FEDERALISTS v ANTI-FEDERALISTS PART FIVE: Noble Experiment or Unrealistic Dream?


Perhaps the number one objection the Anti-Federalists had against the proposed Constitution was that, in their opinion, the country was just too BIG to function under one, great Central Government. The only form of Government which Americans of the Revolutionary period even halfway trusted was Democracy– and History seemed to prove that Democracy simply could not work over a large geographical area.

Federalists and Anti-Federalist alike shared the view expressed by Brutus in his “Essay Four” of 29 November 1787 that “there can be no Free Government where the people are not possessed of the power of making the laws by which they are governed, either in their own persons [Pure Democracy], or by others substituted in their stead” [Republic]

I think it is worth a quick “aside” here to explain the way the word “Republic” was used by Madison and some others of the Founding Generation. ¬†Evidently, even to the people of Madison’s day, his repeated use of the term Republic was confusing, for even at the time, Madison felt obliged to clarify what he me meant by the use of the term in Federalist #10“a Republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” And in Federalist #39 Madison declares that for a Government to be called a “Republic”… “it is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people.” A “Republic,” he continues… “is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class”

Writing in Federalist #14, Madison maintained that the natural limit of a Pure Democracy “is that distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand.”

In his essay “Number One” of 18 October 1787, Brutus asserted that a “Democracy” (and by this term, the Founding Generation meant a government in which the people DIRECTLY voted for legislation themselves, not through representatives), must be confined to a single city, or at least limited to such bounds as that the people can conveniently assemble.”

How large an area a Representative Democracy (or “Republic,” to use Madison’s terminology) could function without degenerating into something less than “Free Government” was debatable, but Anti-Federalists were convinced it was some area a heckuvalot smaller than the millions upon millions of acres covered by the States of America.

Many Federalists were not, in their heart of hearts, actually very big fans of Democracy (also known as “Popular Government”), considering it a too erratic and undependable form of Government. Many of the Founders felt that the wishy-washy will of the People needed to be buffered by at least one layer of wise men above them, to calm and smooth their troubled and vacillating waters.

“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” [and] “in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths” wrote Madison in Federalist #10. “Instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which Popular Government have everywhere perished.”

— — — — —

Nevertheless, in spite of the drawbacks of Democracy, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that the only legitimate basis for Government was the Consent Of The People– and the only practical way to know that the citizenry gave their general consent to a Government’s administration was, well, to ask them. That meant, in one form or another, DEMOCRACY.

One benefit of Democracy, not to be underrated, is that if the People grow disenchanted with their leaders– the can simply vote them out of office– no need to resort to bloody revolution in the streets. In Federalist #21 Hamilton wrote that “where the whole power of the Government is in the hands of the people, there is the less pretence for the use of violent remedies in partial or occasional distempers of the State. The natural cure for an ill-administration in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.”

For most of the Revolutionary Generation, the solution for obtaining the benefits of Democracy while reducing its drawbacks was to found in Representative Democracy (“Republicanism” in the lingo of the time), in which the People voted for the people who would vote for or against (as well as make) the laws.

Madison and others felt that the best form of Representative Democracy would have NUMEROUS representatives of the People’s Will serving for SHORT terms with FREQUENT ELECTIONS.

Wrote Madison in Federalist #37“The genius of Republican liberty seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the People, but that those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the People by a short duration of their appointments; and that even during this short period, the trust should be placed not in a few, but a number of hands.”

With frequent elections, Representatives are kept on a short leash… Stray too far from the People’s will and they will jerked back quickly– by the threat of incurring popular displeasure and being ousted from office. And because Representatives frequently elected will alway be trying to stay in the good graces of their constituencies, they will often need to intermingle with them and hear them out, as a result of which they will acquire and maintain a fairly good approximation of the mind of the People.

As Madison wrote in Federalist #52, “it is essential to liberty that the government in general shold have a common interest with the people.” Agreeing whole-heartedly, Hamilton added in Federalist #79 that “the Republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs.”

Madison, also in Federalist #52, proclaimed that “frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.” For him, the general rule of Representative Democracy is… the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration.” (Although, granted, this was not exactly put into practice in the American system).

The Anti-Federalist Cato, writing 22 November 1787 in Letter Five, unhappy with the relatively long six-year duration of Senators, declared his support for YEARLY elections for the People’s Representatives.

Madison thought Cato’s suggestion was overkill. If elections are held TOO frequently, public policy will oscillate erratically. As he explained in Federalist #37, a frequent change of men will result from a frequent return of elections; and a frequent change of measures from a frequent change in men.” Stability, he wrote, “requires that the hands in which power is lodged should continue for a length of time”

Hamilton remarked on the fact that the mass of people sometimes get swept up in a passion, and the measures they clamour for may not be the measures they would want if in a cooler temper. A representative, at those times, must risk going against the temporary inflammations of the People, and vote or not vote according to what, according to his experience and conscious, is the wisest policy. If they are correct, when the People’s passions have cooled, they will not punish their Representative for his braving their whims. But this requires that there be enough time in the Representative’s term to allow for the benefits of his wiser policy to become apparent.

In Federalist #71, Hamilton wrote, putting it much better than me, that… “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.” This requires Representatives with “courage and magnanimity enough” to serve the people, even “at the peril of their displeasure.” Too frequently held elections would work against this, as it is a truth of politics, that when election time began to loom near, the politician’s confidence, and with it his firmness, would decline.”


Although it is somewhat unflattering to the average person, even those Founding Fathers who were avid supporters of Democracy were skittish about too DIRECT and UNFILTERED application of the desires of the masses. In Federalist #10, Madison points out that Republicanism offers the advantage over Pure Democracy of providing a Filter or Buffer between the policy and the People’s passions…

A Republican form of Government, he writes, will serve… “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”

In the same Number, Madison pondered the perfect number of Representatives… “The representatives must be raised to a certain number in order to guard against the cabals of a few” … but… “they must be limited to a certain number in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude” …Additionally, “by enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representative too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests” .. but then again… “by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects.”

In Madison’s opinion, “the Federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.”

The Anti-Federalists agreed with the general sentiment that Representative Democracy was the only way to go when it came to Government; they merely disagreed with the Federalists upon the particularities…

“Experience,” wrote Brutus in Essay Four (29 November 1787), “has taught mankind that legislation by Representation is the most eligible, and the only practicable mode” in which the people, “either prudently or beneficially” may exercise their right of national self-determination.

But… “it is a matter of the highest importance, in forming this representation, that it be so constituted as to be capable of understanding the true interests of the society for which it acts, and so disposed as to pursue the good and happiness of the People as its ultimate end.”

Brutus in Number One, 18 October 1787: Representatives… “must be such as to possess, be disposed, and consequently qualified to declare the sentiments of the people; for if they do not know, or are not disposed to speak the sentiments of the people, the people do not govern, but the sovereignty is in a few.”

Brutus held (Essay Four, 29 November 1787) that “the great art” of Republican Government is “to frame it as that those to whom the power is committed shall be subject to the same feelings, and aim at the same objects, as the People do who transfer to them their authority.”

“However fair an appearance any government may make,” he continued, “though it may possess a thousand plausible articles and be decorated with ever so many ornaments, yet if it is deficient in this essential principle of a full and just representation of the people, it will be only like a painted sepulcher.”

In a speech delivered 21 June 1788, Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith asserted that a Representative Government… “should be a true picture of the people; possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants; sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests” [Personally, I think this would also be a good rule for the making-up of JURIES]. “The knowledge necessary for the representatives of a free people,” said Smith, “not only comprehends extensive political and commercial information such as is acquired by men of refined education” […] “but it should also comprehend that kind of acquaintance with the common concerns and occupations of the people.”

A few days later (25 June 1788), Smith declared that, in practice, such a connection between a Representative and his constituency necessitates a small geographical area, stating that, “the nearer the Representative is to his constituent, the more attached and dependent he will be.”


For Federalist, a “Republican” Government, as opposed to “Pure Democracy,” opened up the possibility of extending the territory of a nation to a great size without the People giving up control.

However, the Anti-Federalists were far from convinced that even a Republican Government could work over so large an area as America…

For one thing, they felt that people separated from each other by too great a distance would naturally have different desires and needs. Wrote Brutus in Number One, 18 October 1787… “In a Republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar” … “If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be One Government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the Union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several States are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite.”

Madison, on the other hand, writing in Federalist #51, expressed his belief that the Union’s diversity, and the concomitant “multiplicity of interests,” would prove a source, not weakness, but of strength… “In the extended Republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of Justice and the General Good.” […] “The society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals or of the minority will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

The Anti-Federalists also felt that the number of Representatives to be elected at the Federal level would prove too few for safety. Writing in Essay Four (29 November 1787), Brutus complained that… “so small a number could not resemble the People, or possess their sentiments and dispositions.” He felt also that, “in a small representation, there was no security against bribery and corruption.”

Brutus wondered aloud... “whether it is practicable to have a representation for the whole Union sufficiently numerous to obtain that confidence which is necessary for the purpose of internal taxation and other powers to which this proposed Government extends.” Continuing ominously, he added… “if this Government should not derive support from the good will of the people, it must be executed by force, or not executed at all; either case would lead to the total destruction of liberty.”

Melancton Smith, in his speech of 20 June 1788, declared that any “government which is directed by the will of any one or a few, or any number less than is the will of the community, is a government for slaves.”

The Massachusetts Convention, on 7 February 1788, concerned that additional Representatives would not be added fast enough to keep pace with the growing population of the country, called for an Amendment to the Constitution stating that… “there shall be one Representative to every thirty thousand persons according to the Census mentioned in the Constitution until the whole number of the Representatives amounts to two hundred.” Imagine!– one Representative for every 30,000 seemed a minimum! Today, the House Of Representatives, numbering 425 members, provides about one Representative for every 900,000 persons.

The Pennsylvania Minority Opinion On Ratification proclaimed on 18 December 1787 that “the Legislature of a free country should be so formed as to have a competent knowledge of its constituents, and enjoy their confidence.” [It should..] “possess the same interests, feelings, opinion, and views which the people themselves would possess, were they all assembled; and so numerous as to prevent bribery and undue influence; and so responsible to the people by frequent and fair elections as to prevent their neglecting or sacrificing the views and interests of their constituents to their own pursuits.”


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