Limited or Absolute Power: Warnings from Anti-Federalist Agrippa


The Anti-Federalist writer Agrippa powerfully expressed many of the same reservations about the Constitution as other opponents – that it would create a consolidated government leading to a loss of liberty. But unlike most others, Agrippa was also concerned with the implications a strong central government would have on the economies of the states and their people.

The Agrippa letters were influential enough for Alexander Hamilton to dedicate at least one Federalist Paper, No. 11, countering these positions

The likely author was James Winthrop. He was the great-great-great-grandson of John Winthrop, a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By the age of 20, James was acting as the librarian for Harvard University. At age 23, the young patriot participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he sustained a wound in his neck.

The name Winthrop chose was significant, referencing famous Roman general and statesman Marcus Agrippa, who successfully defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra during the Roman Civil War. Agrippa was reportedly so trustworthy that he was elected “Tribune of the Plebs,“ the first Roman office open to the plebians. It was considered by many as the most important check on the power of the Roman Senate and magistrates throughout the history of the Republic. He eventually wielded as much power to almost match those of Caesar Augustus.

In his first letter dated Nov. 23, 1787, Agrippa reiterated many of the concerns expressed by other writers also opposed to the Constitution, highlighting specifically, those made by Elbridge Gerry, who along with George Mason and Edmund Randolph, were the only three members of the Philadelphia Convention to not vote in favor of the Constitution drafted there.

  • Congressional power of taxation
  • The potential for a standing army during peacetime
  • Inadequate representation of the people
  • Federal usurpation of state authority not expressly delegated to it
  • Allowing civil trials without juries

“To none of these or any other objections has any answer been given, but such as have acknowledged the truth of the objection while they insulted the objector,” he wrote. “This conduct has much the appearance of trying to force a general sentiment upon the people. In truth, the question before the people is, whether they will have a limited government or an absolute one?”

In other words, would the people choose a consolidated system, or something more decentralized, what he called “a free government.”

The former, he noted, would lead to a people who are “in general lazy, cowardly, turbulent, and vicious to an extreme.” The latter, which is “necessary to industry,” would lead to people who show “industry, arts, courage, generosity, and all the manly virtues.”

Such as decentralized system, Agrippa argued, was essential to economic prosperity.

“The spirit of commerce is the great bond of union among citizens. This furnishes employment for their activity, supplies their mutual wants, defends the rights of property, and producing reciprocal dependencies, renders the whole system harmonious and energetick.“

With that in mind, he closed his first letter with a goal that possibly influenced by free market views of Adam Smith:

“Our great object therefore ought to be to encourage this spirit. If we examine the present state of the world we shall find that most of the business is done in the freest states, and that industry decreases in proportion to the rigour of government.“

In his second letter dated Nov. 27, 1787, Agrippa continued this line of thinking in support of a free economy:

“I ascertained from the state of other countries and the experience of mankind, that free countries are most friendly to commerce and to the rights of property. This produces greater internal tranquillity. For every man, finding sufficient employment for his active powers in the way of trade, agriculture and manufactures, feels no disposition to quarrel with his neighbour, nor with the government which protects him, and of which he is a constituent part.“

That peace, harmony and prosperity would be threatened under a consolidated system.

The ostensible cause célèbre for the creation of the new Constitution was Shay’s Rebellion, which proponents argued was inadequately responded to due to a lack of a strong central government. However, anti-federalists such as Agrippa felt the consequences were blown out of proportion. He wrote that the states were able to put down any revolts through local militia and suppressed them quickly. The trouble was short-lived and resolved well.

“Damage done to individuals, during the tumults, has been repaired, by judgment of the courts of law, and the award has been carried into effect. This is the present state of affairs, when we are asked to relinquish that freedom which produces such happy effects.“

He added that in many cases those charged with crimes were pardoned, a reflection perhaps of the low threat they posed to the stability of those governments.

“This is the present state of affairs, when we are asked to relinquish that freedom which produces such happy effects,” Agrippa wrote.

He warned that some would use the fear of similar events as a “pitiful trick“ to convince the people to accept a consolidated system:

“The attempt has been made to deprive us of such a beneficial system, and to substitute a rigid one in its stead, by criminally alarming our fears“

In his third letter dated Nov. 30, 1787, Agrippa again pressed this point that the general state was one of peace, not an emergency that needed a new system to immediately address.

“The case is not of such pressing necessity as some have represented.”

For Agrippa, the great concern was a more centralized general government would result in a loss of liberty:

“The same objections are made in all the states, that the civil government which they have adopted and which secures their rights will be subverted. All the defenders of this system undertake to prove that the rights of the states and of the citizens are kept safe. The opposers of it agree that they will receive the least burdensome system which shall defend those rights.”

He closed this letter by urging the people to reject the proposed system without further amendments:

“With this disposition is it not in every man’s mind better to recommit it to a new convention, or to Congress, which is a regular convention for the purpose, and to instruct our delegates to confine the system to the general purposes of the union, than to endeavour to force it through in its present form, and with so many opposers as it must have in every state on the continent.“

TJ Martinell
Latest posts by TJ Martinell (see all)

Las Vegas News Magazine

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More