Federalist, Anti-Federalists and the fear of government

Government.   Perhaps no other word in the English language carries with it such feelings of controversy, fear, fury, passion, dread and hope.  Though there are amble more words to describe this strange system in which humans organize themselves these are some of the most commonly associated with government.  This is especially true in the United States, where two hundred and thirty years after its creation, how much power the government has along with when and where do the powers of the federal government, state government and the people begin and end is still heavily debated.  In fact this complicated triple venn diagram of rights has kept political activists, politicians and political scientist busy since the inception of the United States.  The most bitterly fought political battles within the United States have been over these rights and powers.


Though this debate predates that of the United States one could reasonably argue that no does it quite so passionately as Americans.  History would agree as this argument as the country has torn itself apart in civil war once already and threated to it do it more times than most can count.  The Hartford convention and the Nullification crisis are two of the more famous examples.  However, if one wishes to understand this debate from an American perspective then it would be best to start with the Federalist and Anti-Federalist debate of the late 18th century.  Even today they are still some of the best examples of the big government vs. small government debate.  However, this maybe because the debate has failed to move anywhere productive, but that is beside the point.  Over the years the argument has latched onto new issues such as slavery and economic rights.  Today the battleground is centered around medical and gun rights.

The Federalist and Anti-Federalist of course argued over how much power the Federal Government should have, how much power the states governments would have, and how much power the people ought to retain.  Reading through the multiple essays that both produced, one can almost see Rousseau on the Anti-Federalist side and Locke and Hobbes on the Federalist.  While this debate centered itself around the idea of liberty and whether it is positive or negative in origin, it ultimately steamed from more basic human emotion.  Perhaps the most base of all emotions.  Fear.

The irony of this situation verges on hilarity because with the exception of Anarchist and Marxist Communists, everyone accepts the need for some form of government to exist.  Yet most people, Americans in particular, fear government almost to the verge of paranoia.  The Anti-federalists, and those that have a fear of government do have point though.  History does support the argument that government can be oppressive, evil things.  As Regan so famously said “Government is not the solution to our problems, Government is the problem,” Granted this is perhaps as less eloquent copy of what Thomas Paine said but the basic message is still the same.  However, this view of government is wrong.

This debate plays a distinguished misunderstanding of what government is.  Or in fact could be.  Government should be viewed much like that of a tool.  A tool that is wielded by the people.  Much like a tool it can be used to harm or to help the public.  However, that fear of what could should not paralyze us from realizing the potential good that government has.  The people of modern democratic nations have an unprecedented opportunity to seize government and use it to better society.  To give opportunities to those that would not normally have it, to help prevent poverty, to give care to the sick, to provide protection to those who besieged by crime, and to pick up those that have fallen along with the way.  In short, it should be used as force for good.  Government can be a powerful tool, one that should be used to help society.  Not be the bureaucratic nightmare that is today because we are shackled by the fear of government could be.

The idea that we should fear the government is as archaic as the idea that we should fear fire.  Like that idea that we need to move and realize the power that government can have should be used to better society.  Though the first in America, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers are part of a much larger debater over the role of government and how much power they should wield going back well over two thousand years to the ancient Greeks.  Like the cavemen with fire, it is high time we learn not to fear government and shy away from it.  The people need to understand the good that it can do.  Ultimately the people should respect the power that government can have and understand the lessons of the past.  But they should not fear it as for the most part the fear is unjustified and living in a modern democratic country, theirs is the hand that has not be burned by the fire of government.


This entry was posted in Antifederalists, Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Federalist, Anti-Federalists and the fear of government

  1. In short i can see why you believe what you do, but i completely disagree in every aspect. First Paine said something along the lines of ‘society is positive and created to help us. Government is negative, designed to restrain our vices.’

    Government is a tool yes but at what point do you stop controlling your tool? Your tool makes arbitrary decisions that you have little or no say in. What if i told you i decided gun ownership was mandatory and so were forearm safety course by the age of 18. Would you see this as a gracious act by your tool looking out for your best interest? Or if cameras were placed inside your homes so if there was ever a domestic dispute the issue could readily be dealt with? Eventually people, corrupt mortal people start making bad decisions or self serving decisions. If i am in the government and deciding who to give a lucrative contract to and my choices are A and B, A being good price slightly slow. B being High price, good time, bad product. I choose B because they decided out of the generosity of their heart to give me a condo in the tropics. This is just a small example.

    A good government is scared of its people because it is accountable, a large powerful government is not accountable nor self regulating. If every human was flawless this would work, seeing as we are not we have more to fear than getting a little “burned”. History should teach you that easily enough. Thinking that fearing a vastly powerful government is “archaic” is not only naive but dangerous. A lot of horrible things have been done with “good intentions”. If you want i will cite examples for everything i listed but i omitted that for the time being to keep this short.

  2. aussielandmn says:


    I can understand your position but I believed it to be flawed for several reasons. Firstly Mr. Paine was a product of his generation. Government was seen as negative back then but compared to the other options at the time, it was humanities best choice. However, I would also argue that Mr. Paine was a little bitter towards British society about his inability to survive in it therefore affecting his judgment of government in general. Personally though I much more of a Mr. Burke man myself. He believed that Government’s job and the role of politics is to repair the social fabric that is society. In more laymen terms, it is to better society. Mr. Burke understood the flaws of government as much as Mr. Paine did but also realized that these flaws won’t get fixed by simply limiting their effects, they must be addressed. Mr. Burke believed through politics, government, and society that one could slowly reform in order to address these issues. A policy that both the British and American governments have more or less taken and has worked quite successfully for them. Mr. Paine also believed more in using a bulldozer to change society while Mr. Burke had more of a leaning towards using a sizzle to form as the American constitution a ‘more perfect union.’ But now I must admit now I just showing off slightly so I’ll move on.

    Secondly continuing to use the tool analogy I started in previous post, I think you misunderstand what government is. Government is not, or at least shouldn’t be, some separate entity with no relation to the people. Not in a democracy. Government IS the people. The idea that the people would, as you so eloquently put it “stop controlling your tool” is foolish. Within a democracy, the people never stop controlling the tool because the tool is made up of the people and wielded by them. In the same sense an arm is much a part of your body and you never stop controlling it, the people in a democratic society will never stop controlling a government. Therefore a democratic government can never make, again borrowing a phase from your post an “arbitrary decisions that you have little or no say in,” because it is made up of the people therefore the people made the decision. In addition, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if you disagree with something that your current government has made you have a plethora of options. Vote for someone different, campaign to have it repealed or take up the ultimate mantel of civic reasonability and run for office yourself. Granted, within modern democracies there are flaws within the system I will be the first to admit that. Our current form of representative democracy is perhaps a little outdated and our limitation on participation definitely needs to be addressed but that does not mean we should simply accept that government is evil and be limited to microscopic proportions. I refuse to accept that as a democratic people, this is our fate. Especially when the opportunity to do some much good is right there, we as a people just have to have the bravery, intelligence and foresight to take it. We should not hide or shelter in caves, scared of the fire that we can control.

    Thirdly, I believe that you misunderstand the relationship between any government and its people. A government should not be afraid of its people, because again the government is part of the people. A government should respect the wishes of the people and yes be accountable to it. But any system, especially the relationship between a government and its people, which is based on the emotion of fear is wrong. Fear as a basis of a relationship, will never lead to anything remotely positive. As a student of history, it has taught me that. To quote a more then famous little Jedi “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

    Fourthly, I will agree with you that humans are flawed therefore everything we build or make will be flawed. As Mr. Kant so famously said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” However, that does not mean we should simply accept our fate as evil, brutish creatures, borrowing a phrase from Mr. Hobbes. But we should actually try to improve our lives and that of society in general. That is, in my humblest of opinions, governments responsibility. We as a people simply need to direct it. As Mr. Burke proposed, through politics and government we can better our society. It is because man is flawed that we need government. Granted as you said bad things have come out of the best of intentions as you have said but that is arbitrary and vague argument and I believe serves no point in this discussion.

    Fifthly, as I have previously mentioned I do consider myself a student of history, among other studies but that is again one of the reasons why I believe government can do good. For example, Imperial Germany with Otto Von Bismarck at the helm, was one of the first countries to provide a social wealth net to their people with did a lot of good for the country. The introduction of the NHS in the UK has, and still does provide a lot of people with, free at point of service, health care and support. The social security reforms of the 1930s and 40s within the United States helped people pull themselves up out of the Great Depression and still provides millions with some form of financial security. History has proven that government, when properly directed can be a great source of good and when it hasn’t it, then it serves as lesson for us as a society to learn from.

    Therefore, I am ultimately arguing that no, not fearing government is not naïve or dangerous, it is in fact the progressive thing to do. One should always respect power and the government, but a government made up of the people, democratically elected by the people, to serve the people should never be feared but embraced. Especially one that has the power to do so much good, and acts upon that ability. I do understand your frustration with government, I have been there more times than I can count. However, there are lots of reform projects out that give citizens such as yourself and me the opportunity to participate and better direct our democratic government. Oregon’s Citizens Initiative Review system is one of them, there has been discussion about bringing a similar process to Arizona, but also advocating for things like citizens jury, deliberative polling, citizens jury and other participatory/deliberative projects are just a few examples of many different things you can do. If the people are involved in government, government can do a lot of good and should not be feared.

    • My short response is this:

      If you are suggesting a Prop system at a national level then good luck with that. There will simply not be enough participation by citizens. So yes the government is somewhat detached from society. Have you ever heard the term “life inside the bell-way”?


      You could use government as a safety net for everyone, and create massive amounts of bureaucracy or you could let a free market that caps monopolies and oligopolies do its job. In closing “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

      If i don not like things running for office is a highly flawed option. Mainly, i need money and a lot of it.

      Quoting Star Wars is not a valid appeal to authority.


      “Granted as you said bad things have come out of the best of intentions as you have said but that is arbitrary and vague argument and I believe serves no point in this discussion.”

      It has a very valid point. I will cite examples.

      1.”In July of 2010, a proposal was presented to the United States Congress regarding which food products can and cannot be marketed to kids ages 2 through 17. Under the proposal, marketers could not advertise goods that contain more than 1 g of saturated fat, any trans fat, 13 g of added sugar or 200 mg of sodium. Some breakfast cereals and potato chips would qualify for marketing but not cheese, flavored milks or even some low-fat yogurts. “We’re in a funny place when Cocoa Puffs qualifies and cheese doesn’t,” comments Connie Tipton, president and CEO of International Dairy Foods Association. “This proposal is not based on science.” I agree with Connie and would dare to throw in that the proposal is also not based on any kind of logic. The proposal was, however, based on good intentions – to help kids eat healthier and to keep kids away from calorie and fat-laden foods. However, the way it played out was definitely not good – considering that if this proposal had passed – it would have eliminated most natural cheeses, which contain more than 200 mg of sodium per serving.”

      2. The Americans with Disabilities Act

      It was supposed to help handicapped people get jobs. It caused a decline because seen as potential lawsuits.

      3. Hitler Ran on a platform of hope and change. He used everything and everyone as scapegoats. He also proposed radical power grabs which enabled him to ‘help the people’. If you want more information i will give you a history book. Cliche to cite i know but still valid.

      Is this list adequate or should i get a few more examples?

      Also, belittling your opponent because you disagree with them is a logical fallacy. Ad Hominem. Or depending on your language use it can also be “Straw Man”.

  3. theginja says:

    I have to respectfully disagree as well, fear of the government is completely rational and in my eyes necessary.

    You brought up the fact that we shouldn’t fear the government because we “control” it. I take the view that the method of control is essentially an innocuous point, no matter who controls it; it is the nature of the institution that is dangerous. To use your very applicable fire analogy: The fear of fire is not archaic; it is entirely reasonable, because the nature of our fear is rooted in reality. We do not fear fire because it is mysterious or out of control, we fear fire because it is dangerous! Fire by its very nature needs fuel and survives by virtue of consumption, and unless held in check, it will voraciously consume until there is nothing left … much like governments. Now, you use the idea that fire is a tool and should not be feared but respected, and in a way this sounds like sage advice. After all, when the fire is used to cook and provide edible food for your family and keeps you warm, it is not at all seen as something to fear. But, conversely, if that fire is out of control and moving toward you, I can guarantee that it will illicit a little bit of fear. So, really your fear or non-fear of fire depends almost entirely on perspective. It’s easy to not fear something that you see as doing something good for you. It is a little different if it is being destructive and you have no control over it … my singular vote will not stop a fire from consuming my home.

    My next point: We need to be clear on what we are referring to when we say “government”, and I don’t mean the repetitious talking points we hear in high school civics classes and TV political dramas. The government, any government most certainly IS people, but it is not THE people. Any assertion to the contrary is naïve. Allow me to elaborate, the government, in our western normative sense, can be synonymous with the “state”. The State has a singular defining characteristic that separate it from other institutions, its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Very simply, our government/state is comprised of people who can make decisions and hold citizens to those decisions not through the ballot box and/or approval ratings, but through the use of violence. If you do/don’t do X, (or pay X), I can detain you, if you resist, I can visit violence upon you. And this violence, carried out by any other group/institution/individual would be seen as not only illegitimate, but as a crime. What we have is a group of individuals (government) to whom we ascribe a separate moral standard different to the one we ascribe to ourselves (the people). Now that we are clear as to what exactly the government is, and that despite its composition (but its of people, right?) it is not the same as the citizenry, we can move on.

    You mentioned that most people see the need for some form of government, its what most would call a “necessary evil”, and most people are wrong for fearing it. You say it is wrong because it is like a tool, which is wielded by the people. The problem is that we cannot exert any sort of meaningful control over our tool (government). We cannot do this because of two things, the coercive nature of the government, which is based on consumption and power. The second being the government’s monopoly on the use of violence. The ballot box is supposed to be our way to exert control over our government, but realistically we are just replacing cogs in a populist run machine. A populist run machine that tramples on the rights and desires of the minority, because that is all democracy is. Take Jim Crow laws as an example; we cannot overlook the fact that these laws were created out of democracy! Most people who see government as a “necessary evil” desire a minarchist government limited in scope by law (not majoritarian desire), if for no other reason than to limit the amount of damage it can inflict upon its own citizenry.

    Long story short, I think it is a crucial mistake to view fear of the government as archaic. The debate in America is about nothing more than the relationship between the government and the governed. While society has changed and progressed significantly, the fundamental relationship has not. The mechanisms for tyranny and oppression are the same as they were when our fine country was founded. Its easy to love the government when its doing things you agree with, but not so easy when the tables are turned. An acknowledgement of the other side would go a long way in productive debate.

  4. newbieblogster13 says:

    I agree with you that people should not fear government because it has the capability to do so much good in any society and the original idea behind this fear should be well past its prime. However, I believe this fear persists because government can follow the people’s will to its full extent but even that can produce unwanted effects. Yes, government is a tool to be used, but a tool can backfire even under full control of the user. Take this for example. A man is using a hammer and accidentally pounds his own finger. It wasn’t intentional and under his full control but his own clumsiness caused him harm. This is where things go differently. Where the man may blame his own clumsiness, the people would blame the government. The government would be under the people’s full control, but the people may lead the government to do the wrong thing unintentionally. The people don’t blame themselves but the government. A fear is created from what the government has done, is doing, and may do in the future. I believe this is a cycle and until every person some how becomes perfect, the government is bound to create more mistakes causing more fear.

  5. horboy80 says:

    aussielandmn : While I appreciate your optimism with your view towards government and the many good things that can come from it, and the list is long, I may need to agree with nathanwellsfry on a few points. I see those positive accomplishments as a governments duty and not something to help push aside that other long list of possible atrocities that an “evil” government could produce.
    Fear helped us evolve. It taught us to be wary of large dangerous animals and poisonous plants. And fear is doing that same thing now. When you describe how Americans fear government because it can be, and has been, “oppressive, evil things”, you kind of invalidated your very next point. You basically gave proof that yes, Americans do have something to be fearful of.

    # And I think we should still fear too much fire just as we should fear too much government.

    I enjoyed reading it though

  6. elason13 says:

    In a perfect world, and a perfect government with perfect people, fear of the government wouldn’t be necessary. As you said, government is a tool that should be used for the greater good. The problem is that government is both imperfect and unwilling to be used for the greater good. As you stated yourself, governments have proved themselves to be oppressive and evil throughout history. I am unsure why you would dispose of the extensive evidence of time, and throw up your white flag.

    As long as there is insatiable desire fed by jealousy, there will be, and should be, fear. Desire brings about devastating violence, corruption, and inequalities. A government, made up of people, will always desire more power. A corporation, also made up of people, will always influence that power. The elite will continue to gain affluence, living off the backs of the lower class. The people owe it to themselves to not become doormats: allowing the government to wipe the mud off their heels as they enter their marble mansions, leaving the politically weak out in the desert dust. Fear, or perhaps distrust, is one of the few powerful tools left to citizens, and should not be carelessly tossed out.

    That being said, not everything that the government does is evil or currupt. While I believe that you should question all the actions of those that represent us, sometimes the answers are good, and our faith should be placed in their hands at those times. My point is to not let your complacency overrule your trust, and to always question everything.

Leave a Reply