Would you have been a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist?

Over the next few months we will explore through a series of eLessons the debate over ratification of the United States Constitution as discussed in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers. We look forward to exploring this important debate with you!

One of the great debates in American history was over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787-1788. Those who supported the Constitution and a stronger national republic were known as Federalists. Those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution in favor of small localized government were known as Anti-Federalists. Both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were concerned with the preservation of liberty, however, they disagreed over whether or not a strong national government would preserve or eventually destroy the liberty of the American people. Today, it is easy to accept that the prevailing side was right and claim that, had you been alive, you would have certainly supported ratifying the Constitution. However, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the ideological foundations upon which our government is built, it is important to analyze both the Federalist and Ant-Federalist arguments.

The Anti-Federalists were not as organized as the Federalists. They did not share one unified position on the proper form of government. However, they did unite in their objection to the Constitution as it was proposed for ratification in 1787. The Anti-Federalists argued against the expansion of national power. They favored small localized governments with limited national authority as was exercised under the Articles of Confederation. They generally believed a republican government was only possible on the state level and would not work on the national level. Therefore, only a confederacy of the individual states could protect the nation’s liberty and freedom. Another, and perhaps their most well-known concern, was over the lack of a bill of rights. Most Anti-Federalists feared that without a bill of rights, the Constitution would not be able to sufficiently protect the rights of individuals and the states. Perhaps the strongest voice for this concern was that of George Mason. He believed that state bills of right would be trumped by the new constitution, and not stand as adequate protections for citizens’ rights. It was this concern that ultimately led to the passing of the bill of rights as a condition for ratification in New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.

The Federalists, primarily led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, believed that establishing a large national government was not only possible, but necessary to “create a more perfect union” by improving the relationship among the states. Until this point, the common belief was that a republic could only function efficiently it was small and localized. The Federalists challenged this belief and claimed that a strong national republic would better preserve the individual liberties of the people. By extending the sphere of the republic, individual and minority rights would be better protected from infringement by a majority. The federalists also wanted to preserve the sovereignty and structure of the states. To do so, they advocated for a federal government with specific, delegated powers. Anything not delegated to the federal government would be reserved to the people and the states. Ultimately, their goal was to preserve the principle of government by consent. By building a government upon a foundation of popular sovereignty, without sacrificing the sovereignty of the states, legitimacy of the new government could be secured.

Today, it appears that the government established by the Constitution is an improvement from that which was established by the Articles of Confederation. At the time however, the Constitution was merely an experiment. Forget what you now know about the success Constitution. Considering its unprecedented nature and the fear that a strong national government would be a threat to personal liberty, would you have been a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist?

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