Introduction

The Constitution is one of the most influential documents in American history. It outlines the government under which we live and details the rights each of us has. Despite its importance today, however, the Constitution was almost not implemented at all. In fact, when it was sent to the states after being drafted during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many initially refused to ratify it. 

Explanation

Thus began a contentious debate between those who supported the new Constitution and believed it was an improvement over the previous governing document, the Articles of Confederation, and those who opposed it and worried about the heightened powers it gave to the federal government. 

Anti-Federalist vs Federalist 

Federalists supported the ratification of the new Constitution and believed a more robust national government with greater powers was necessary to unite the individual states and create a stronger country. Anti-Federalists opposed ratification and believed power should be concentrated with the states rather than with the federal government. They worried that a stronger federal government would be prone to tyranny and that the new Constitution did not include adequate protections for the rights of individuals and states. 

 

The History

There were many prominent politicians on both sides of the debate. The Federalists claimed Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison as their own. Meanwhile, the Anti-Federalists included John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and Mercy Otis Warren. 

The main disagreement between Federalists and Anti-Federalists was over how much power the federal government should have. Federalists believed the economic problems and internal unrest America faced in the late 1780s were due in part to the weakness and ineffectiveness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation. They pointed to Congress’s inability to fund any projects as one example of this ineffectiveness: under the Articles, Congress could not levy taxes, forcing it to ask the states for any money it needed. States, however, were not required to provide any help. Although Congress asked for millions in the 1780s, it received less than 1.5 million from the states between 1781 and 1784. 

The Constitution gave the federal government much more power, including the ability to levy taxes. Federalists believed that a stronger national government would improve relationships between states and help create, as the Constitution stated, a “more perfect union.” Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, worried that a federal government with more power would be prone to tyranny.

Anti-Federalists were especially concerned that the Constitution would not adequately protect the rights of both states and individuals. They pushed for the addition of a bill of rights, which would guarantee several rights and freedoms. Federalists argued that this was not necessary; Alexander Hamilton even devoted Federalist 84 of the Federalist Papers to an explanation of why the Constitution already protected civil rights, making a bill of rights unnecessary. 

In the end, though, Federalists compromised on this point. Anti-Federalist sentiment was so strong in some states that the addition of a bill of rights was a condition for ratification in New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. In fact, James Madison, a prominent Federalist, ended up being the one to draft the Bill of Rights during Congress’s first session. 

Throughout the debate, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists attempted to disseminate their views to the general public. Three notable Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, joined together to write the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays supporting the ratification of the Constitution. Many Anti-Federalists wrote essays explaining their opposition to ratification as well. Though the Anti-Federalist authors did not work together or necessarily share a unified vision, these essays are collectively known as the Anti-Federalist Papers. Some of the most well-known Anti-Federalist Papers are a series of 16 essays published in the New York Journal from October 1787 through April 1788 under the pseudonym Brutus, who most now believe was politician, judge, and noted Anti-Federalist Robert Yates. 

So What?

Though the Anti-Federalists were not able to prevent ratification, the effects of their efforts are still felt today, most notably in the existence of the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments to the Constitution guarantee many of the rights and freedoms we now consider hallmarks of the American democracy. For instance, the Bill of Rights guarantees our right to freedom of expression, speech, religion, and assembly, and protects those accused of crimes. It also protects the power of the state through Amendment 10, which affirms that the states or the people hold any powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government. It was the contentious debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists that led to the existence of these protections. 

Additionally, the sentiments of both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists can still be felt today. Though the parties themselves no longer exist in their original forms, the central debate between them – the question of how much power the federal government should have as compared to the states – is still a relevant issue in the modern political landscape. For example, the Supreme Court affirmed the federal government’s right to legalize same-sex marriage nationally despite state bans on it in Obergefell v Hodges (2015). There is also currently controversy over whether state or federal governments should have the most influence in deciding gun regulations. Though the members of the Constitutional Convention settled their differences, the debate over states versus federal rights is likely to continue for many years to come. 

    Learn More

    1. “The Anti-Federalist Papers.” Historical Society of the New York Courts, Historical Society of the New York Courts, 23 Jan. 2019, history.nycourts.gov/about_period/antifederalist-papers/.
    2. “Anti-Federalist vs Federalist.” Diffen, Diffen LLC, www.diffen.com/difference/Anti-Federalist_vs_Federalist.
    3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Anti-Federalists.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Anti-Federalists.
    4. Gilder Lehrman Institute Staff. “Differences between Federalists and Antifederalists.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/teaching-resource/differences-between-federalists-and-antifederalists.
    5. “Would You Have Been a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist?” Bill of Rights Institute, Bill of Rights Institute, 30 July 2014, billofrightsinstitute.org/would-you-have-been-a-federalist-or-an-anti-federalist/.

    Think Further

    1. Why is the Bill of Rights important today?
    2. Do you think Americans’ experiences under British rule made some particularly worried about a tyrannous government? Why or why not?
    3. What are some possible reasons for why Federalists were more organized and unified than Anti-Federalists? Do you believe the lack of unity hurt Anti-Federalists, and if so, how?

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