Teaching the Constitution to a Room Full of Federalists

Last semester, I offered an advanced seminar course on the ratification of the Constitution, thinking it would be a great way to delve deeply into the contentiousness surrounding the document with a small group of juniors and seniors. In keeping with my academic training, I took the problematic nature of the Constitution as a given, and naively thought my students would, too. I know that our culture reveres the Constitution, but for reasons even I don’t understand, I thought the students who enrolled in my course would be different. Maybe it was because I was teaching at a very selective private university. Maybe it was because I thought my students would have already read some of these documents before, and would know going in that the Constitution was not a divine document, but a highly controversial plan of government that reflects the prejudices, as well as the aspirations, of people who made it. Whatever it was, I underestimated my students’ proclivity to side with the Constitution’s defenders, not because they weighed the arguments of the so-called “federalists” evenly against those of their “anti-federalist” opponents, but because they were so unaccustomed to the notion that some of our government’s and our nation’s most lasting and alarming problems might actually be built into the Constitution itself.

I should state here my own general views on the Constitution. I do not believe the Constitution is a democratic document, nor that it was written to be one. I side with scholars like David Waldstreicher who argue that inequality, slavery in particular, was woven into the very fabric of the document at its creation, creating a tension with the democratic ideals that emerged in the decades following ratification, eventually erupting in a national Civil War. I further think that a tension still exists between the stratifications reflected in our government and our belief in equality and popular sovereignty. But many Americans don’t see this as a tension between the Constitution and democracy because of what I consider to be the federalists’ greatest accomplishment: even though they feared too much democracy (as did elite anti-federalists), the federalist advocates for ratification succeeded in equating the Constitution with the power of the people. Those efforts laid the groundwork for a mythology that, two and a quarter centuries later, still dominates the way even bright, well-educated juniors and seniors at a highly selective research university view it.

While I think my views are similar to those held by many scholars of American history, they were significantly out-of-step with those of my students. Part of the difference, I think, lay in what my students had previously read. I wasn’tsurprised to find that all of the students in my seminar (which was an admittedly small sample size, being a seminar) had read the (today) most famous Federalist essays, especially Federalist 10, and a few had even read some James Wilson.  I was surprised at how few of them had read Elbridge Gerry, or George Mason, or “Centinel,” or “Federal Farmer.” I was also surprised at their reaction to these pieces when they read them. These writers feared (among other things) an excessively powerful executive, an unrepresentative legislature that acted on its own interests and not those of its constituents, repressive taxation, and the coercive potential of a standing army.

Dominating students' understanding of the Constitution since 1788.

Dominating students’ understanding of the Constitution since 1788.

“Do we still read about those things today?” I asked. “And if so, where?” My   students immediately grasped my point. We read about these issues every day in the news. Though we are quite divided as a nation, there is broad-ranging agreement across lines of political ideology that the President wields too much power, Congress is completely out of touch with the citizens it ostensibly represents, and that the government’s capacity to spy on and even intimidate its citizens is disturbingly antithetical to our country’s most cherished principles. And yet my students still viewed the anti-federalists with profound skepticism. They just didn’t seem to trust the anti-federalists. As the semester went on, I began to realize why.

Most anti-federalists were not categorically opposed to the Constitution. Many conceded they would be willing to reconsider their position, and perhaps even endorse it, if amendments were made. But they were highly skeptical of the federalists’ insistence that the Constitution had to be voted up or down as-is, and could only be amended after it was ratified. The anti-federalists had no illusions about the potential for abuse should the Constitution be ratified in its current form. They predicted an unstoppably powerful “consolidated” government that would “annihilate” the sovereignty of the states and trample the rights of the citizens underfoot if limits like a bill of rights were not put in place to stop it.

That was the answer. The anti-federalists were unequivocal in their assertion that, unless amended, the Constitution would be the foundation of all the bad stuff that would come from the government. Such an argument is so dramatically different from the basic belief that frames how our culture approaches the document today. Even for these students, who had a better education in history and government than most, the notion that the anti-federalists might have actually been right about that seriously messed with their heads.

There are a number of things I plan to do differently the next time I teach this course. For one, I plan to explore the slavery connection far more in-depth than I did this time, and broaden the range of readings assigned. We spent a lot of our time pondering the issue of government size and power—a worthy subject, to be sure, but one that took time away from other issues that also deserve a lot of attention. I was surprised at how many of my students accepted the arguments of “Publius” at face-value, yet looked askance at “An Old Whig” and “Federal Farmer.” They agreed that the national government today was too powerful, but asserted again and again that the problem was that people in power today didn’t follow the Constitution, and often cited a passage from The Federalist as their evidence. When I brought up the anti-federalists, and asked why one couldn’t cite them as a counter, they struggled to respond. Even when I pressed them to go through the predictions made by the anti-federalists, and even when most of them agreed that a great many of them had proven remarkably prescient, they had a hard time even considering the notion that the anti-federalists might have been right about the Constitution itself: that it was, from the very beginning, a plan for “consolidated” government power, not the embodiment of the people’s will federalists claimed it was.

Pauline Maier’s book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 notably concludes with the story of William Findley, a critic of ratification who by 1796 had, “like so many onetime critics of the Constitution…‘embraced the government as my own and my children’s inheritance’” as “not just good or maybe good enough” but “‘on the whole, the best government in the world.’” Today, even at an elite school like Washington University in St. Louis, that unflinching belief in the Constitution’s greatness is palpable, and limits students’ ability to critically analyze it. Teaching this course gave me a new appreciation for just how total, and lasting, the federalists’ victory over the anti-federalists truly was.

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