Watkins sets himself two formidable tasks. The first is to rehabilitate the Articles of Confederation as a template for a constitutional order that is not “removed from the human scale” and embraces the “principles of decentralization and limited government” (3, 208). The second is to celebrate the Anti-Federalists as “men of great faith” who recognized that “republican liberty ha[s] the best chance of survival in small units in which the people participat[e] actively” (2). In his telling, the Articles and the government that they created were an unqualified success, accomplishing both of their “main objectives: the defeat of Britain and the safeguarding of state self-government” (38). The Anti-Federalists were visionaries who accurately foresaw, and condemned, the risk that the Constitution would become an engine for “consolidation,” creating a “national government” the powers of which are “broad and indeterminate” rather than “few and defined” (161). [End Page 413]
The book is an interesting read, provocative and occasionally insightful. Watkins knows the founding-era literature and primary-source material, and, as a dedicated advocate of states’ rights, he has an eye for modern federal sins and sinners. In his final chapter, he focuses on three exemplars of evil that adherence to the Articles and the words of the Anti-Federalists can presumably avoid—“profligate borrowing and spending, an unrepresentative House [of Representatives], and the political careerism that has replaced the citizen-legislator with a ruling class” (213). No knowledgeable critic would defend the phenomena identified, at least as Watkins characterizes them. That said, his case that things would be different, much less better, under a system that created a “firm league of friendship” within which “[e]ach state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence” (Art. Confed., pmbl. & Art. II) is not as convincing as he appears to think (227).
Watkins concedes that the Articles had flaws. Drawing on Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists, he suggests that “mending the venerable fabric” would have entailed giving Congress the authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations” (199, 203), to embrace the “separation of powers” (203–204), to create a more workable “amendment process” (206–207), and to provide the means to secure “an independent source of revenue for its ordinary expenses” (207). In his view, each step would arguably have made the Confederation stronger and more effective.
That said, the single biggest flaw in the Articles was not the final change that Watkins suggests—a means for securing “state obedience to federal obligations” (205). It was, rather, the Articles’ core assumption— namely, the sanctity of individual state sovereignty, which created “nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and of alliance, between so many independent and Sovereign States,” as James Madison explained it in his seminal “Vices of the Political System of the United States” (1787). This assumption led to “a want of concert in matters where the common interest requires it.” Thus, in a subsequent letter to Jefferson, Madison referred to “the mortal diseases of the existing constitution,” in particular, the inability “to restrain the States from thwarting and molesting each other.”1
It is one thing to argue that the Confederation was a success because the colonies defeated Britain in the War for Independence. It is quite another to demonstrate that victory was achieved because of, rather than in spite of, the Articles. The deprivations that both George Washington and John Marshall endured at Valley Forge shaped their views about the efficacy of the Confederation. In a November 1785 letter to Madison, Washington described that system as one “act[ing] a farce by pretending to” a “national character]” that it did not possess. In the Virginia ratification debates, Marshall dismissed the notion “that the confederation carried us through the war,” declaring, “Had not the enthusiasm of [End Page 414] liberty inspired us with unanimity, that system would never have carried us through” (2, 228).
Governmental units that are closer and more directly accountable to the people that they serve may well have certain advantages. State legislatures...