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The Anti-Federalist Papers: Centinel IV

On this day in 1787, an author writing under the pseudonym “Centinel” writes his fourth contribution to the anti-Federalist Papers. These papers argued against the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.

An underlying assumption of the pro-Constitution movement was that the then-existing Articles of Confederation (effectively America’s first constitution) were “inadequate to the objects of the union.”

Centinel is not so sure about that! He warns his readers not to confuse “temporary and extraordinary difficulties” with “defects in the system itself.”

He starts with the issue of taxes. Money was hard to raise during the American Revolution, of course. But, given the state of commerce during the war, Centinel is mostly amazed that any taxes were collected at all! “[T]he lamp of sacred liberty must indeed have burned with unsullied lustre, . . . when the people not only submitted to the grievous impositions but cheerfully exerted themselves to comply with the calls of their country,” he observed. Unfortunately, too much money was needed to support the war, and “[their abilities] were not equal to furnish the necessary sums.”

In short? The colonists tried, but just couldn’t get it done! But their failure had nothing to do with any “defect in the confederation.” It had to do with the “peculiar circumstances of the times.”

Centinel thinks time and improved commerce will mend the situation. Indeed, couldn’t Americans accomplish their purpose by a simple “transfer to Congress of the power of imposing imposts on commerce and the unlimited regulation of trade”? Anyway, who cares if the country’s commerce is doing well if we get something terrible in return? Centinel fears an “arbitrary and unchecked government, who may levy at pleasure the most oppressive taxes; who may destroy every principle of freedom; who may even destroy the privilege of complaining.”

Centinel’s language gets very rough about the Constitution and those who have proposed it. “The evil genius of darkness presided at its birth,” he states. And “every deceptive art has been and is practising to have this spurious brat received as the genuine offspring of heaven-born liberty.”

How can Americans give away their freedom so quickly? He rants about the deception being wrought upon America for several paragraphs: “After so recent a triumph over British despots, after such torrents of blood and treasure have been spent, after involving ourselves in the distresses of an arduous war, and incurring such a debt, for the express purpose of asserting the rights of humanity, it is truly astonishing that a set of men among ourselves, should have had the effrontery to attempt the destruction of our liberties.”

The Constitution as a “spurious brat”? Ouch! I guess Centinel doesn’t mince words.



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