Anti-Federalists Part 4: The Letters of Centinel

I posted a version of this post the other day and I decided I didn’t like splitting Centinel up into multiple parts, and thought he should be discussed all at once. I found myself trying to write a post and read Centinel simultaneously, and it just didn’t go well, so I’m going to do a complete post on Centinel and pretend like the last one never happened. I won’t delete it, because I don’t think that erasing one’s published work is a good idea.

The letters of Centinel are a series of 18 essay published in Philadelphia newspapers by Samuel Bryan. Unlike other founding fathers, Bryan’s mark on history is exclusively tied to his pseudonymous persona, which he rigorously defends against attempts to discern his true identity. From his final essay:

Great pains have been taken to discover the author of these papers, with a view, no doubt, to villify his private character, and thereby lessen the usefulness of his writings, and many suppose they have made the discovery, but in this they are mistaken. The Centinel submits his performance to the public judgement, and challenges fair argumentation; the information he has given from time to time, has stood the test of the severest scrutiny, and thus his reputation as a writer, is established beyond the injury of his enemies. If it were in the least material to the argument, or answered any one good purpose, he would not hesitate a moment in using his own signature; as it would not, but on the contrary, point where the shafts of malice could be levelled with most effect, and thus divert the public attention from the proper object, to a personal altercation, he from the first determined that the prying eye of party or curiosity, should never be gratified with his real name, and to that end to be the sole depository of the secret.

One of Centinel’s common topics is a free press. Like John Milton , Centinel’s definition of a free press is somewhat different than our modern usage. Centinel literally means a press free from government licensing. He is proud of Philadelphia’s protections of free speech, but laments that the new Constitution is devoid of them.

Centinel raises many points of contention with the new Constitution besides the lack of a Bill of Rights. He views imperial republics, those that expand outward and have a large influence in world affairs, as an unsustainable form of governance, a point I would very much agree with. He also believes that, given  a virtuous citizenry of men of roughly equal means, any Republican government would be successful. He accuses the Federalists of trying to create these men rather than create a government that suits the actual citizenry of the United States. He expresses major doubts over the modern left’s interpretation of equality when he uses phrases like: “so great a disparity in the talent, wisdom and industry of mankind”. However, he also does not approve of the compromises made with the South in order to secure their support of the new constitution. 

Like many people in the fall of 1787 through the summer of 1788, Centinel is very concerned with the fiscal health of the nation. He recognizes that granting tax power to Congress may be necessary to address the current debt situation, that it could become an instrument of tyranny. Centinel worries about people using loopholes in the Constitution created by the ex post facto clause will release people from their debt to the state.

Centinel is an ardent supporter of liberty and credits it to the rise of America into a real nation that carved a civilization out of wilderness within two lifetimes.

Centinel’s main focus over the course of the essays is the belief that the Federalists are looking to form an aristocracy ruling over the United States, ultimately abolishing state governments or rendering them moot. Centinel examines how the plan he foresees the Federalists taking mirrors the work of Machiavelli. Centinel usually takes a positive stance, that the people will rise up against this oncoming tyranny, his essay set against the backdrop of the first three states (his own Pennsylvania, plus Delaware and New Jersey) cause him to condemn the people of the state who supported the new constitution.

With the exception of this one essay he is sure that the people can be trusted to protect their own liberty. He references the “Carlisle Junto”, which is an extremely esoteric reference, but luckily, your author recently stayed the night in downtown Carlisle, so I can tell you this is almost certainly a reference to the rumblings that would escalate into the Whiskey Rebellion. As an example of his vitriol towards the Federalists:

The conspirators are putting your good sense, patriotism and spirit to the severest test. So bold a game of deception, so decisive a stroke for despotic power, was never before attempted among enlightened freemen.

A recurring complaint in these essays is the use of George Washington by the Federalists to push their position. Washington was already a mythic figure in his own lifetime, and his support for the Federalists assured their victory as much as their merits.

Centinel also accuses the Federalists of making strawman arguments out of anti-Federalist positions. Speaking directly against Publius, author of The Federalist Papers, regarding his love of creating straw men and dealing with hypothetical threats:

This hobgoblin appears to have sprung from the deranged brain of Publius, a New-York writer, who, mistaking sound for argument, has with Herculean labour accumulated myriads of unmeaning sentences, and mechanically endeavored to force conviction by a torrent of misplaced words; he might have spared his readers the fatigue of wading through his long-winded disquisitions on the direful effects of the contentions of inimical states, as totally inapplicable to the subject he was professedly treating; this writer has devoted much time, and wasted more paper in combating chimeras of his own creation”

Centinel, however, still loves to take the side of the straw man against the Federalists.

One interesting issue Centinel brings up is the use of bullying tactics by the Federalists. The first was the co-ordinated boycott of a Philadelphia newspaper that, according to Centinel, was publishing various discourses from both sides of the debate. This boycott is forcing the publisher out of business and causing the others to change their methods.

The other troubling tactic he accuses the Federalists of using is to broadly proclaim, in every state, that that state is the only one where there is significant opposition to the Constitution and every other state is going to be getting on board with it and leave them in the dust.

In total, Centinel offers a different, but not overly useful take on opposition to the new Constitution. His main argument, over the guarantee of a free press, was alleviated just a few years later. His opinion that the Federalists were plotting on forming an aristocracy are, at the very least, not particularly relevant after Jefferson came to power.

The next set of essays I will examine are those of “The Federal Farmer”, who wrote 20 essays over the course of October 1787-May 1788.

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