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1/21/2005

Paperwight & Anti-Federalism

I want to take a second to highlight Paperwight's Fairshot - he and Digby come about as close to representing my views as anyone in the blog-universe. Paperwight's most recent post is a column by Philip Freneau in the National Gazette, an early anti-Federalist newspaper. We have much to learn from this era (roughly 1790-1802 - the rise of the partisan political press), rhetorically, substantively, and strategically. Freneau, Benjamin Franklin Bache, James Callendor, William Duane - these are names that have fallen from progressive memory, though they shaped, even created, Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. We remember, occasionally, Thomas Paine, and less often, the anti-Federalist papers, but we forget the context in which those conflicts arose and those arguments made.

The anti-Federalists, heavily influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, were fighting a resurgent class structure in American society, best represented by the scoundrel Adams. They favored the French, who had just aided us in our war for independence. They favored expansion of the franchise to all free men, weak in retrospect, but radical for the time. They opposed corruption in government, particularly self-dealing on the part of the governing class. They took their fight to the common man and to the streets. For this, they were met with private arms and public laws. Who thinks of Scottish dissidents when discussing the Alien & Sedition Acts? That history wasn't in my law school classes. Adams tried to crush the anti-federalist presses, but succeeded only in dispersing and strengthening them. Major newspapers fled Pennsylvania, moving westward to near present day Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and north into the Federalist base. Major anti-federalist presses worked out of Frankfort Kentucky, wielding frontier values against entrenched power in Philadelphia and Boston.

That heritage is ours, not theirs. The Federalist Society isn't a reference to the Federalist Papers, but to the Federalist Party. The American Constitution Society, formerly known as the Madison Society, was explicitly founded on the prudent democratic values of the anti-Federalists. It's counterintuitive, that the anti-Federalists should have inspired modern Democrats, and the Federalists the pseudo-conservatives, but the geneaology is clear. The tension is eased by the recognition that pseudo-conservatives want to own the state, not limit it; exploit class tension and anxiety, not reduce it.

For more, please read Richard Rosenfeld's American Aurora and Jeff Pasley's The Tyranny of the Printers. Pasley used to blog at the History News Network, but he's gone silent (despite my emails). I have been flogging these books in comments at places like Left2Right and Delong's place, but to no avail. Inspiration lies within - in less than half a decade, the anti-Federalists revolutionized politics, built a party, and won the presidency. (I also think we should use the word "calumny" more often.)

Update: Paul Glastris, invoking the era at Washington Monthly.

 

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