Impact of Federalism on Political Culture

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Cornell makes this argument by carefully examining the differences between the constitutional ideas of important Republican writers like James Madison, John Taylor, Tunis Wortman, and St. George Tucker. By 1800, he argues, the Republican Party was dominated by a ‘Madisonian synthesis’ of constitutional ideas that owed a great deal to Anti-Federalist thinking. At one level his argument is convincing, but it’s also familiar. Hostility towards the federal government has been one of the leitmotifs of American politics since the founding period, and at this stage, Wills’s neo-federalism seems fresher and more iconoclastic than the ideas associated with Cornell’s ‘dissenting tradition.

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Cornell identifies at least three variants of Anti-Federalist ideology: Elite, Popular, and Plebeian. The first was the ideology of ‘cosmopolitan localists,’ Anti-Federalists of firmly Whig principles who opposed the creation of a new national government not because it was anti-democratic but because it threatened the well-established social and political hierarchies upon which their own power and prominence depended. Far from being ‘men of little faith,’ these Anti-Federalists were part of a sophisticated political elite who believed that the creation of a more anonymous national public sphere, mediated by the impersonality of print culture, would undermine personal deference and thus popular support for a ‘natural aristocracy.’

In contrast, Popular Anti-Federalism, which Cornell identifies with the ‘middling sorts,’ was more interested in defending democracy than localism and placed little faith in the disinterested virtue of political elites, relying instead on the creation of genuinely democratic institutions and a free press to ensure that rulers remained responsible to ‘the great body of the people.’ Egalitarian and class-conscious in their political rhetoric, but quite often liberal in their political assumptions and ‘decidedly pro-commercial’ in their economic views, middling Anti-Federalists saw the states as democratic walls against the consolidation of elite political power. Lastly, sharing the egalitarianism of their middling allies and the localism of their aristocratic ones, Cornell identifies a ‘Plebeian’ strain of Anti-Federalist ideology that was deeply rooted amongst those ‘cottagers, tenant farmers, and less affluent mechanics who provided much of the base of grass-roots Anti-Federalist support’ (89).

As Cornell shows, Anti-Federalist arguments about the dangers posed by the creation of a strong national state were ideological in nature, mobilizing class interests as well as beliefs about virtue and self-interest, liberty and license, democracy and aristocracy, consolidation and state sovereignty. And these class divisions within the Anti-Federalist coalition made it highly unstable. Popular Anti-Federalist enthusiasm for a vigorous public sphere, for example, was not shared by either Anti-Federalist elites or plebeian radicals. And the ‘extreme localism and radical democratic ideas’ of ‘plebeian populists,’ alienated both elite and middling Anti-Federalists. Indeed, as Cornell makes clear, the rift between middling and plebeian Anti-Federalists, which became apparent during the Carlisle Riot of 1787 and the movement for a second state convention in Pennsylvania in 1788, not only helps to explain the defeat of Anti-Federalism but also how and why it transformed itself so quickly from an anti-constitutional movement into an ‘effective loyal opposition’ (141).

Cornell’s approach to ideology, although a little rigid in its identification of class interests and politics, is refreshing. It represents not only an advance in our understanding of Anti-Federalism, but also an advancement in our understanding of political culture in the early republic. This period has been plagued by rigid and partisan readings of political ideology.

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Impact of Federalism on Political Culture. (2021, Aug 08). Retrieved from