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The Anti-Federalists Were Not Anti-Nationalists

Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry's binary account of America's early years is in need of a bit of revision.

Andrew Jackson is a clear indication that the anti-Federalist tendency in early America was not an anti-nationalist one. (By Frank L. Junior/Shutterstock)

A piece by Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony on the TAC website in June certainly seemed designed to provoke thought on the topic of American nationalism and its origins (“American Nationalism,” June 18). One hopes that it did so, as their thesis is indeed provocative and worthy of rumination and discussion—along with, perhaps, some respectful correctives. Recognizing that the idea of nationalism is in bad odor these days in many quarters of the nation, Haivry and Hazony posit that the nationalist ethos actually was at the heart of the founding of the American system at the 1787 Constitutional Convention and in the first dozen years of the Republic. The architects of American constitutionalism, they write, were the Federalists, who were the country’s first conscious and effective nationalists.

The Federalists, write the authors, brought to the early Republic a coherent sense of the American polity based on a strong central government, a high regard for the Anglo-Protestant heritage, governmental structures largely inherited from the British, economic protectionism meshed with immigration restrictions, an affinity for established religion, and friendly attitudes toward Great Britain. Positioned under the leadership of George Washington and John Adams, the Federalists stamped this philosophy upon the nation and its key governmental institutions. “In fact,” say the writers, “we may say that to a great degree, the Federalists founded America as we know it.”

But, write Haivry and Hazony, they faced serious opposition from the anti-Federalists, later Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, who harbored a vision that might be called “confederalist”—an aversion to centralized authority and a protective regard for the “virtue and natural rights of the consenting individual, who owed little or nothing to national and religious tradition.” Thus do Haivry and Hazony paint the battles between the Federalists and anti-Federalists as actually battles between nationalists and anti-nationalists. And we see the fault line between these two factions (and emergent political parties) in a host of issues and confrontations recounted by Haivry and Hazony. Some examples:

The nationalists strongly supported the Constitution of 1787; the anti-nationalists generally opposed it. The nationalists embraced a concept of national cohesion within a federal system; the anti-nationalists clung to a notion of a loose federation of sovereign states. The nationalists recoiled at the civic chaos of the French Revolution; the anti-nationalists viewed the revolution as a triumph of humanity. The nationalists absorbed the major principles of the British governmental philosophy as part of a traditionalist sensibility; the anti-nationalists embraced abstract rationalism over traditionalism and states’ rights over national cohesion. The nationalists wanted a Supreme Court with robust powers of constitutional interpretation; anti-nationalists promulgated the concept of “nullification” of federal laws deemed anathema by the states. The nationalists favored high tariffs, federal public works projects, and a national bank; the anti-nationalists opposed these things. The nationalists favored a foreign policy aligned with Britain; the anti-nationalists favored France. 

There is much historical truth in this interpretation. The Federalists did indeed take the lead in creating a new, more cohesive nation and set it upon its course toward success. But the Haivry-Hazony essay’s persistent binary approach seems just a bit too pat, particularly as the authors project their portrayal of the Federalist/anti-Federalist tension out into the future. As the new nation became established upon the American continent and the Constitution became more and more embedded in the national consciousness, a strong nationalist credo took root, visible in the thinking of both Federalists and anti-Federalists; then of Whigs and Democrats; and ultimately of both Democrats and Republicans. Moreover, even the early Federalists adopted positions and pursued policies that didn’t square with strict nationalist attitudes. 

So it might be appropriate to revise the Haivry/Hazony binary thesis just a bit, starting with Thomas Jefferson. The authors are tough on Jefferson, in part because he didn’t buy into the Federalist vision but more significantly for his abstractionist views about the universal rights of man. “Nor was Jefferson a friend of the Federalists’ Constitution of 1787,” they write, adding he favored  “rationalism as opposed to traditionalism, states’ rights and the philosophy of the individual as opposed to the building up of the American nation.” 

Jefferson deserves some of that opprobrium for his abstractionist rationalism, his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and his qualified faith in the potential stabilizing force of constitutional government. But as Catherine Drinker Bowen writes in her classic Miracle at Philadelphia, “Certainly he was no anti-Constitutionalist.” Even from Paris, where he served as diplomat, he suggested improvements in the document as a way of securing his support. He wanted specifically a bill of rights to protect citizens from arbitrary governmental threats (hardly an anti-nationalist preference), a presidential term limitation, and removal of language allowing the federal government to veto state legislation. He succeeded in getting the veto language removed and the bill of rights included.

It is difficult to see this Jeffersonian activity as a matter of nationalism vs. anti-nationalism. What we do see is the emergence of a major political fault line that would roil the Republic from its earliest days—namely, the question of power distribution throughout the polity. How much power should be centralized in the federal government and in the executive branch and how much should be dispersed to Congress, the states, and the people? That’s a fundamental question that goes beyond matters of nationalist sensibilities.

In their effort to portray the “nationalist” Founders as the heroes of the Constitutional Convention, Haivry and Hazony gloss over some pertinent details. They note that Alexander Hamilton, whom they extol, wanted to pattern the American system as much as possible on the British one, which he considered “the best model the world ever produced.” True. But they don’t mention that he wanted the president to be elected for life (barring impeachment for serious wrongdoing) and have a veto power over any bills passed by the legislature. The American president, under this plan, would have been pretty close to a king.

But of course the Founders (representing many political persuasions) had something different in mind. Though they embraced much of the British system—such as the bicameral legislature, tax legislation originating in the lower legislative house, due process of law, jury trial, etc.—they skipped over the British parliamentary system and harked back to the Roman republic for their fundamental model of divided and competing power centers with checks and balances built in to curtail abuses by any of the three independent governmental branches. Ultimately they crafted a system that incorporated two interlocking imperatives—the need to curtail the whims and abuses of executive power; and the need to employ executive power to limit the whims and abuses of legislative power. This result was not the product simply of those men who later became Federalists but of a complex and arduous give-and-take among many delegates with disparate views about principles of governance.  

The question of the proper distribution of power consumed the nation in its early decades as Federalists sought to aggrandize the federal government vis-a-vis the states and the people, while Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans fought to curtail such aggrandizement. Ultimately, the Jeffersonian outlook captured the preponderance of public sentiment, resulting in the long political dominance of, first, Jefferson and his proteges and, then, Andrew Jackson and his acolytes. And all this occurred against a backdrop of growing nationalist passions within both factions. 

Consider, for example, the political sentiments unleashed by James Madison’s War of 1812 against the British. The “war hawks” clamoring for war included Kentucky’s Henry Clay, who came out of the Federalist tradition and later founded the Federalist-successor party, the Whigs. But the Federalists of New England vehemently opposed the war, even convening the so-called Hartford Convention in 1814-1815 to discuss what they considered their predicament. Some advocated secession from the Union, though the delegates confined themselves to a strong states’ rights stand in the convention’s final statement. And New England Federalists created a monetary crisis when their banks, as an antiwar protest, hoarded the country’s meager hard currency reserves, setting off a menacing wave of inflation as banks in other regions were forced to rely largely on printed money. Neither of these actions comports with the strong binary interpretation of the Haivry/Hazony treatise. Indeed, one could argue that the New England Federalists of that era were distinctly anti-nationalist. 

Further, the war raised questions about the Federalists’ persistent fealty to Britain even in the face of that nation’s “impressment” of American sailors on the high seas and British harassment of American shipping designed to thwart Madison’s neutrality policy during the British-French wars of that Napoleonic time. Though the war didn’t settle the impressment or neutrality issues (they soon faded anyway after Britain’s victory over Napoleon), it did thwart the British aim of extending military and cultural dominance south of the Great Lakes, into the Ohio and Missippi river valleys. This would have thwarted America’s westward expansion and shattered the dream of a transcontinental nation; hence the war helped consolidate the U.S. position and enliven U.S. ambitions upon the North American landmass. The New England Federalists certainly didn’t have the nationalist edge on that issue. 

Indeed, American expansionism became a hot issue as the country moved into its second-generation era of politics. Certainly the expansionist impulse can’t be called anti-nationalist in outlook. Indeed, nationalism fueled that powerful westward drive that played such a significant role in defining America in the 19th century. And it was the Democratic-Republicans and later the Democrats who most avidly embraced that impulse, with profound results: the Louisiana Purchase under Jefferson, the acquisition of Florida under James Monroe, the annexation of Texas under John Tyler and James K. Polk, the annexation of most of Oregon Territory under Polk, and the acquisition of the American Southwest and California through Polk’s war with Mexico. Henry Clay, that era’s greatest political descendant of the Federalist tradition, opposed nearly all of it; that’s one reason he never realized his life’s dream of becoming president. (Had he endorsed Texas annexation in 1844, he almost certainly would have been elected to the White House that year.)

But it was in the area of federal power consolidation that the Jeffersonians and their political heirs most vociferously took on their Federalist adversaries and their successors. It began with Jefferson himself, who envisioned a nation that pushed aside the kind of budding governmental aristocracy favored by the Federalists—a powerful federal government run by men accustomed to leadership. He desired a smaller federal government more attuned to the interests of ordinary folk—farmers, laborers, mechanics, artisans—and less inclined to supersede the rights and prerogatives of the states. He opposed Hamilton’s federally chartered bank as representing a dangerous concentration of financial power. And he was aghast at the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts during the John Adams administration, which criminalized public criticism of the government, even in peacetime. 

“I think myself,” said Jefferson, “that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have.” He called for using “the chains of the constitution” to bind down the government and prevent it from abusing citizens.

One can debate the soundness or wisdom of Jefferson’s apprehension about entrenched governmental power, but it is a fundamental element of the American consciousness, born of the Revolutionary War experience, present at the Constitutional Convention, and ribboned through the country’s history of largely measured and regulated political adjudication. It would be a mistake to suggest that this outlook intrinsically militates against the nationalist ethos, embraced alike by Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians at various times through the decades. 

Andrew Jackson offers a striking illustration. No one could question his nationalist credentials. He joined the colonial military as a teenager during the Revolutionary War and was seriously wounded. As a general in the War of 1812,  he thwarted the British ambition of capturing New Orleans as a gateway to dominance over the Mississippi River valley. Further, as president he throttled a movement by South Carolina to “nullify” federal tariff laws it didn’t like, meaning it declared those laws null and void as far as South Carolinians were concerned. Jackson made clear he would not tolerate this assault on the Constitution.

“Give my compliments to my friends in your state,” he told a South Carolina congressman. “And say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.” He infused his threat with credibility, and the nullification movement fizzled (though Jackson also helped craft a compromise reduction in tariff rates to mollify South Carolinians at least a little). 

But Jackson also battled against the consolidation of political and financial power at the federal level, most notably in killing the Second Bank of the U.S., which had an unsavory record of corruption over the years. And he used his veto pen to kill federal public works projects of the kind so fervently crafted and advocated by Henry Clay as part of his famous “American System.” Few ever thought that Jackson’s views on power distribution demonstrated any lack of nationalist ardor because his nationalist ardor was never in question. 

Thus do we see that American nationalism has been a consistent staple of American politics through the decades, sometimes intertwined with liberal efforts to expand federal power and sometimes intertwined with conservative efforts to chip away at that power. Haivry and Hazony are correct in arguing that the forces of Federalism played the dominant role in molding and shaping the American Republic through the Constitutional Convention and during the first decade or so of the nation. The Federalists were, after all, the dominant political force in America during that era.

They also suggest a new embrace of many Federalist precepts could be an effective counter to the ills of our own time. The early Federalists gave us, say the authors, “one of the most important and successful nationalist movements in history—and a relevant model for American and other nationalists today.” 

But latter-day Federalists would have to be prepared to take on today’s meritocratic elites in the name of the traditionalism extolled by Haivry and Hazony. America has been, as Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in 1844, “ a country of…vast designs and expectations.” And the fuel for pursuing those vast designs and expectations has been American nationalism, the source of civic cohesion through the various times of the Federalists, the Democratic-Republicans, the Whigs, the Democrats, and the Republicans. But now nationalism is in severe disfavor among many Americans, particularly those elites, bent on undermining national pride, tearing down national icons, trashing the heritage, and fostering a sense of national self-disgust. The new elites are propelled not by nationalist sentiments but rather by a zealotry of globalism, with a passion for open borders, liberal trade policies even at the expense of domestic prosperity, and messianic foreign policy adventures. 

Any counter to that destructive force will have to incorporate the traditions and shared values of American nationalism, starting with the Federalist version ably portrayed by Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony. But it will also have to devise a potent counterweight to the implacable anti-nationalists of our time. 

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).

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