StMU Research Scholars

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

Every year there are dozens of scholarly books and articles that are published describing the founding period of the United States. The debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the ratification of the Constitution is one of the topics often discussed. Both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists presented arguments that have had profound effects on subsequent American history. It is important for us to learn the full nature of their debate and how it has influenced our views on American government.

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Left to Right, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay | courtesy of wikihistorian

“Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.”1 Federalists, the supporters of the Constitution, had the support of some of the most prominent men in America, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Moreover, prominent political philosophers of their time, such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, published a series of essays under a pseudonym “Publius.” These essays were widely published in newspapers throughout the nation. They explained the meaning and the virtues of the Constitution and countered the powerful arguments of the opposing side. Today, they are known as The Federalist Papers. These documents are important American contributions to modern political theory.2

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Title page of the first collection of The Federalist Papers (1788)

Patrick Henry, a famous Anti-Federalist, was well known for his quote, “I know not what others may choose but, as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” In order to combat the attention given to those who had different opinions, the Federalists deemed their opponents as “Anti-federalists,” giving the message that individuals that were not associated with the Federalists had nothing to offer besides negative opposition and chaos. However, Anti-Federalists did have serious and intelligent arguments of their own. They presented themselves as the loyal defenders of the principles of the Revolution. Moreover, they believed that the Constitution would betray the principles of freedom by establishing a tyrannical central power in the new government.

The main claims of Anti-Federalists were that a federal government would make unfair distinction among the citizens, raise taxes, abolish the states, and end individual liberties.3 According to them “the constitution was the basic mistrust of human nature and the capacity of human beings to wield power.”4. They believed the Constitution lacked a much needed Bill of Rights, a concern that became one of the most important sources of their opposition, with at least nine out of ten Anti-Federalists wanting a written Bill of Rights.5

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Signing the U.S Constitution by Junius Brutus Stearns in 1855 | Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

At the heart of the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists was a battle between two fears. The Federalists were afraid of disorder, anarchy, and chaos; they believed that a constitution would prevent these catastrophic events. The Anti-Federalists were not anarchists and they too recognized the need for an effective government; they believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States was the government’s potential to become corrupt and seize more power until its tyrannical hand stretched across the country and completely dominated the citizens.6

Despite the Anti-Federalist efforts, the Constitution was ratified in 1790, but during the ratification debate, Madison conceded that a bill of rights was needed. Federalists assured that the first step of the new government would be adopting a bill of rights.

 

 

  1. John Jay, Federalist Papers no 2, (1787), 1.
  2. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 145.
  3. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 146.
  4. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 146
  5. Main T. Jackson, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974), 159.
  6. John H. Aldric and Ruth W. Grant, “The Antifederalists, the First Congress, and the First Parties,” The Journal of Politics, vol 55 no. 2 (1993): 295.

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67 Responses

  1. This article was so intriguing to read, it honestly made more sense to me now reading it than it ever has been in high school. I really liked how Samuk broke the Federalists and Anti-Federalists down, and gave clear and concise information that has led me to a clear understanding of what was happening. It is also interesting to learn about what each group stood for, and how they both in turn wanted similar, yet different values.

  2. Overall, I found this article super important since it does dive into a deep meaning of how a certain debate has influenced the way we see the American government. I liked the fact that it gave differences between the anti-federalists and the federalists based off of what they believed. In addition, I also found interesting how before they were known as The Federalists papers they were just known as essays.

  3. I thought this article was very well written and explained. One of the things that I really like is how in-depth this article was. All the other articles I’ve read covering the Federalists and anti-federalists just stated the most popular facts that most people already know. However, this article went more in-depth and gave further insight into the arguments between the political parties.

  4. The article gives me a clear idea of how the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists saw the creation of the Constitution. The way that the different groups debated and what was their arguments, it is all shown or explained. It gives me the image of what they are talking about and why they are talking about it. Giving two points to think off of, then explaining what they did at the end of the day. the article gives great information if needing it for a research project.

  5. This is a very thorough article. I especially like the image of the founding fathers all together. I wonder what it felt like to be in that room, anxiously trying to write a document for this new found country. I think you were able to paint the picture of this tense time very well. It is wild to think that this was the birth of America. 

  6. Readindg this article really helped me see the different bewteen the Federalists and Anti-Federalist. After reading the article I can understand why the Anti-Federalists believe it unfair. Not everyone can be able to pay for taxs if they get higher. I uderstand why they are both scared but if they just took a moment to stop and think. They could have been so much better together, instead of being separate. In the end it was ment to happen and we got the Bill of rights.

  7. I enjoyed this article! Seeing both views of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists helped me better understand the chaotic division between these two groups in early history. This article’s information is descriptive and shows that the federalists were scared of change and feared anarchy. It is understandable since the formation of the government was barely beginning. The article also included critical information on the Anti-Federalists’ ideas on the federalist papers. The documents were seen as sketchy. Overall, beneficial article when trying to learn about both groups.

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