Federal Farmer: A Confederated Republic or Consolidation?

By: TJ Martinell

During the Constitution’s ratification process, there was little to no debate about the type of government desired. Whether antifederalist or federalist, both sides fundamentally advocated for a federal republic with a general government exercising expressly delegated powers. But they diverged on how powerful they thought the new government should be, particularly in its relation to the states.

Federalists felt the Confederation adopted during the War for Independence was too weak and lacked the necessary authority to effectively govern; therefore, the powers delegated to the federal government needed to be broad enough to address the weakness of the Articles.

In contrast, the antifederalists held enormous reservations about the powers proposed for the federal government in the Constitution, viewing them as too expansive. They preferred states retaining most of their powers.

The Federal Farmer held the latter opinion.

In an earlier letter, he warned that the Constitution would lead to consolidation of the states into a single government.  And in his 17th letter dated Jan. 23, 1788, he took up the theme again, pushing back against claims made that the Articles of Confederation were the root cause of the economic hardship plaguing the country and needed to be replaced.

He first framed the discussion as one regarding how much power the government should have, but not more generally what kind of government the United States should adopt. (bold emphasis added):

“I believe the people of the United States are full in the opinion, that a free and mild government can be preserved in their extensive territories, only under the substantial forms of a federal republic. As several of the ablest advocates for the system proposed, have acknowledged this (and I hope the confessions they have published will be preserved and remembered) I shall not take up time to establish this point. A question then arises, how far that system partakes of a federal republic.—I observed in a former letter, that it appears to be the first important step to a consolidation of the states; that its strong tendency is to that point.”

He observed many of the changes that would occur with the potential transition from the Articles of Confederation to the proposed federal government under the Constitution. Under the former, the states retained most of their authority, and there was no confusion over what powers the Articles of Confederation delegated and those it did not. Yet, the question of enumerated and unenumerated powers was one of the many issues driving a wedge between antifederalists and federalists over the proposed Constitution.

The Federal Farmer argued that the Constitution would represent a transformation of the roles the states and central government played – particularly regarding their necessity. Under the confederation, the states largely governed themselves, but the proposed general government would have enough power to rule with or without the states. Or, it could even rule against the will of the states.

He wrote:

“A confederated republic being organized, each state must retain powers for managing its internal police, and all delegate to the union power to manage general concerns.”

He went on to make a distinction between the “quality” of power and the “mode of exercising” the powers. He said the mode of exercise “makes one of the essential distinctions between one entire or consolidated government, and a federal republic.”

The Federal Farmer expressed worry that the extensive taxing power delegated to the proposed general government would push the system toward consolidation.

“However the government may be organized, if the laws of the union, in most important concerns, as in levying and collecting taxes, raising troops, &c. operate immediately upon the persons and property of individuals, and not on states, extend to organizing the militia, &c. the government, as to its administration, as to making and executing laws, is not federal, but consolidated.”

He went on to explain the differing impacts of a federal republic and a consolidated government. (bold emphasis added)

“The first (a federal Republic) makes the existence of the state governments indispensable, and throws all the detail business of levying and collecting the taxes, &c. into the hands of those governments, and into the hands, of course, of many thousand officers solely created by, and dependent on the state. The last (consolidation) entirely excludes the agency of the respective states, and throws the whole business of levying and collecting taxes, &c. into the hands of many thousand officers solely created by, and dependent upon the union, and makes the existence of the state government of no consequence in the case.”

Many argue the impetus for the 1787 Constitutional Convention was Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. The uprising was due to an enormous number of farmers being unable to pay their debts. The fact that the confederation was initially unable to quell the rebellion and required the state of Massachusetts to put it down caused a great deal of alarm about the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation. Yet it was the economic woes that were at the root cause. Federalists believed the weak general government under the Articles of Confederation and the lack of direct taxing power were strangling the economy.

However, the Federal Farmer argued that this was an unfair charge. After all, America was still recovering from a long, costly war of independence. That, he argued, was the actual source of economic trouble.

He wrote (bold emphasis added):

“The fact is admitted, that our federal government does not possess sufficient powers to give life and vigor to the political system; and that we experience disappointments, and several inconveniencies; but we ought carefully to distinguish those which are merely the consequences of a severe and tedious war, from those which arise from defects in the federal system. There has been an entire revolution in the United States within thirteen years, and the least we can compute the waste of labour and property at, during that period, by the war, is three hundred million of dollars. Our people are like a man just recovering from a severe fit of sickness. It was the war that disturbed the course of commerce, introduced floods of paper money, the stagnation of credit, and threw many valuable men out of steady business. From these sources our greatest evils arise; men of knowledge and reflection must perceive it.”

Like Patrick Henry, the Federal Farmer felt that the perceived flaws in the Articles of Confederation were mostly nonexistent or overinflated. He wrote that even with all of its problems, it was still preferable to the potential harm to liberty brought about by a strong central government (bold emphasis added):

“Some of the evils we feel, all will agree, ought to be imputed to the defective administration of the governments. From these and various considerations, I am very clearly of opinion, that the evils we sustain, merely on account of the defects of the confederation, are but as a feather in the balance against a mountain, compared with those which would, infallibly, be the result of the loss of general liberty, and that happiness men enjoy under a frugal, free, and mild government.

The defects of the confederation are extravagantly magnified, and every species of pain we feel imputed to them: and hence it is inferred, there must be a total change of the principles, as well as forms of government: and in the main point, touching the federal powers, we rest all on a logical inference, totally inconsistent with experience and sound political reasoning.”

Ultimately, the Federal Farmer believed that if the Constitution were ratified as written, the states would lose their ability to keep the central government in check (bold emphasis added):

“I have often heard it observed, that our people are well informed, and will not submit to oppressive governments; that the state governments will be their ready advocates, and possess their confidence, mix with them, and enter into all their wants and feelings. This is all true; but of what avail will these circumstances be, if the state governments, thus allowed to be the guardians of the people, possess no kind of power by the forms of the social compact, to stop, in their passage, the laws of congress injurious to the people?”