While sitting in class the other day, I overheard several classmates of mine preparing to take a US Government exam. The conversation struck a particular chord with me due to one comment that was along the lines of
Classmate 1: Patrick Henry, what was he? Federalist or Antifederalist?
Classmate 2: He was crazy, so what would he have been?
Classmate 1: Ah, Antifederalist, okay.
Why does “crazy” set the tone for the Antifederalists? Have we come to a point in historical revisionism that we now associate some of the greatest fighters for liberty to be “crazy”? This is not my classmates’ fault, it is the fault of a revisioned history in America’s high schools.
The sad answer is “yes.” We have come to a point in our history where those who inspired the Bill of Rights and fought the creation of a provably tyrannical state are labeled as crazy. Our classrooms in high schools are filled with teachers and textbooks that teach that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and the other Federalists were “right” and that Robert Yates, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and other Antifederalists were “wrong.”
We are taught that the Articles of Confederation were a failed attempt at decentralization that led to the outbreak of pure anarchy within the states and would have led to the complete Balkanization of the United States.
We are taught that the Federalist Papers were the words of the gods transcribed onto paper, that the fears of the Federalists opponents were completely irrational, and often that the Antifederalist Papers never even existed (though I give major props to organizations such as the Bill of Rights Institute that give a balanced look at both sides and offer students a look at perspectives that they would have otherwise missed out on in their high school civics class).
The Antifederalists gave us the Bill of Rights, which has itself proven to not be strong enough to stand up against the tyrannies of the state, when the Federalists believed that the original Constitution would have been sufficient at protecting rights. The Antifederalists warned of the possibility of an overreaching judiciary and of democracy gone awry. The Antifederalists inspired and defended much of the modern libertarian movement and helped keep the liberties of their radical whig ancestors alive. For their contributions, the Antifederalists should be strongly recognized, not wiped from the pages of history or dismissed as crazy.
It seems that individuals who were Antifederalists are included in great depth in the American Revolution, but when the Constitutional crisis arises, they are all but wiped out of history. It seems that the winners are those who write the textbooks. Revisionism has a deleterious effect on liberty. Only with a strong understanding of our antiestablishment roots can Americans understand that America is the great classical liberal experiment, not a conservative or liberal attempt at creating a state. When the roots of this experiment are wiped clean from the textbooks, it can be said that the experiment has failed.
Even more than conservatives… libertarians are squarely in the great classical liberal tradition that built the United States and bestowed on us the American heritage of individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government, and a free-market economy.
As stated before, some organizations such as BRI and organizations that sponsor seminars by academics, such as Students For Liberty, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Institute for Humane Studies, keep the defense of the Antifederalists alive, but they are certainly a minority.
If America’s students are not made aware of America’s radical classical liberal roots, then these perspectives can more easily be dismissed as “crazy” and pushed to the side like the ravings of anarchists. If we wish to keep the American classical liberal tradition alive, we must defend our Antifederalist ancestors against historical revisionism and ignorance.Published in