Bench Memos

Re: Anti-Federalist Society

Thanks, Kathryn, for the link to that silly little letter by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. about the Federalist Society (for the record, I am not now and never have been a member, nor have I attended any of their functions). He writes that its members display a “shocking ignorance of American history,” and here’s his entire reason why:

“The Federalist Party, the party of Washington, Adams and Hamilton, stood for a strong central government. The Federalist Society stands for negative government and states’ rights. If its members were honest, they would call themselves, in the terms of the 1790’s, the Anti-Federalist Society.”

Well, now. The Federalist Society uses as its logo a silhouette of James Madison, often accompanied by a quotation from one of Madison’s essays in–you guessed it–The Federalist. Clearly the Society’s focus is on the use of the name in association with advocacy of the Constitution as such.

As for the period of the 1790s, by then there were, properly speaking, no such persons as Anti-Federalists, that name being accurate only while the question of the Constitution’s ratification was still pending and for a very brief time thereafter. In the split that took place between Adams and Hamilton on one side and Jefferson and Madison on the other during the 1790s (Washington belonging to neither party), the former claimed the name “Federalists” and the latter the name “Republicans” (though their party was the lineal ancestor of today’s Democrats).

And I don’t know where Schlesinger gets the idea that members of the Federalist Society are uniformly “for negative government and states’ rights.” I have met members who are staunch Hamiltonians on such questions. It’s a pretty diverse crowd, united by little else than a rejection of the doctrine of the “living Constitution.”

Here endeth the lesson, Professor Schlesinger.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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