The Anti-Federalist Papers: Centinel I
On this day in 1787, an author writing under the pseudonym “Centinel” writes his first contribution to the anti-Federalist Papers. These papers argued against the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states. Their authors were not working together in any type of organized fashion, as the writers of the pro-Constitution Federalist Papers were.
This particular author, “Centinel,” was probably Samuel Bryan of Pennsylvania, although it is possible that Eleazer Oswald contributed a few pieces.
Centinel is upset about the lack of a Bill of Rights. How can Pennsylvanians know that they will be free from search and seizure? Or that they will have a right to jury? Or freedom of speech? It is not clear to Centinel that any of these rights will remain inviolable if the Constitution is adopted. Pennsylvanians have these rights now. Why give them up?
He further worries about the fact that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin have put their stamp of approval on the Constitution. Would Americans be too quick to accept the Constitution, without further investigation, simply because Washington and Franklin deemed it okay? Centinel is afraid that, despite “purity of intention,” those two men “may be made instruments of despotism in the hands of the artful and designing.”
Actually, Centinel is a bit condescending in this section of his essay. Washington, he says, “has been imposed on, in a subject of which he must be necessarily inexperienced.” He deemed Franklin simply too old, citing the “weakness and indecision attendant on old age.”
He wonders why the Constitution’s supporters expect a balancing of powers among three branches to work. He thinks it is impossible to keep three branches co-equal. Instead, one of the branches will begin to overwhelm the others. “[T]here is so great a disparity in the talents, wisdom and industry of mankind,” Centinel remarks, “that the scale would presently preponderate to one or the other body, and with every accession of power the means of further increase would be greatly extended.”
A more “simple structure of government” would work better. The “great body of the people never steadily attend to the operations of government, and for want of due information are liable to be imposed on.” In the end, he thinks that the “people will be perplexed and divided in their sentiments about the source of abuses or misconduct, some will impute it to the senate, others to the house of representatives, and so on.” The people will be too divided to hold their representatives accountable.
Adding to the problem, too much power has been given to Congress. Its vast taxing and legislative powers, taken together, will “necessarily absorb the state legislatures.” Centinel envisions these tyrannical taxes being “enforced by the standing army, however grievous or improper [the taxes] may be.”
Hmm. Were his fears justified?
Centinel does not believe the states should be in a rush to act. Surely, he concludes, a second constitutional convention can come up with something better than what has been proposed!