Federal Farmer: An “Unnecessary Departure” From Federalism

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At the heart of the debate over the proposed U.S. Constitution was whether it would preserve or undermine individual freedom and state sovereignty. In his 18th and final letter dated Jan. 25, 1788, the Federal Farmer concluded that ratifying the Constitution without amendments would undermine both, and would be an “unnecessary departure” from true federalism by bestowing the new central government vital powers taken away from the states.

He warned of the necessary and proper clause (bold emphasis added):

All these enumerated powers we must examine and contemplate in all their extent and various branches, and then reflect, that the federal head will have full power to make all laws whatever respecting them; and for carrying into full effect all powers vested in the union, in any department, or officers of it, by the constitution, in order to see the full extent of the federal powers, which will be supreme, and exercised by that head at pleasure, conforming to the few limitations mentioned in the constitution.”

He reiterated his belief that, contrary to the arguments of federalists like James Madison, the Constitution as written contained implicit powers for the federal government.

“Indeed, I conceive, it is impossible to see them in their full extent at present: we see vast undefined powers lodged in a weak organization, but cannot, by the enquiries of months and years, clearly discern them in all their numerous branches. These powers in feeble hands, must be tempting objects for ambition and a love of power and fame.” (bold emphasis added)

But there were also enumerated or expressly-delegated powers that concerned the Federal Farmer and other antifederalists. Among them was the power of taxation and allowing the general government to maintain a military force. While federalists insisted they were vital if the country were to have an effective central government, the Federal Farmer wrote that “some of these powers need not be lodged in the hands of the union—that others ought to be exercised under better checks, and in part, by the agency of the states.”

He wrote further that “the power to controul the military forces of the country, as well as the revenues of it, requires serious attention.”

For context, the American colonies and states prior to the Constitution had strong, but decentralized militias. All states but Pennsylvania required able-bodied men between certain ages to be a member of a local militia and bring a functioning rifle to musters.

Antifederalists saw this arrangement as an important check against a permanent standing army or “select militia.” The fear was so great that it ultimately inspired the Second and Third Amendments.
The Federal Farmer wrote (bold emphasis added):

“First, the constitution ought to secure a genuine and guard against a select militia, by providing that the militia shall always be kept well organized, armed, and disciplined, and include, according to the past and general usuage of the states, all men capable of bearing arms; and that all regulations tending to render this general militia useless and defenceless, by establishing select corps of militia, or distinct bodies of military men, not having permanent interests and attachments in the community to be avoided.”

He went on to argue that “this arrangement combines energy and safety in it; it places the sword in the hands of the solid interest of the community, and not in the hands of men destitute of property, of principle, or of attachment to the society and government, who often form the select corps of peace or ordinary establishments.”

The Federal Farmer also argued that the Constitution should contain a clause preventing the use of militia by the federal government after a certain time period without the consent of the state legislature. Further, he believed a permanent standing army shouldn’t be allowed; it should require annual renewal by Congress, along with a one-year-only financial appropriation for it.

Interestingly, the Federal Farmer also opposed the creation of a “federal city,” i.e. today’s Washington D.C., which would exist outside the jurisdiction of any state and be within the control of the federal government. He viewed it as symbolic of the shift in power from the states to the national government. He wrote (bold emphasis added):

“I believe this is a novel kind of provision in a federal republic; it is repugnant to the spirit of such a government, and must be founded in an apprehension of a hostile disposition between the federal head and the state governments; and it is not improbable, that the sudden retreat of congress from Philadelphia, first gave rise to it.—With this apprehension, we provide, the government of the union shall have secluded places, cities, and castles of defence, which no state laws whatever shall invade.”

He went on to argue that if it was necessary to have a “federal town,” it should be a small one “and the government of it fixed on republican and common law principles, carefully enumerated and established by the constitution.”

In what he saw as another departure from true federalism and consolidation of power in the general government, the Federal Farmer argued that giving the federal judiciary control over any potential case involving a state or U.S. citizen would constitute vast overreach in power and responsibility that were better suited for state courts. He wrote:

“I still think, that no actions ought to be allowed to be brought in the federal courts, between citizens of different states, at least, unless the cause be of very considerable importance: that no action against a state government, by any citizen or foreigner, ought to be allowed, and no action, in which a foreign subject is party, at least, unless it be of very considerable importance, ought to be instituted in the federal courts—I confess, I can see no reason whatever, for a foreigner, or for citizens of different states, carrying sixpenny causes into the federal courts; I think the state courts will be found by experience, to be bottomed on better principles, and to administer justice better than the federal courts.”

In conclusion, he felt that the American people still deeply cherished their freedoms, as evidenced by the demand for a bill of rights via amendments. Nevertheless, he felt that adoption of the Constitution went contrary to their wishes and that it was in opposition to the kind of government most people preferred.

He wrote (bold emphasis added):

“Whatever may be the fate of many valuable and necessary amendments in the constitution proposed, the ample discussion and respectable opposition it will receive, will have a good effect—they will operate to produce a mild and prudent administration, and to put the wheels of the whole system in motion on proper principles—they will evince, that true republican principles and attachments are still alive and formidable in this country.

“These, in view, I believe, even men quite disposed to make a bad use of the system, will long hesitate before they will resolve to do it. A majority from a view of our situation, and influenced by many considerations, may acquiese in the adoption of this constitution; but, it is evident, that a very great majority of the people of the United States think it, in many parts, an unnecessary and unadviseable departure from true republican and federal principles.”

Although many of the concerns he expressed didn’t manifest immediately, many eventually came to pass.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that all written constitutions are fundamentally flawed in a sense because documents do not interpret or enforce themselves. They are interpreted and enforced by flawed individuals who, if not held accountable, will not faithfully carry out those roles.

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Las Vegas News Magazine

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