By: TJ Martinell
In his sixth letter dated Dec. 25, 1787, the Federal Farmer wrote of the “essential and necessary” inclusion of meaningful amendments to the Constitution prior to its ratification. Though some federalists like James Madison would later support proposed amendments at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in June 1788, and an inclusion of a Bill of Rights after ratification, the Federal Farmer feared that the Constitution would be adopted first, and any enthusiasm for adding amendments would dissipate.
In his letter, he noted that by then three states had already voted to ratify the constitution without any amendments (bold emphasis added):
These, and other circumstances, ought to have their weight in deciding the question, whether we will put the system into operation, adopt it, enumerate and recommend the necessary amendments, which afterwards, by three-fourths of the states, may be ingrafted into the system, or whether we will make the amendments prior to the adoption—I only undertake to shew amendments are essential and necessary—how far it is practicable to ingraft them into the plan, prior to the adoption, the state conventions must determine. Our situation is critical, and we have but our choice of evils—We may hazard much by adopting the constitution in its present form—we may hazard more by rejecting it wholly—we may hazard much by long contending about amendments prior to the adoption.
He observed that at the moment there was political pressure to add amendments, but if the Constitution were adopted “the people…will become inattentive to amendments.”
He wrote further (bold emphasis added):
Their attention is now awake—the discussion of the subject, which has already taken place, has had a happy effect—it has called forth the able advocates of liberty, and tends to renew, in the minds of the people, their true republican jealousy and vigilance, the strongest guard against the abuses of power; but the vigilance of the people is not sufficiently constant to be depended on—Fortunate it is for the body of a people, if they can continue attentive to their liberties, long enough to erect for them a temple, and constitutional barriers for their permanent security.
He emphasized that it wasn’t just the inclusion of amendments that mattered, but the quality of those amendments that needed to adequately address reservations about the proposed federal government’s authority and how it would alter the relationship that at the time existed between the Confederation and the states. Federalists insisted that the new central government would have enumerated powers only.
Anti-federalists like the Federal Farmer wanted that guarantee in the form of an amendment (bold emphasis added):
Some of the advocates, I believe, will agree to recommend good amendments; but some of them will only consent to recommend indefinite, specious, but unimportant ones; and this only with a view to keep the door open for obtaining in some favourable moment, their main object, a complete consolidation of the states, and a government much higher toned, less republican and free than the one proposed. If necessity, therefore, should ever oblige us to adopt the system, and recommend amendments, the true friends of a federal republic must see they are well defined, and well calculated, not only to prevent our system of government moving further from republican principles and equality, but to bring it back nearer to them—they must be constantly on their guard against the address, flattery, and maneuvers of their adversaries.
The debate over adopting the new Constitution wasn’t without feuding amongst the opposing sides. The Federal Farmer defended anti-federalists against the accusation that their critiques were aimed at the framers, rather than the document. At the same time, he also questioned the motives and agenda of many calling themselves “Federalists” who were hostile to open examination of the proposed new government.
He wrote (bold emphasis added):
These ardent advocates seem now to be peevish and angry, because, by their own folly, they have led to an investigation of facts and of political characters, unfavourable to them, which they had not the discernment to foresee. They may well apprehend they have opened a door to some Junius, or to some man, after his manner, with his polite addresses to men by name, to state serious facts, and unfold the truth; but these advocates may rest assured, that cool men in the opposition, best acquainted with the affairs of the country, will not, in the critical passage of a people from one constitution to another, pursue inquiries, which, in other circumstances, will be deserving of the highest praise. I will say nothing further about political characters, but examine the constitution.
As he had written in previous letters, the Federal Farmer was not opposed to a central government. Like many anti-federalists, he saw it as a necessary component of republicanism to have nationalize certain authorities and powers, provided limits were put in place and it was understood that the central government was not supreme.
He wrote (bold emphasis added):
The supreme power is in the people, and rulers possess only that portion which is expressly given them; yet the wisest people have often declared this is the case on proper occasions, and have carefully formed stipulations to fix the extent, and limit the exercise of the power given.
In a federal system we must not only balance the parts of the same government, as that of the state, or that of the union; but we must find a balancing influence between the general and local governments—the latter is what men or writers have but very little or imperfectly considered.
As articulated by Patrick Henry repeatedly during the Virginia Ratifying Convention, the Federal Farmer noted that “the confederation is a league of friendship among the states or sovereignties for the common defence and mutual welfare—Each state expressly retains its sovereignty, and all powers not expressly given to congress.”
Something worth noting is that the Federal Farmer does not refer to the amendments as a “bill of rights” as he did in a prior letter. It’s important to note the distinction between bills of rights and the amendments discussed.
At the time, every single state had their own bill of rights, but those were generally included in the state constitutions not as amendments but featured before any government powers. With the Constitution for the United States, the amendments which eventually made up the “Bill of Rights” were included as the first ten amendments following the Constitution’s adoption.
The irony is that anti-federalists got their way even when the Constitution was ratified without first adding amendments. But those amendments were still insufficient – on their own – to curb federal encroachment on individual liberty or other state powers.
It is further ironic that it was a Federalist, James Madison, who would prominently recommend the rightful remedy of a “refusal to cooperate with officers of the Union” – a doctrine which one could argue has done more to restrain the feds than the amendments sought by anti-federalists.