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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Federalist and Anti-Federalist Contentions

According to the Articles of Confederation, after the Revolutionary War, the states had entered “into a firm league of friendship with each other.” The league was anything but “firm,” however. Drafted in 1776 and finally ratified a full five years later, the Articles reflect the fear with which the thirteen states approached the idea of a strong, centralized government necessary to maintain a truly “United” States. With the memory of a powerful monarchy still lingering, the states entered into a confederation that left the national governing body—Congress—pitifully weak. Congressional sessions were often so poorly attended that there were not enough delegates to conduct legal business. And although Congress could declare war and peace and enter into alliances, it was not empowered to raise taxes, make laws, or create a national trade policy. On a theoretical level, the states justified this weak central government by arguing from the assumption that a truly republican government—a representative government without a hereditary executive—was only possible among people inhabiting a small land area populated by people with like interests. Therefore, the argument went, the individual states, rather than a centralized government combining all states, would best serve the interests of the people. The argument shows that a centralized power structure had proved, for the Revolutionary generation, untrustworthy.

The harsh economic and social realities of post-war life in the states seriously undermined visions of peaceful and prosperous confederation. The massive economic disruption in the wake of the war had left many in debt. Unable to repay their creditors, many debtors faced imprisonment, so they often turned to extreme measures to protect themselves. In Rhode Island, for instance, debtors gained control of the legislature and began printing large quantities of paper money, stipulating that creditors must accept the virtually worthless currency for the payment of debts. And in Massachusetts, in what has become known as Shays’s Rebellion, armed farmers began surrounding courthouses, denying entrance to judges who would be ruling on their foreclosure and bankruptcy cases. In a standoff between roughly 1,500 farmers and 1,000 militiamen at a federal arsenal in Springfield, four farmers were killed. The rebellion, which occurred only a few months before the Federal Convention, played nicely into the hands of those calling for a more aggressive centralized government. John Adams (1735–1826), for instance, wrote about the “lawless tyrannical rabble” of Massachusetts in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787, 1788).

When the Federal Convention finally convened in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, only seven states—barely a majority—were represented. George Washington chaired the debates, which were conducted secretly so that the delegates could speak their minds freely. The secret deliberations were recorded by James Madison, whose Virginia Plan was influential in determining the ultimate ideology of the Constitution. The plan called for a bicameral (two-house) legislature with broad powers of legislative authority, a federal judiciary, and an executive. A system of checks and balances, by which none of the branches of government could gain supremacy over the others, allayed the fears of many who had worried that either the legislative or the executive branch would become tyrannical. On September 17 the Constitution was finally approved, and the state-by-state battle for ratification began.

Such a brief outline of the Convention debates perhaps incorrectly implies that the acceptance of the Constitution was a foregone conclusion, the inevitable end result of the Revolutionary War. However, the vigorous ratification debates suggest that the Constitution was considered a radical document, even though African Americans, Native Americans, and women—the majority of the nation’s inhabitants in 1787—were given no political voice in the Constitution. In the debates for ratification, supporters of the Constitution were called Federalists, while opposers came to be known as Anti-Federalists (a name given them by Federalists who realized the value of stigmatizing their opponents with the negative prefix). The Federalists found it difficult to allay common Anti-Federalist concerns—that individual states would lose their political autonomy under the new Constitution, that a national standing army was a threat to liberty, that officials in the new government would constitute an aristocracy, and that there was no bill of rights guaranteeing individual liberties.

The most famous defenses of the Constitution occur in a series of essays—now called the Federalist Papers—by Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), James Madison (1731–1836), and John Jay (1745–1829). Written under the pseudonym Publius (for the Roman, Publius Valerianus, who was called Publicola, “people-lover”), the essays appeared first in New York newspapers between October 1787 and May 1788. New York was a crucial state in the ratification contest, for New York’s influential governor, George Clinton, opposed the Constitution. If only because its citizens feared being the inhabitants of a lone, independent “nation,” New York was eventually won over to the side of the Federalists, with the narrow vote of thirty in favor of the Constitution, twenty-seven opposed. The other states were slowly ratifying the Constitutional articles, perhaps under the influence of the Publius essays, which were being reprinted throughout the states. With full ratification (in 1790) by all thirteen states, the Federalist Papers entered literary history as important writings indeed.

In Federalist No. 6, Hamilton, echoing the beliefs of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), argued that human beings are basically “ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.” Hamilton used this theory of human nature to argue for a strong national government to check the “factions and convulsions” which would otherwise tear the states apart. And in Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that the only method to control faction without destroying individual liberty was to elect leaders whose “wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” Although Madison acknowledged that the “unequal distribution of property” was the most prevalent source of faction, he nonetheless mocked “theoretic politicians” who had sought to end faction by “reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights.”

The Anti-Federalist argument is represented here in an essay by Agrippa, most likely written by one-time librarian of Harvard, James Winthrop. The objections to the Constitution raised by Agrippa were shared by many Anti-Federalists. Specifically, Agrippa argued that a bill of rights was absolutely necessary, because “we shall [not] always have good men to govern us.” Thus, while Federalists like Hamilton used the theory of the innate corruptibility of humankind to argue for a strong central government, Anti-Federalists like Agrippa used this same theory to argue for a government whose powers would be restricted by a bill of rights.

On July 4, 1788, once it was learned that the crucial state of Virginia had ratified the Constitution, a large parade took place in Philadelphia. Virtually all classes and vocations were represented in the procession. Judges, lawyers, clergy, veterans, merchants, carpenters, sailors, apprentices, farmers, bricklayers (carrying a banner that read “Both Buildings and Rulers are the Works of our Hands”), coach painters, cabinet makers, food suppliers, bookbinders, printers, blacksmiths, and others—all marched in the parade. Prominent Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush wrote that during the procession “rank for a while forgot all its claims.” For that one moment, at least, it seemed as if the “We” of the Constitution truly represented the people themselves.

Nicholas D. Rombes, Jr.
University of Detroit Mercy

In the Heath Anthology
The Federalist No. 10 (James Madison) (1787)
The Federalist No. 6 (Alexander Hamilton) (1787)
An Anti-Federalist Paper, To the Massachusetts Convention (1788)

Other Works

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Anti-Federalist Papers
  A gateway to many primary texts that also provides a brief description of the anti-Federalist.

  From the same site, a chronology of papers from both pro- and anti-Federalist positions.

The Anti-Federalist Papers
  A collection of primary texts.

The Anti-Federalist Papers
A brief introduction.

The Federalist Papers
  Many primary documents.

Secondary Sources

Terrence Ball and J.G.A. Pocock, eds., Conceptual Change and the Constitution, 1988

George W. Carey, The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic, 1989

William Winslow Crosskey and William Jeffrey, Jr., Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States, vol. 3, 1980

Christopher M. Duncan, The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought, 1995

David F. Epstein, The Political Theory of The Federalist, 1984

Albert Furtwangler, The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers, 1984

Alfred H. Kelly, et al., The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development, 1983

Jackson Turner Main, The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788, 1961