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Human Nature, Political Behavior: Ideal Representation in Federalist and Anti-Federalist Thought

By guest contributor Emily “Sal” Salamanca

By Emily “Sal” Salamanca

The Anti-Federalists have had a storied relationship with mainstream American political culture since their emergence as eclectic critics of the first Federal Constitution. Not always theoretically consistent among themselves and often less well-articulated than their Federalist interlocutors, the Anti-Federalists were only first studied in-depth by Progressive historians in the 1920s, who considered them mere “rustic, democratic levelers opposed by aristocratic merchant-capitalists” (337). Similarly, writing in 1955, Cecilia Kenyon describes Anti-Federalists as “men of little faith,” who were overly suspicious of centralized power (41). However, in the late 20th century, beginning with scholars like Gordon Wood (The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787), Christopher Duncan (The Anti-federalists and Early American Political Thought), and especially Saul Cornell (The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828), Anti-Federalist thought was reframed as offering a novel and alternative language of politics: one that emphasized communalism, “small-r” republicanism, public flourishing, and a politics of and by broad participation.

Though ultimately, the Federalists’ vision of government was enshrined in the Constitution, the institutional impacts of Anti-Federalist thought can still be appreciated in the Bill of Rights, state-centric federalism, and the commitment to local governance. Anti-Federalists also provided an alternative model of political representation that has been continuously drawn upon by various groups—Populists, suffragists, the movement for Black emancipation, etc.—throughout history. Moreover, various contemporary scholars (Emery Lee, Joel Johnson, and Bernard Manin) have noted, in passing, that the Anti-Federalists’ view of representation better predicted the way “representation” functions today.

The debate on Federalists and Anti-Federalists’ views of representation is summarized as follows: the Federalists wanted representatives to be virtuous versions of the people––impartial arbiters, if you will. Famously, in Federalist No. 10, Madison argues that representation is the “first difference” between a democracy and a republic. He writes laudingly:

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

The Federalists thus saw the virtues of representation extending beyond representatives themselves and into the broader elevation of the “public good” beyond local interests. Representatives were “representative” not because they shared a socioeconomic outlook with their constituents, but because they were elected by them.

To Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, good representation implied a shared experience between a representative and the represented. To them, the Federalists’ view of representation was both elitist, in that it sought to bring to power men already endowed with wealth and privilege, and also inherently condescending to the very people they were seeking to “represent.” To the Federal Farmer, a “full and equal [conception of] representation” was:

…that which possesses the same interests, feelings, opinions, and views the people themselves would were they all assembled. [A] fair representation, therefore, should be so regulated, that every order of men in the community, according to the common course of elections, can have a share in it. (Storing, “Federal Farmer,” 2.8.14)

To Anti-Federalists, ideal representatives should literally reflect the identities of the people they represent. Even in the absence of descriptive likeness, however, the representative still ought to, according to Luther Martin, “speak the sentiments of his constituents, and ought to vote in the same manner that his constituents would do” (Storing, Luther Martin, 2.46). Representatives  should “speak” the local political language—neither “parroting,” nor “refining” it—to best advocate on its speakers’ behalf.

This debate between Federalist and Anti-Federalist views of representation has had many iterations through American history. Progressive groups have long embraced Anti-Federalists’ demands for resemblance as a cornerstone of their advance for political rights, recognition, and indeed, reflective, or “descriptive” representation. On the obverse, critics of descriptive representation—from both the left and right––have argued that this is not “true” representation: a representative sharing physical or background characteristics does not imply Hannah Pitkin’s “acting for” constituents, nor does it provide any “substantive” accountability. In short, reflective representation might feel like political recognition and might do symbolic work in bringing marginalized groups into politics, but this does not imply meaningful representation beyond visual identification.

Such discussions about the value of reflective vs. refractive representation are undeniably present in the discourse between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Nonetheless, this debate has overshadowed a more fundamental disagreement which underpins the groups’ views. Their different conceptions of representation originate from the divergent views of human nature among Federalists and Anti-Federalists. These differing views of human nature also led each group to conceptualize the inner workings of a republic in contrasting ways: whereas to Federalists, a republic must be large enough such that no one group could dominate another, to Anti-Federalists, a republic relied upon public-spirited groups engaging with politics to promote the general welfare.

To Federalists, representation not only served a positive function––to uncover and promote the objective public good through virtuous representatives––but also a negative one, namely, to make up for the selfish attributes of human nature. Indeed, to the Federalists, government itself, writes Wilson McWilliams, “is only necessary…because human beings are apt to be narrowly self-interested, parochial, and shortsighted” (14). As Madison states in Federalist No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” According to Douglass Adair, this pessimistic view of human psychology derived from theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly David Hume (346). In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes that there exists a “great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages” and an underlying “human nature [that] remains still the same, in its principles and operations” (60). By studying man’s behavior, Hume thought one could predict the effects of political institutions “almost as general and certain…as any which the mathematical sciences will afford us.” To Federalists, Hume elucidated how human nature serves as both predictor for, and general guide to, how political institutions should be structured.

The most influential idea arising from Hume’s political psychology for the Federalists was that, when considering institutional design, one ought to operate under the total assumption that every person is a knave. In “Of the Independency of Parliament,” Hume writes:

[I]n contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest.

Although Hume stated that the assumption of universal knavery is “false in fact,” he nevertheless held that it remains “true in politics.” Though honor can be “a great check upon mankind,” “where a considerable body of men act together, this check is, in a great measure, removed; since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party…and he soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries.” To Hume, then, factions were an ineluctable aspect of human nature. In keeping with this perspective, an effective institutional design could not depend on the “civic” nor “moral” virtue, but rather on the redirection of citizens’ self-serving ambitions into a stable system of government. Or, in Madison’s words in Federalist No. 51, a political system designed to make “ambition…counteract ambition.” Thus, Madison, like Hume, favored an “extended republic” where any factions that cropped up would have ill-chance of dominating the entire political system.

This republicanism, which relied on an extensive, heterogeneous territory and assumed the general “knavery” of the people, was remarkably different from the intimate portrait of virtuous citizens’ republics historically advanced by classical republicans and re-invoked by the Anti-Federalists during the Ratification debates.

The traditional concept of “classical republicanism,” according to Joyce Appleby, emphasizes that “constitutional stability” rests on the public’s “exercise of civic virtue,” i.e. “the capacity of [citizens] to rise above private interests and devote themselves to the public good” (9). Under this notion of civic virtue, which derives from classical writers (Aristotle, Cicero, Leonardo Bruni, etc.), people only realize their full potential as citizens—even as human beings—by serving the public good, literally the res publica, and participating in politics. Indeed, “the whole of [public] virtue,” according to Cicero, “consists in its practice” (Cic. Rep. I.2). This tradition reached the founders primarily through Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which states that “the love of laws and of our country…requires a constant preference of public to private interest,” and that “every thing…depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education” (35-36). Under this conception, a shared set of republican values encourages the exercise of civic virtue. 

This “traditional” republicanism grounded Anti-Federalists’ endorsement of small, state republics (e.g. Storing, “Centinel,” 2.4.44, 2.7.73). In small-scale republics, they argued, the general willingness to rise above particular interests and promote the common good was facilitated by social cohesion within individual states, and even more so at the communal level. “Wherever the subject is convinced that nothing more is required from him, than what is necessary for the good of the community,” writes ‘Old Whig,’ “he yields a chearful obedience, which is more useful than the constrained service of slaves” (Storing, “An Old Whig IV,” 3.3.22.). In the Anti-Federalists’ eyes, the Federalist national state could never produce the shared values necessary to incite citizens to contribute to, care for, and protect, the res publica. Any hope for “collective welfare” would dissipate under the clash of “interests opposite and dissimilar in nature” of representatives from different cultures, climates, and customs (Storing, “Letters of Cato: To the Citizens of the State of New York,” 2.6.12.; cf. “Agrippa XII,” 4.6.48).

Although Madison’s definition of republic in Federalist No. 39––“a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior”––did not in principle contradict the classical or Anti-Federalist notion of republicanism, it nonetheless operated under a fundamentally different assumption about the behavior of humans and their willingness to exercise of civic virtue. Hume’s knaves, not Cicero’s citizens, grounded the Madisonian republic.

According to Russell Hanson, though both Federalists and Anti-Federalists “employed the traditional categories of republican thought,” i.e. virtue, corruption, and the public good, “they differed in their assessment of the extent of post-Revolutionary corruption, its primary causes, and the permissible range of truly republican remedies for that corruption” (65). Madison’s definition of a “republic,” though technically congruent with the classical notion, began, as we have seen, with a different assumption of human nature and the dangers of communal or “group” interests than did the small-scale “virtuous” republican notion forwarded by the Anti-Federalists. In Madison’s eyes, republicanism required “national” solutions to problems generated by parochial politics. Virtue, conceived of as care for the public good, could not depend upon the naturally self-interested behavior of citizens and their local representatives. Rather, it had to be extracted through some “refinement” mechanism.

Though the concept of “human nature” rarely figures in modern politics, traces of this discourse still run through the contemporary political metaphors. In Moral Politics (1996) George Lakoff explains how those on the left and right view the world through different conceptual metaphors of morality which lead each group to prioritize divergent values. Conservatives’ outlook is based on the “Strict Father” model, which “posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility…to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules” (ibid., 33). Liberals, on the other hand, view the world through the “Nurturant Mother” model, in which “[l]ove, empathy, and nurturance are primary, and children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant through being cared for” (ibid., 33). Both views, importantly, assume that human beings are primarily self-interested, but differ in how humans are “restrained” by their environments. According to the Strict Father view, people navigate life to gain rewards and avoid punishments: doing the “right” thing is secondary and must be imposed from above. The Nurturant Mother model, on the other hand, assumes that being nurtured will build good character, such that people will naturally pursue self-interest in alignment with their own internally cultivated morality (ibid., 261).

These two versions of “human nature” are remarkably consonant with the Federalists and Anti-Federalists’ views. To Federalists, people—including representatives themselves—needed to be constrained by institutional features to prevent them from falling into self-interested knavery. To Anti-Federalists, in contrast, local government and representatives who reflected and were close to their constituents would ensure that they would faithfully represent their constituents’ interests. Rewards and punishments were less central to their view of representation, as representatives would naturally want to advance their constituents’ interests because they themselves identified with those interests. The representatives’ own attachment to the political system, as well as their own socioeconomic identification with those whom they represented, would provide the ideal environment for representation.

As has been emphasized, Anti-Federalists articulated a novel language of political discourse during the Ratification debates—one that unevenly continues to this day. They not only defined representation in a way that prefigures modern calls for “descriptive representation,” but also one that also explains how the contemporary left expects humans, who have been raised in nurturant social structures, to behave in the political space. Rarely is “human nature” called to the floor when conceptualizing theories of representation today, but what the Federalists and Anti-Federalists demonstrate is that the way in which we view humans, outside of politics, necessarily affects how we understand ideal political representatives.


Emily “Sal” Salamanca is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, with specializations in Political Theory and the History of Political Thought. Her main research interests include ancient and early modern mechanisms of elite accountability, formal and informal institutions arisen to constrain public behavior, and theories of cyclical regime change. She has written on the foundational underpinnings of Machiavelli’s ideal principality, ancient institutions of aristocratic constraint, and the use of historiographic political propaganda in the early Florentine republic.

Edited by Tingfeng Yan

Featured Image: The looking glass for 1787. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Anti-Federalists depicted on the left criticizing the Constitution. Federalists on the right face angry storm clouds spewing thunderbolts. Source: Library of Congress, available at: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008661778/

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