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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71 Responses

  1. This article goes straight to the point, and it is very well-written! It made me understand so much better the difference between the ideals of the Federalists and the Anti-federalists and gave me a clear picture of what was going on between them. The views of both sides are very interesting for me because I’ve been learning a lot of new things about US politics and history in the last couple of weeks.

  2. This article is an interesting one as much of what I read in this class is focused on covering a single event, however this article takes a unique plunge into exploring something different when it comes to analyzing a political event or rather a series of political events and then presenting them to the reader. This shows an extra level of research which is very nice to see, especially in a topic such as this which is so well covered.

  3. This was a great article and an easy read to better understand the differences between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist beliefs. At the time, I am sure the men were under pressure to establish a government that was suitable for the needs of the people and country. I can imagine why they had so many beliefs given what they endured under the rule of England. In the end, I am glad they were able to compromise and include the Bill of Rights. This goes to show that through effective communication, the men were able to settle on an idea to please both sides.

  4. This article is very interesting because it gives us an insight of both perspectives and its fascinating to see how both parties somewhat got what they wanted. The Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights and the Federalists were afraid of anarchy amongst the people. I find this interesting because it seems as if they were quicker to resolve the issues they faced much sooner than anything nowadays can be solved. The two sides were understood that government was needed but Anti – federalists did not want government to hold too much power. This article were did a good job of showing both sides of the two parties.

  5. A very informative article I finally feel like I understand what the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists was all about. It’s always been interesting to me that the early version of our government could have such a big difference of ideals. Even to a certain extent have a nation that’s almost as divided as we are today. Just goes to show that history really does repeat itself.

  6. This article was well made and showed the highlights of both sides of these pseudo parties. It showed who were the technical founders of both sides and how each side viewed the other side. The article did a good job on that and still kept the purpose of the article even it was short.

  7. A very nice and short article that provides a neat summary on early US politics. I appreciate the informative nature of the article, giving enough information while not going overboard with the details. Its interesting to see that American bipartisan ship goes all the way back to the US’s foundation. Quite ironic, given how George Washington himself warned against it.

  8. I thought that article was great, understandable, and concise. I appreciate that the article is short and concise yet vividly enough, in detail, to understand what is going on. The views from both sides of Federalists and Anti-federalists is very interesting, as a reader, due to my lack of knowledge on politics. Lots of unbalances came from this constitution and shining light on it is very educative.

  9. I always find it interesting that it didn’t take long before the founding fathers split into their own belief groups and became somewhat enemies of each other. I wonder how the tension between Federalists and Anti-Federalists compares to the climate between democrats and republicans now. If I had to guess, I would say that Federalists and Anti-Federalists likely could agree on a lot more than republicans and democrats can today.

  10. Great article, I loved how clear cut you made the federalists vs. anti-federalists. It was interesting to hear both of their viewpoints on the Constitution that we all know so well. It’s funny to think about how our founding fathers argued over this so much to the point that we haven’t had to make too many foundational changes because they wanted a super stable central government. Also, I never knew that the federalists gave the anti-federalists their name to have a negative connotation, thanks for writing about this cool subject.

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