The Wrong Side of History: The Anti-Federalists, Gerry and Mason

One of the things that I most enjoyed about reading Mencius Moldbug’s blog “Unqualified Reservations” was the use of primary source documents to analyze history. I have decided to embark upon a long-term project to investigate primary sources and to share interesting results with you on this blog. The goal of this project is to unearth counter narratives to the current narrative of historical events. My focus will be on understanding the viewpoints of those who found themselves on the proverbial “Wrong Side of History”. The long-term investigation will look at the writings of people who sat on the losing side of historical arguments in order to try understand their thought process and to judge whether or not they had valuable insights or supplied arguments that have not made their way down to today.

The first set of texts I will be examining are works of the Anti-Federalists, Founding Fathers of America who objected to the implementation of the constitution. I will be working from the Table of Contents of Storing’s The Complete Anti-Federalist. This provides more works and a differing organization to the main Anti-federalist collection which was assembled in the 1960’s. The work of the Anti-federalists were not coordinated in a way that created an easy comparison to the familiar Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Instead, they were individual essays written by dozens of Americans across the nation.

The first two essays I will examine are Elbridge Gerry’s Objections and George Mason’s Objections.

In his letter to the Massachusetts assembly, Gerry lays out his broad objections to the Constitution without expounding on them too greatly. Even though they are brief, Gerry’s objections seem largely correct to this limited government enthusiast looking back from the 21st century.

One objection are the Congress’ delegated powers were “ambiguous” and others were “indefinite and dangerous”. Anyone who is familiar with the ways the commerce clause and taxation clause have been stretched by the courts know that this was, in hindsight, a very legitimate concern. Gerry also criticized the blending of the executive and legislative branch, which I would assume is a reference to veto powers and the role of the vice president. Without explaining why, Gerry claims the judiciary will be oppressive.

The lack of a Bill of Rights was a large concern for the Anti-federalists, and Elbridge Gerry is no different. Doubtless most readers agree with this point.

Gerry was not wildly out of step with the rest of the founders. He saw a need to replace the Articles of Confederation with something better, but he didn’t think the Constitution had the necessary limits on the power of various positions in government to be implemented.

George Mason, while similarly concerned about the lack of a Bill of Rights, he had strong objections to the structure of government under the Constitution. For instance, Mason felt that the House of Representatives didn’t provide anything more than a “shadow” of representation. Mason had deep reservations about the Senate usurping authority with the President. He warned that the judiciary would “absorb and destroy” state governments.

One major concern of Mason’s was who would be advising the president. One option was the Senate, which at only 26 members would have been a reasonable size, but their legislative duties made them unfit. Another would be the president’s chosen crowd, similar to the “Czars” and various un-appointed advisers surrounding the president today. What Mason feared most was what turned out to be the case, the Presidential Cabinet. I would like to find a more fleshed out argument on these points.

Mason didn’t like that the vice president, lacking anything else to do, got to be President of the Senate, and thus creating an office that was part legislative, part executive. As far as presidential powers went, Mason feared the President’s ability to pardon the treasonous.

One thing that seems incredibly prophetic is the Mason warned that by giving treaty power to the President and Senate, they could conspire to write laws without the consent of the House. This is exactly what is going on with things like TPP today.

Mason’s last point raised questions. He mentions that continuing the slave trade for 20 years longer is a threat to National Defense. I am not sure what the connection here is.

These two works set out a nice starting point with delegates involved in the writing of the Constitution who opposed the finished product. Soon I’ll return to look at a few more sets of objections from Delegates at the convention.

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