Response to Gordon Lloyd’s Review of Crossroads for Liberty

Gordon Lloyd has a review up on the Law of Liberty Blog of my book Crossroads for Liberty.  Lloyd is the Dockson Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and has been heavily involved in the creation of the useful website  I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Lloyd a few years back at a Liberty Fund Colloquium.  I enjoyed his company and the exchanges we had.  He consistently and vigorously supported Federalist positions, whereas I argued for a rediscovery of republican (small “r”) and Anti-Federal ideas.

In the review, Lloyd states that he agrees “we need, in effect, an Antifederalist Revival. . . . We are not going to get back to limited government through the Federalist because it is through the perversion of the Federalist by the Progressives that we find ourselves in the current irrelevant and incoherent position of presidential government.”  So far so good.

However, after agreeing we need an Anti-Federalist revival, Lloyd accuses me of believing that the Anti-Federalists were uniformly attached to the Articles.  This is a misinterpretation.  As I point out in Chapter 4, the Articles were not perfect, and sensible amendments were needed so confederative government could survive in the U.S.  The Anti-Federalists understood this and were willing to grant Congress additional powers over certain continental concerns.  What they did agree on was that the plan of government proposed by the Philadelphia Convention abandoned much of the good found in the Articles and that a puissant national government was inevitable under the new plan.

Lloyd also complains that most of the book concerns “a historical description of the politics of the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, odd citations from the Constitutional Convention, and the Federalist, with an admixture of random Antifederalist remarks; and 2) analysis of specific constitutional clauses.”  Well, yes.  As I note at the end of Chapter 4, the book is intended to examine the arguments of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists regarding myriad constitutional provisions and to examine how these provisions were actually used by the national government.  In other words, in light of over 200 years of experience, I wanted to examine which group had the better argument about the effects of the new Constitution.  The Anti-Federalists win this unequivocally.

Lloyd’s big problem with the book is that “unfortunately, the coherence and relevance of the Antifederalists, for Watkins, are anchored in an abiding attachment to the Articles of Confederation.”  Am I attached to the Articles?  In comparison to the Constitution that has given us a consolidated government, yes I am.

Despite what we are told, the Articles were an American success story. The two main goals of the Confederation were the defeat of Great Britain and preservation of self-government in the 13 states. Both were achieved in a confederative structure. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris officially ended the American Revolutionary War. King George III acknowledged that the 13 former colonies were “free sovereign and independent states.”

Under the Articles, each state retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right [not] expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” After the experience with British meddling in colonial affairs, the people preferred to be governed by their own local and state leaders rather than a distant centralized body. The Articles magnificently secured this right of self-government.

Writing in 1786, Thomas Jefferson described the Articles as a “wonderfully perfect instrument, considering the circumstances under which it was formed.” Upon his initial reading of the Constitution of 1787, which ultimately replaced the Articles, Jefferson observed that “all the good of this new constitution might have been couched in three or four new articles to be added to the good, old, and venerable fabrick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique.”

Amen to that.

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William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.

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