Sunday, June 14, 2009

Decentralization as the Remedy for Majority Faction

In the Federalist Number 10 James Madison made his famous argument that the size of the United States would limit the extent to which a majority or large minority could impose its will on a smaller minority. His theory was put to the test in 1798 with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts at the time of the presidency of John Adams.

The Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, according to Richard Hofstadter, under the assumption that criticism of the administration was criticism of the government and therefore traitorous. The Acts were passed during the XYZ affair, when French diplomats had attempted to extract payments from America and many Federalists thought that a war with France would be necessary. In contrast, the Democratic Republicans were very pro French because of the French Revolution. There had been a long standing debate between the Federalists, who were pro English, and Jefferson's Democratic Republicans, who were pro French. The Federalists hoped to wipe out the Jefferson faction by labeling them treasonous. The public was frenzied by the XYZ affair much as it was by 9/11 eight years ago. The Federalists argued that the Democratic Republicans were a faction and that their criticisms of federal policy was treasonous and against the public interest. In a sense, the Alien and Sedition Act has parallels to the Patriot Act.

The French recanted and a war was avoided, so the Alien and Sedition Acts did not work strategically as what Hofstadter calls the "High Federalists" had hoped. Richard Hofstadter writes (The Idea of a Party System, p. 106):

"Federalist leaders made no secret of their hope of destroying opposition. Hamilton predicted that many Republican leaders would be remembered by the people in the same odious light as the Tories. Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, a leading advocate of the Sedition Act in the House, wanted to be sure that 'no traitors should be left in the country' to jeopardize its defense. He professed his desire to imitate the internal security policies that had been adopted in England, charged the opposition with being a conspiracy, a faction leagued with a foreign power...'

"The language of the Sedition Act was vague enough to make a man criminally liable for almost any criticism of the government or its leading officers or any effort to combine for such a purpose. It made it possible for the courts to punish opinion, arbitrarily defined as seditious or disloyal, even in the absence of any overt act...'By identifying their administration with the government and the government with the Constitution, the Federalists construed criticism of the administration as opposition to the government and an attempt to subvert the Constitution...

"...In all, at least seventeen verifiable indictments were brought in, fourteen under the Sedition Act and three under the common law. Started in the main in 1798 or 1799, most of the cases came to trial in the election year, 1800, when it was hoped to stifle campaign criticism."

The indictments included the major Democratic Republican newspapers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Richmond as well as four smaller papers.

"But the Sedition Act was not conceived in a spirit of realism and it was not efficacious. The opposition was no small or paltry minority. As measured by representation in Congress, it was already at least equal to the administration in numbers...More importantly perhaps even than this, the country was still thoroughly decentralized, politically and geographically. Government, at the ultimate test, rests on sufficient force, and it was force that would have to be called upon if resistance to the laws became overt. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions threatened that resistance might indeed reach this point, and at a time when the federal army numbered only about 3,500 men stationed mainly at frontier garrisons as a precaution against Indians, Virginia alone could have easily mustered a militia of twice that number and was indeed planning a force of 5,000. Nothing short of a foreign war would have created the conditions essential to raising a democratic army large enough, as Hamilton put it in one of his brasher moments, to 'put Virginia to the test.'"

"And here the demand for an army ran up against two of the deepest American prejudices: the tight-fisted rural reaction to taxes, and the long-standing suspicion (fully shared at this point by President Adams) against a standing army..."

Presumably, Hofstadter was a loose-fisted urbanite. Note that Madison was right in this case, which under other circumstances could have meant an armed conflict between predominantly Republican states and the Federalist-dominated government. It was decentralized that preserved freedom.

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