There was widespread feeling among the Anti-Federalists that the proposed Constitution was a radical– if not hysterical– over-reaction to the flaws of the Articles Of Confederation. The Articles formed a sort of multi-lateral treaty between the new sovereign States of America; it declared how and for what purposes the independent States would cooperate. Its major flaw was that it was hardly enforceable.
In his letter of 8 October 1787, the Federal Farmer (who was, despite his name, an ANTI-Federalist) maintained that already under the Articles of Confederation… “our governments answer all present exigencies, except…
the regulation of trade,
securing credit in some cases,
and providing for the interest in some instances of the public debts.”
“The plan of Government now proposed,” he continued, “is evidently calculated totally to change, in time, our condition as a people. Instead of being thirteen Republics under a Federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated Government.” The Federal Farmer believed that the States, though they may act together to achieve “certain National objects,” they should nevertheless remain “severally distinct independent Republics as to internal police generally.“
On the other hand, the Federalists were convinced that the Articles Of Confederation had proven an abject failure. “We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation,” wrote Hamilton in Federalist #15. He went on to list the “dark catalogue” of national embarrassments which had befallen the Nation since Independence, the number one problem being that several States were still carrying unpaid debts from the Revolutionary War. Additionally, the Confederation was suffering the humiliation of having some of its claimed territory under occupation by British troops.
Of all the Federalists, Hamilton proved the least tolerant of, and most embarrassed by, depravities of national wealth, power, or prestige. For him, the current and foreseeable “national disorder, poverty, and insignificance” was an atrocious and insufferable state of affairs which should be remedied post haste.
Because of their inherent problems, Hamilton was convinced that the Articles Of Confederation were going to have to be altered, rejected, or surpassed– one way or another. Better that they be changed in a reasoned, open, and prepared way than in some series of ad hoc and illegal measures taken in response to inevitable National emergencies and catastrophes. “Every breach of the fundamental laws,” he warned in Federalist #25, “though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the Constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches.”
Hamilton predicted in Federalist #22 that, if the country remained under the Articles, “the probability would be that we should run into the project of conferring supplementary powers upon Congress.” This would prove disastrous for the nation, for the Articles were not built for any more power than they already contained. Most importantly, there was no system of checks-and-balances built into the document as there was built into the Constitution. Thus, to maintain the current form of government but to gradually gorge it with evermore reach and power, would… “entail upon our posterity one of the most execrable forms of government that human infatuation ever contrived. ”
Madison was willing to grant to the Anti-Federalists that the Constitution was not perfect– nevertheless, “it is the best which our political situation, habits, and opinions will admit.” The Framers of the Constitution, wrote Madison in Federalist #14, had “formed the design of a great Confederacy which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.”
Cut us some slack! –Madison basically said in Federalist #38 — We’re trying to do something never before done in the history in the world. And there is, Madison pointed-out, therefore a “defect of antecedent experience.”
The best course, advised Madison, is to ratify the Constitution, and then begin, through the Amendment process, improving it.
Hamilton was willing to concede in Federalist #85 that improvements to the Constitution would be necessary, but that “it will be far more easy to obtain subsequent than previous amendments,” as “the moment an alteration is made in the present plan, it becomes, to the purpose of adoption, a new one, and must come under a new decision of each State.” But, of course, after adoption, alterations “may at any time be effected by nine states.”
Hamilton wrote in Federalist #85 of the “the utter improbability of assembling a new convention, under circumstances in any degree so favorable to a happy issue, as those in which the late convention met, deliberated, and concluded.” And Madison admonished the Anti-Federalists for criticizing individual parts of the Constitution, but not offering any better overall plan. The proposal at hand, said Madison in Federalist #38, does not have to be perfect in order to replace the malfunctioning Articles Of Confederation… just better.