yates, Richard Henry Lee, George Clinton and Patrick Henry. Quoting the link:

[The Anti-Federalist Papers] contain warnings of dangers from tyranny that weaknesses in the proposed Constitution did not adequately provide against, and while some of those weaknesses were corrected by adoption of the Bill of Rights, others remained, and some of these dangers are now coming to pass.

Both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers are writings with which every student of the American political system should be familiar. Among my favorites are Brutus V and Brutus VI in which Robert Yates, who wrote in the New York Journal under the pseudonym "Brutus", logically analyzes the "general welfare" clause as well as the likely consequences of granting the federal government the power to levy excise taxes . Yates' prescience should not be surprising. His work illustrates the enormous power of thinking in principle, a concept totally foreign to modern intellectuals and their dimwitted albeit loyal offspring - modern politicians. Some excellent context on Brutus by Professor Gary Galles can be found here. As Professor Galles states:

The anti-federalists 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 all laws) and the "all laws necessary and proper" clause (which would expand limited federal power to all-inclusive), leading to a federal government so powerful that its powers were bound to be abused.

One particular concern was that it gave the national government almost unlimited taxing discretion.

In Brutus V, Yates writes:

1st. To detail the particulars comprehended in the general terms, taxes, duties, imposts and excises, would require a volume, instead of a single piece in a news-paper. Indeed it would be a task far beyond my ability, and to which no one can be competent, unless possessed of a mind capable of comprehending every possible source of revenue; for they extend to every possible way of raising money, whether by direct or indirect taxation. Under this clause may be imposed a poll-tax, a land-tax, a tax on houses and buildings, on windows and fire places, on cattle and on all kinds of personal property: -- It extends to duties on all kinds of goods to any amount, to tonnage and poundage on vessels, to duties on written instruments, newspapers, almanacks, and books: -- It comprehends an excise on all kinds of liquors, spirits, wines, cyder, beer, etc. and indeed takes in duty or excise on every necessary or conveniency of life; whether of foreign or home growth or manufactory. In short, we can have no conception of any way in which a government can raise money from the people, butwhat is included in one or other of three general terms. We may say then that this clause commits to the hands of the general legislature every conceivable source of revenue within the United States. Not only are these terms very comprehensive, and extend to a vast number of objects, but the power to lay and collect has great latitude; it will lead to the passing a vast number of laws, which may affect the personal rights of the citizens of the states, expose their property to fines and confiscation, and put their lives in jeopardy: it opens a door to the appointment of a swarm of revenue and excise officers to pray [sic] upon the honest and industrious part of the community, eat up their substance, and riot on the spoils of the country.

Yates continues in Brutus VI with one of my favorite passages:

This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every comer of the city, and country — It will wait upon the ladies at their toilett, and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour, preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bed-chamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take cognizance of the professional man in his office, or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop, and in his work, and will haunt him in his family, and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour, it will be with him in the house, and in the field, observe the toil of his hands, and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States. To all these different classes of people, and in all these circumstances, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them, will be GIVE! GIVE!

I agree with Professor Galles conclusion:

If Brutus was here to witness our current tax tab, he would conclude that he had been far too optimistic. A federal government, grown orders of magnitudes larger than he could ever have imagined, guarantees tax burdens beyond his worst nightmare.


C. August said...

Thank you for blogging about this. I had never heard of the Anti-Federalist papers before (or if I had, it didn't register as anything to take note of.) The quote you included from Brutus VI is chilling. And the thought that Yates was being optimistic in his predictions is worse.

Is the link you included the best source for them? The bibliography on that site lists some books about the Anti-Federalist Papers, but I'm curious if you have any recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your comment.

I was very surprised myself at the level of discord surrounding the ratification of the Constitution and the brilliant argumentation on both sides.

(What is also interesting is that the debate continued throughout the 1790's and manifested in the formation of the nation's first two political parties: the Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalist, led by Hamilton and to a lesser extent Adams, believed in a strong central government and interpreted the Constitution very broadly. The Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, read the Constitution very narrowly and were very concerned about the powers of the federal government vis-a-vis states rights. In this spirit, the Republicans vehemently opposed the idea of a standing army and even accused Hamilton and Adams of plotting a monarchy - which wasn't too far off in Hamilton's case...)

I can recommend two books:

* "The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates" edited by Ralph Ketcham

* "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign" by Edward J. Larson

The first is a primary source and can be read directly against The Federalist Papers. The second book is interesting in that it displays how much the same people who wrote and debated the Constitution would interpret it only 10 years later and how much they grew to fear and despise each other.

The Founders are sometimes lumped into one sort of monolithic political category but the books bring out the serious and profound differences amongst them intellectually and as well the heated and sometimes very ugly political rivalries that formed out of it. These arguments could not be more relevant today and should be thoroughly studied.

C. August said...

Thanks for the recommendations. My reading list just gets longer and longer...