Book Brief: “Crossroads for Liberty”

Crossroads for Liberty: Rediscovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution-William J. Watkins, Jr. (Amazon)

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Watkins–a trained lawyer and current research fellow at the libertarian Independent Institute–seemingly has two goals with this book. Primarily, “Crossroads” is an attempt to inform readers about the Articles of Confederation and salvage its reputation. Secondarily, and with far, far less text, it tries to show that the Articles would have helped avoid several contemporary political issues.

In the latter, I don’t think the book does particularly well. Examples of such issues are cherry-picked; counter-arguments aren’t given any weight; policies fueling the debates are barely touched. Additionally, the book presumes that readers share Watkins’ view that the national government is far too large. It’s one thing to argue that our federal government has grown well beyond the Founders’ intentions; this is objectively correct. It’s a far more ambitious thing to argue that such growth is bad; Watkins seems to assume this without offering any proof. Thus, right off the bat, I can’t recommend this book to any of my progressive friends. Even the most open-minded would hate it.

However, Watkins achieves his primary goal quite well. “Crossroads” is an excellent recap of the Anti-Federalist Papers, their underlying logic, and subsequent attempts of their authors to inject our current constitution with freedom-enhancing checks on power.

Contra the popular narrative, Anti-Federalists did not want a fractured union incapable of conducting its affairs. They were fully aware of the colonies’ inability to pay debts, negotiate treaties, and effectively conduct intra- and interstate commerce under the Articles. In sum, they mostly agreed with the Federalists on the proper ends of government. Their disagreement was with the means.

Rather than scrap the Articles wholesale, however, leading Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason wanted to keep the Articles in place and provide amendments to fix its obvious problems; this was in fact the originally-declared purpose of the Philadelphia Convention. Anti-Federalists worried that the proposed constitution provided myriad opportunities for federal power to accrue and be abused to a much larger extent than their Federalist counterparts.

In examining debates over things such as the Necessary and Proper clause, congressional apportionment, and the executive branch’s warmaking powers, Watkins convincingly argues that the Anti-Federalists’ predictions have been vindicated by history. (Again, whether or not this is a good thing is up to the reader, even if the author explicitly finds it to be a disaster.)

Watkins’ book is a much-needed reminder of the nuances behind our current constitution’s ratification. While dry at times, its extremely reasonable length (225 pages) makes it a manageable yet intellectual read. Disregard its normative claims and take “Crossroads” for what it is at its core: brilliant elucidation and vindication of erstwhile historical “bad guys” who, indeed, had much to teach us.

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