Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thoughts on The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates by Ralph Ketcham

The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates is a very interesting book that will draw the reader right into the debates of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in its first half, and into the minds of the anti-federalists in its second half.

While it was quite interesting to be like a fly on the wall of the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, listening to the recorded words of the Convention delegates, the book remains silent on some of the most interesting moments, such as how exactly was the Great Compromise reached and how they abandoned the idea of the negative of the general government on the state laws. The book also reveals two strange facts or rather curiosities about two of the delegates.

Edmund Randolph, then governor of Virginia, was the man who officially proposed Madison's Virginia plan to the Convention, but then was one of the three delegates who refused to put their names under the finished draft Constitution, which was derived by (a weaker) compromise from that very same plan. One year later, during the Virginia ratification convention, he changed his mind again and voted for ratification.

Alexander Hamilton proposed his own plan for national government, but nobody cared. On at least two occasions he publicly said he disliked the proposed Constitution. I think no one could have suspected him of being Publius. Was that a camouflage?

The arguments of the anti-federalists were also interesting, for example that the President together with the Senate could make any law through his power to make treaties with foreign countries that in turn become the supreme law of the land, encroaching thus on state laws. Other than that, I noticed one large group of the anti-federalist arguments was effectively neutralized by the adoption of the Bill of Rights (a concession of the federalists to the anti-federalists or a very clever move). Another large group consisted of, from today's point of view, unsubstantiated worries of the anti-federalist and absurd fears. For example, they were pretty sure that the Constitution could not be amended (today it has 27 amendments). Or they feared that the number of Representatives can be pushed down to one per each state. Or that the state governments will be abolished. Or that the words general welfare in the Preamble will allow the federal government to tax the people to death. I felt like experiencing a déjà vu when I was reading those parts. Anyway, the history has proved them wrong.

It was also interesting to feel the atmosphere of the debates. Much more cultivated than what we have today in Europe. The anti-federalists advocated for caution and deeper understanding of the proposed Constitution before its adoption, or proposed amendments. Far from today's heated internet discussions with shallow knowledge, superficial understanding and tunnel vision.