The eighteen essays of the Federal Farmer are some of the most important of the Anti-Federalist works. While he is a proponent of federalism in concept, and agrees that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient for dealing with the issues that needed to be considered at the federal level, he has major objections to the formulation of the Constitution. He felt that power concentrates in capital cities, and therefore many capitals was the appropriate course. These essays were historically considered to be written by the last president under the Articles of Confederation, Richard Henry Lee. Modern scholarship identifies New York delegate Melancton Smith as the most likely author. His outlook on the purpose of government is well defined in the following quote:
“Liberty, in its genuine sense, is security to enjoy the effects of our honest industry and labours, in a free and mild government, and personal security from all illegal restraints.”
The Federal Farmer’s overriding concern is in maintaining a proper balance of powers. He identifies that there is not just the problem of separating executive, legislative and judicial power, there is also a problem of separating state from federal power. Ensuring that this structure prevails is his major task. He feels that failure to lead the US to become a set of independent republics or a nation where states are meaningless administrative districts. His purpose is to ensure the notion of a federal republic is maintained. The specific issues the Federal Farmer takes with the Constitution are “too much power, undefined power and unsecured power”
The author adopts a conservative tone, believing that successful people in the current regime ought to be listened to most of all, while people hoping to gain power in the new system ought to be ignored. His main critique stems from the risk of the federal government becoming the only government that matters. He believes the current system will also tend towards de facto aristocracy over time due to ambitious, impatient and disorderly men.
Like previous authors, The Federal Farmer notes that it was somewhat duplicitous for the convention to be held on amendments to the Articles of Confederation only to be turned into a convention for a whole new government.
The Federal Farmer notes that preserving the union is a difficult task, and that the various states already have very different ideas on the proper role of government and their laws. He also notes the socio-economic differences, concentrated wealth in the South, getting more equal the further north you go and he separates the states into three distinct groups. Another example presented of how people are divided is that merchants prefer property taxes and farmers prefer tariffs
A point that the Federal Farmer comes back to over and over is that the character of the people involved in government are ultimately what decides how good it is.
“…as long as the people are free they will preserve free governments; and that when they shall become tired of freedom, arbitrary government must take place.”
A major objection of the Federal Farmer is the nature of Congressional representation. When the Constitution was written, Congress was a body which at the time had one member for every 50,000 citizens. Today it is one representative per 710,000, so many of his criticisms ring much more clearly. He felt that when 50,000 people chose a single representative, it would naturally be limited to current politicians, lawyers, and former military officers, as these people would consistently rise to the top. The Federal Farmer thought it was important that the House of Representatives, “The People’s House” ought to have members which reflected the nature of the people. He also makes an interesting note that the general population of each state is fundamentally more different than the elites they would elect, echoing modern criticisms of cosmopolitan elites.
While the Federal Farmer goes so far as to propose an alternative government based around state constitutions, eventually it became obvious the Constitution would be adopted and so the tone of the essays switches to making improvements to the new system.
After examining the Roman and British systems of government and reiterating his belief in the need for a Bill of Rights, the Federal Farmer lists specific concerns with the new constitution.
The potential for a standing army frightened the Federal Farmer like it did many Founding Fathers. A standing army limits the potential for the people to rebel against a tyrant.
The Senate earns the worst of the Federal Farmer’s scorn. It has powers that fall under both the executive (treaties, approving appointments) and the legislative branches of government. The Senate is too small to make a good legislature, but is too big to be helpful as the president’s advisors. The Federal Farmer also thinks it is odd that the state legislatures appoint Senators to six year turns instead of being serving at their pleasure.
As far as the House of Representatives, the Federal Farmer worries about the number of people each representative is representing. While the plan was already for the number of representatives to grow dramatically with America, he still opposed the 50,000 to 1 ratio. He is worried that without specific rules for choosing representatives, gerrymandering or worse would result. The Federal Farmer also dislikes that the House has both the power to tax and wage war, and that these powers should be held by separate entities.
When it comes to the executive branch, the Federal Farmer has some objections to the structure of Presidential power, but his other objection is more interesting. The Federal Farmer believes that there should be a formal advisory council to the President, described in the Constitution that was distinct from the heads of the departments and would take on many of the Senate’s roles.
When it comes to the judicial branch, two criticisms stood out. The first is that the Federal Farmer thought there should be several Supreme Courts, each with limited jurisdiction. He also repeatedly stated that only juries should judge facts and judges should only judge law. The Federal Farmer felt like the Supreme Court had too much ability to dictate policy and that a Judge’s decision was much easier to make than it was to overturn.
In his final essays, the Federal Farmer goes back to discussing things in the more philosophical realm. He considers the issue of building and maintaining a national culture of liberty, which yields no great answers for today. The Federal Farmer also goes into detail about the powers a federal government ought to have, and specifically, that federal laws should only apply to states, never to the people. The federal government is supposed to be for the benefit for the states, and therefore needs no larger jurisdiction.
Put together, the Federal Farmer lays out the most comphrensive Anti-Federalist work so far. At 180 pages of text, it represents a big push on my part to read through. Next time, I’ll be back to cover the last of the major Anti-Federalist essayists, Brutus.