Brutus 1: The Anti-federalist’s papers

Key Facts & Summary

  • Anti-Federalist Papers is the collective name given to works written by the Founding Fathers who were opposed to or concerned with the merits of the United States Constitution of 1787.
  • Brutus was the pen name of an Antifederalist in a series of essays designed to encourage New Yorkers to reject the proposed Constitution.
  • The main objection against the constitution by the antifederalists and as articulated through Brutus 1 was the dissolution of the sovereignty of the states to form one great republic.

Introduction

Once it became apparent that the Articles of Confederation created a weak republic, especially after Shay’s rebellion. Consequently, the U.S. decided to amend its constitution. However, during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the delegates decided to design an entirely new system of government.

The federal Constitution was then created, and between 1787 and 1788, it was subjected to the states for review and ratification. In recent times, those against the Constitution at the time, are called anti-federalists, and those in support are called federalists. Both groups, with the intention of influencing public opinion to their favour, wrote a series of papers. The antifederalists papers contained a collection of 85 essays and Brutus 1 is the most famous.

 

Brutus is a pseudonym used either by Robert Yates, Melancton Smith or John Williams. Historically, Brutus was a Roman Senator who was involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar to stop him from overthrowing the republic. The analogy implying that the anti-federalists thought of themselves as protectors of the young nation of the US from tyranny.

The Federalists and the antifederalists appreciated three key theoretical frameworks upon which democracy could be modelled. The first was a participatory democracy which enables citizens to be close to government and influence the decision making of government. The second is Pluralist democracy which takes into account multiple views and opinions from citizens during vigorous debates before making decisions. Finally, the elite democracy, in which the people exercise their democracy through an elected few individuals (the elite). The elite are elected because of their competency and education and trusted to make decisions for the welfare of the people they represent.

Brutus 1 Explained

The main objection against the constitution by the antifederalists and as articulated through Brutus 1 was the dissolution of the sovereignty of the states to form one great republic. In this regard he notes:

“The first question that presents itself on the subject is, whether a confederated government be the best for the United States or not? Or in other words, whether the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic, governed by one legislature, and under the direction of one executive and judicial; or whether they should continue thirteen confederated republics, under the direction and control of a supreme federal head for certain defined national purposes only?”

According to Brutus, a preferred arrangement would be one where the thirteen confederated republics maintain their autonomy but allow for their coordination by a federal/national government with defined purposes. His concerns were that the government created by the constitution would be too powerful, making laws and decisions that will bind every citizen of the country. He states:

This government is to possess absolute and uncontrollable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends, for by the last clause of section 8th, article Ist, it is declared “that the Congress shall have the power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this constitution, in the government of the United States; or in any department or office thereof.” And by the 6th article, it is declared “that this constitution, and the laws of the United States, which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and the treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution, or law of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” It appears from these articles that there is no need for any intervention of the state governments, between the Congress and the people, to execute any one power vested in the general government, and that the constitution and laws of every state are nullified and declared void, so far as they are or shall be inconsistent with this constitution, or the laws made in pursuance of it, or with treaties made under the authority of the United States. — The government then, so far as it extends, is a complete one, and not a confederation.”

He demonstrates that the proposed constitution creates a central government that will make the state governments obsolete. Further, whatever residual powers the states would have, they would still be under the subject of the central government. He then proceeds to discuss the issue of representation within the context of the US Constitution. He states:

“If respect is to be paid to the opinion of the greatest and wisest men who have ever thought or wrote on the science of government, we shall be constrained to conclude, that a free republic cannot succeed over a country of such immense extent, containing such a number of inhabitants, and these increasing in such rapid progression as that of the whole United States.” Among the many illustrious authorities which might be produced to this point, I shall content myself with quoting only two. The one is the Baron de Montesquieu, the spirit of laws, chap. xvi. Vol. I [book VIII]. “It is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist. In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too great to be placed in any single subject; he has interest of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy, great and glorious, by oppressing his fellow citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.” In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent, and of course are less protected.” Of the same opinion as Marquis Beccaria.”

“History furnishes no example of a free republic, anything like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also, was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in the process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world.”

Brutus argues that the proposed constitution is incompatible to the US because of the size of the country and the number of inhabitants. He also notes that the US is rapidly growing and is set to increase over ten times its current size in the next several years. He then relies on the works of Montesquieu and Beccaria who argue that a large republic often creates tyrannical leaders.

 

He goes further to state:

“The territory of the United States is of vast extent; it now contains near three million of souls, and is capable of containing much more than ten times that number. Is it practicable for a country, so large and so numerous as they will soon become, to elect a representation, that will speak their sentiments, without their becoming so numerous as to be incapable of transacting public business? It certainly is not.”

It is evident that Brutus consider a republic as a representative democracy. He then argues that it is not possible to have an accurate representation of the people in such a large society. And, to the extent that it is possible, then it would require an increased number of people to represent the community making it a pluralist’s democracy. In his view, pluralists only work in homogenous societies as he notes:

“In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good.”

He goes on to say that:

“In so extensive a republic, the great officers of government would soon become above the control of the people, and abuse their power to the purpose of aggrandising themselves, and oppressing them.”

Meaning that such a society would require a small number of people to lead the rest, creating an elite leadership beyond the control of the people. Making it difficult if not impossible to hold the leaders to account.

Image sources:

[1.] https://www.awesomestories.com/images/user/a53ec00a883dca84ce237ca278e78c0c.jpg

[2.] https://www.truthdig.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Signing-Sjursen-History-8-apr-2018-850×547.jpg

[3.] https://d3dc8g8m07wfpb.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Card-for-document-brutus-paper.jpg