Things I Thought I Knew — Part 3: The Antifederalists and Religion


In the last few decades, the Antifederalists have surged, partially because they look like the patron saints of small government, and, for our purposes, because they have been held up as recognizing the importance of religion for the health of a republic.

“[M]any Antifederalists,” according to Herbert Storing, “were concerned with the maintenance of religious conviction as a support of republican government.” And he should know. Storing was not only the dean of Antifederalist scholars, he created a 7 volume canon called (perhaps over-optimistically), The Complete Antifederalist.  Since Storing’s book is all about the constitutional debates, it’s hard not to assume that he meant that they were looking for ways for the federal government to support religion.

But, what I found perplexing, when I looked into it, is that even he has trouble documenting his statement about “many Antifederalists.” In all 7 volumes, he only has one Antifederalist, Charles Turner of Massachusetts,” talk about the importance of “Christian piety and morals” to the country.  Storing bolsters this statement with a letter by another Massachusetts writer who wasn’t an Antifederalist, and a Virginia writer who wasn’t talking about the Constitution.

To be sure, many Antifederalists did think religion was important to republican government; they shared that belief with many Federalists. The point is that very few Feds or Antifeds thought it was a federal issue.  At the state level, there had been – and would continue to be – battles over just how much the government needed religion. But what is most impressive about looking for religion in Storing’s Complete Antifederalist is that it’s rarely there – just an occasional comment about protecting religious freedom, and a few statements both for and against a religious test for public office.

In short, the Antifederalists – in their discussions of the federal Constitution – really didn’t have much to say about religion.  If they had thought it was an issue, they probably would have had a lot to say.  But it wasn’t, and they didn’t. So anyone who wants to enlist them in a push for more recognition of the importance of religion at the national level must first remember what is abundantly clear from Storing’s collection — that the Antifederalists didn’t want a “national” (a word they hated) government to have power over anything.

Don Drakeman

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