The United States was founded on conspiracy theories. Whiggish colonists started a revolution convinced that unscrupulous British ministers were deliberately undermining traditional English liberties. With independence secured, liberty was again threatened in 1787-1788, this time from within. An urban, largely commercial group, known as the Federalists, were conspiring to further their own pecuniary interests and enforce domestic tranquil-ity by creating a new constitution in secret session. The Anti-Federalists, their opponents, used a common U.S. idiom—the conspiracy theory—to articulate their defense of decentralized government.

The Anti-Federalists were a loose collection of usually small-scale farmers and paper-money advocates who were generally suspicious of financiers, lawyers, merchants, and powerful landowners. They were strongest in rural areas and in the largest and most influential states: Massachusetts,

New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It was from those states that they drew their most able partisans: Sam Adams, James Warren, George Clinton, George Mason, Samuel Bryan, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee. There was no organized Anti-Federalism in the way that the Constitution was written in committee or that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay co-wrote the Federalist Papers. Instead, they represented a common American belief that what they called “consolidated government” (and modern Americans call “big government”) followed the interests of the elite at the expense of the common man.

Intellectual Context

Americans inherited several predominantly English intellectual traditions that made conspiracy theories an intrinsic part of the rhetoric of early American political discourse. The radical Whigs of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England suspected the crown and its advisers of perpetually scheming to undermine English liberties. Moral philosophy, a product of the Enlightenment that sought to explain human interactions mechanistically, made humans directly responsible for all events, no matter how complex. Any unpopular act of Parliament or a provincial assembly, order of the king, or action of a provincial governor, regardless of how benignly or rationally conceived, could therefore be attributed to sinister motives. Religion also contributed to the matrix. The dissenting Protestantism of most colonists inculcated in many a watchfulness of their religious liberties—liberties that had been denied their fathers and brethren in England and on the European continent. All these made the colonists, as they put it, “jealous of”— that is, protective of, suspiciously watchful for— their liberties. In the greatest sustained debate in U.S. history, Anti-Federalists drew heavily on this intellectual heritage. They cited repeatedly the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, who insisted that republics could only be small. Anonymous Anti-Federalist essayists styled themselves “Cato,” “Algernon Sydney,” or “Brutus,” who slew the tyrannical Julius Caesar. Others wrote under names glorifying ordinary Americans: “A Federal Farmer,” “A Countryman,” or “An Officer of the Late Continental Army.”

Constitutional Conspiracy

The drafting and debating of the Constitution in 1787-1788 did little to convince the Anti-Federalists of the opposition’s virtues. Two New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention walked out, protesting that the Convention would not revise the Articles of Confederation as it was so summoned, but would create a new constitution. The New York Anti-Federalist polemicist Cato complained that these now dubious proceedings had taken place behind closed doors. Prominent Anti-Federalists complained of a suddenly dismal mail service. Newspaper editors, overwhelmingly Federalists, left Anti-Federalist editorials or rebuttals on press-room floors or grossly misrepresented opposition views. The prominent Pennsylvania Gazette reported that Virginia Anti-Federalist and Revolutionary War statesman Patrick Henry was working for ratification. The Federalist New-Hampshire Spy told a heavily Anti-Federalist state that nary an opponent of the Constitution existed in all of New England.

The questionable manner in which the Constitution was born and the misrepresentation of its support inevitably led some Americans to doubt the beneficent motives of its authors. Anti-Federalists often concluded that the Constitution had been drafted to fashion a government run by the elite to enslave the common folk. The “Federal Farmer” of Pennsylvania saw in the Constitution a monarchy waiting to happen because so many of the wealthy were believed to be secretly attached to the principles of monarchy and aristocracy. George Mason of Virginia, the most intelligent and respected of the Anti-Federalists, predicted in a widely circulated pamphlet that a government under the proposed Constitution would waver between aristocracy and monarchy, finally culminating in one or the other.

Anti-Federalist Objections

The source of Anti-Federal apprehension was the fear of centralized authority. The new Constitution seemed to many Anti-Federalists a throwback to its colonial past with an unresponsive king, locally irresponsible provincial governors, and an unrepresentative Parliament that taxed at will. The Federalists proposed a national constitution that would supersede the individual state constitutions, which hitherto had been the equals of the Articles of Confederation. The implications of ending a truly federal system seemed ominous. “Brutus” of New York, the ablest of the Anti-Federalist theorists, worried that under the “necessary and proper” clause of Section 8, article 1 of the proposed Constitution, congress would possess absolute power and consolidate all state governments into one executive, legislature, and judiciary.

Nothing could prevent an aggrandizing national government from destroying civil liberties. The three branches of the proposed government would invariably function as a de facto aristocracy and monopolize power. Where Federalists saw checks and balances, Anti-Federalists foresaw juntas destroying public liberties. The executive, without term limits, with appointment, pardon, and veto powers, and in control of the military, would become an unrestrained “President-General” in league with the long-tenured Senate. Together, they would make war and peace as they saw fit, usurping national and state laws with international treaties. The House of Representatives, the most democratic feature of the new Constitution, was hardly representative enough for most Anti-Federalists, as only the elite would serve here. And the Supreme Court, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, would be composed of judges beholden to their benefactors, interpreting laws and treaties accordingly. As the Constitution said nothing about preserving English common law, the courts would no longer check legislative and executive excesses, the “Federal Farmer” warned, but would now be part of them. A small coterie of like-minded men would make, interpret, and enforce the laws. Several Anti-Federalists remarked that so much power had been granted to the rulers in the proposed Constitution that there was no need for the ambitious to seize more. The Anti-Federalists also assumed that republics could only exist on a small scale. It was a lesson of history that republics must be near the people, where local interests were closely guarded and local justice properly administered. Partly this was a sectional issue. How could a Virginian determine the interests of a New Yorker? Would not the more populous, urban, commercial North dominate the new government and enact policies to the detriment of the agrarian, slave holding South? The problem of a consolidated national government making uniform immigration laws was obvious, even among northern states. James Winthrop of Massachusetts, writing under the pseudonym Agrippa, found his state moral, pious, manly, and prosperous because of its long-standing restrictions on immigration. Impious and immoral Pennsylvania, conversely, had traded piety for prosperity by allowing anyone to emigrate. A distant, unrepresentative government was hardly preferred over provincialism.

Bill of Rights

Despite these serious protestations against the proposed Constitution, some Anti-Federalist fears could be assuaged with a bill of rights guaranteeing civil liberties and states’ rights. Here was the great contribution of Anti-Federalist conspiracy concerns. Ever jealous to protect their rights and the rights of state governments, they made it clear in numerous essays, letters, and speeches that some basic protection of the natural rights of citizens had to be included in any constitution for it to be accepted. Nothing in the proposed constitution guaranteed, among other things, freedom of religion, the press, and arms; trial by jury; and the reservation to the states of all unenumerated powers. Failure to include such provisions convinced most Anti-Federalists that their counterparts were conspiring to wreck democracy. In the end, the Constitution was ratified because Federalists promised that the first Congress under the new plan would take up the business of adding a bill of rights to the new Constitution. Enough Anti-Federalists— barely enough in key states like New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia—took them at their word. The new Constitution was ratified by the necessary nine of the thirteen state legislatures by July 1788. The Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments, the product of conspiratorial warnings—was added four years later.

Next post:

Previous post: