On this day in 1787, an author writing under the pseudonym “Centinel” writes his second contribution to the anti-Federalist Papers. These papers argued against the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.
Centinel emphasizes the need for a free press. “As long as the liberty of the press continues unviolated,” he writes, “and the people have the right of expressing… and publishing their sentiments upon every public measure, it is next to impossible to enslave a free nation.” Tyrants, he concludes, “have ever been inimical to the press, and have considered the shackling of it, as the first step towards the accomplishment of their hateful domination.”
He worries that freedom of the press has been insufficiently protected in the new Constitution.
In this context, he also wonders about the “injunction of secrecy” at the Constitutional Convention. “Whatever specious reasons may be assigned for secrecy during the framing of the plan,” he speculates, “no good one can exist, for leading the people blindfolded into the implicit adoption of it. . . . It carries on the face of it an intention to juggle the people out of their liberties.”
Centinel worries that making federal laws the “supreme law of the land” will eventually ensure that the people’s rights are violated. “After such a declaration,” he asks, “what security does the Constitutions of the several States afford for the liberty of the press and other invaluable personal rights, not provided for by the new plan? Does not this sweeping clause subject every thing to the controul of Congress?” He believes the states will be reduced to mere “shadows” because the Congress, “unless particularly inhibited and restrained, must grasp at omnipotence, and before long swallow up the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial powers of the several States.”
He acknowledges the arguments that the Constitution provides checks/balances and separation of powers, intended to prevent these kinds of problems. But he thinks the checks are inadequate: They are not “accompanied with adequate power and independently placed.” In the end, these checks on power will “prove merely nominal, and will be inoperative.” He also believes that the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches is insufficient because it is incomplete. Instead, the deliberately created overlap among the powers “highly tends to corruption.”
Centinel is quite upset about the extensive power of taxation granted to Congress. In the end, he believes that this extensive power will, by necessity, “annihilate” the state governments.
Finally, Centinel finds the proposed process for amending the Constitution to be inadequate. “Does history abound with examples of a voluntary relinquishment of power, however injurious to the community?” he asks. “No; it would require a general and successful rising of the people to effect any thing of this nature.”
Centinel concludes on a rather pessimistic note! “My fellow citizens,” he says, “such false detestable patriots in every nation, have led their blind confiding country, shouting their applauses, into the jaws of despotism and ruin. May the wisdom and virtue of the people of America, save them from the usual fate of nations.”