Anti-Federalists Part 4: Letters of Centinel I – VI

The letters of Centinel, at least the ones pertaining to the adoption of the Constitution, are a collection of 18 essays by Samuel Bryan, who, unlike many of the other pseudonymous authors, isn’t of any particular importance except as the author of these essays. These essays were addressed to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

The first letter opens with a discussion of the Pennsylvania constitution. In light of the current age, I believe it is important to emphasize that like John Milton, Centinel treats the phrases “free press” and “freely publishing your thoughts” as synonymous, as opposed to the modern definition. Also Centinel uses the phrase “so great a disparity in the talent, wisdom and industry of mankind”, which should indicate that he held the correct view of human equality that most Americans in public life would be afraid to say.

Centinel’s main point in his first essay seems to be that a free republic requires that it be filled of men of virtue and relatively equal status. If this can be obtained, a small government with frequent elections and term limits on representatives is all that is required for good governance.

He goes on to discuss his disapproval with various parts of the new government. He includes a discussion of the doomed fate of Imperial Republics, which could have easily been taken from my own tweets.

In his second letter, Centinel starts by discussing the necessity of a free press, and he cites this as an example of a guarantee the Constitution was lacking. As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, the lack of a Bill of Rights was a major source of contention. He attacks the convention of using famous names (especially George Washington) as a means of persuasion. Centinel is upset by the treatment of the opponents of the Constitution by Federalists, and sees this as a method to ram the Constitution down the nation’s throat. Centinel responds at length over the form of government to James Wilson’s claims about the Constitution. Centinel worries that there is insufficient checks on the government’s power over state governments. Centinel also points out that the power to impose any sort of tax is basically the power to do anything for Congress.

The third letter of Centinel starts with a long rhetorical introduction about the importance of deciding whether or not to support the new Constitution. He quickly gets into his criticism that the Constitution is designed to bring about an aristocracy and that the push to pass it quickly is to pull the wool over the eyes of the nation. Centinel invokes Machiavelli’s The Prince to argue that the would-be aristocrats are following Machiavelli’s advice on how to take over a republic, mirroring Caesar. Centinel shares his opinion on slavery (he doesn’t like it) and really doesn’t like the compromises made with the South (21 years of continued importation of slaves, 3/5ths compromise).

In the fourth letter from Centinel, he reviews American history up to the current time (late 1787), especially focusing on the situation of Revolutionary War debt. He notes that the problems are temporary and that giving the new government the kinds of powers necessary to repay them (which Centinel estimates as 2x GDP) will prove to be a long term disaster since they won’t give up on taxing Americans at that rate. The rest of the essay is spent reinforcing the dangers of a new government with so much more power than the Articles contained.

The fifth letter of Centinel is very short and discusses a loophole in the enumeration of Congress’ powers that hasn’t ever been abused, to my knowledge.

The sixth letter of Centinel starts with an exuberant, satirical tone criticizing Americans for giving up their hard-fought liberty for despotism (aka the Constitution). In the 25 days between the fourth and sixth letters, three states: Delaware, Pennsylvania (where Centinel lived) and New Jersey had joined the union. The rest of the letter simply excoriates those who supported it, in a text that ranges from lament, to anger, to theories on despotism as the natural state of man. It is not so much an argument as an angry rant against unfolding events.

This has covered the first third of Centinel’s writing and I decided this would be a good place to break things up. I’ll be back soon with the next set of Centinel’s letters.

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