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The anti-Federalists and their opposition to ratifying the Constitution were a powerful force in the origin of the Bill of Rights to protect Amercians’ civil liberties. The anti-Federalists were chiefly concerned with too much power by the national government at the expense of states. (Howard Chandler Christy’s interpretation of the signing of the Constitution, painted in 1940.)
The Anti-Federalists opposed the ratification of the 1787 U.S. Constitution because they feared that the new national government would be too powerful and thus threaten individual liberties, given the absence of a bill of rights.
Their opposition was an important factor leading to the adoption of the First Amendment and the other nine amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.
The Constitution, drafted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, needed to be ratified by nine or more state conventions (and by all states that wanted to take part in the new government). A clash erupted over ratification, with the Anti-Federalists opposing the creation of a strong national government and rejecting ratification and the Federalists advocating a strong union and adoption of the Constitution.
Anti-Federalists were concerned about excessive power of national government
The Anti-Federalists included small farmers and landowners, shopkeepers, and laborers. When it came to national politics, they favored strong state governments, a weak central government, the direct election of government officials, short term limits for officeholders, accountability by officeholders to popular majorities, and the strengthening of individual liberties. In terms of foreign affairs, they were pro-French.
To combat the Federalist campaign, the Anti-Federalists published a series of articles and delivered numerous speeches against ratification of the Constitution.
The independent writings and speeches have come to be known collectively as The Anti-Federalist Papers, to distinguish them from the series of articles known as The Federalist Papers, written in support of the new constitution by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the pseudonym Publius.
Although Patrick Henry, Melancton Smith, and others eventually came out publicly against the ratification of the Constitution, the majority of the Anti-Federalists advocated their position under pseudonyms. Nonetheless, historians have concluded that the major Anti-Federalist writers included Robert Yates (Brutus), most likely George Clinton (Cato), Samuel Bryan (Centinel), and either Melancton Smith or Richard Henry Lee (Federal Farmer).
By way of these speeches and articles, Anti-Federalists brought to light issues of:
- the excessive power of the national government at the expense of the state government;
- the disguised monarchic powers of the president;
- apprehensions about a federal court system;
- fears that Congress might seize too many powers under the necessary and proper clause;
- concerns that republican government could not work in a land the size of the United States;
- and their most successful argument against the adoption of the Constitution — the lack of a bill of rights to protect individual liberties.
Anti-Federalists pressured for adoption of Bill of Rights
The Anti-Federalists failed to prevent the adoption of the Constitution, but their efforts were not entirely in vain.
Although many Federalists initially argued against the necessity of a bill of rights to ensure passage of the Constitution, they promised to add amendments to it specifically protecting individual liberties. Upon ratification, James Madison introduced twelve amendments during the First Congress in 1789. The states ratified ten of these, which took effect in 1791 and are known today collectively as the Bill of Rights.
Although the Federalists and Anti-Federalists reached a compromise that led to the adoption of the Constitution, this harmony did not filter into the presidency of George Washington.
Political division within the cabinet of the newly created government emerged in 1792 over fiscal policy. Those who supported Alexander Hamilton’s aggressive policies formed the Federalist Party, while those who supported Thomas Jefferson’s view opposing deficit spending formed the Jeffersonian Party.
The latter party, led by Jefferson and James Madison, became known as the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party, the precursor to the modern Democratic Party.
Election of Jefferson repudiated the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts
The Democratic-Republican Party gained national prominence through the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1801.
This election is considered a turning point in U.S. history because it led to the first era of party politics, pitting the Federalist Party against the Democratic-Republican Party. This election is also significant because it served to repudiate the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts — which made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and criminalized oral or written criticisms of the government and its officials — and it shed light on the importance of party coalitions.
In fact, the Democratic-Republican Party proved to be more dominant due to the effective alliance it forged between the southern agrarians and northern city dwellers.
The election of James Madison in 1808 and James Monroe in 1816 further reinforced the importance of the dominant coalitions within the Democratic-Republican Party.
With the death of Alexander Hamilton and retirement of John Quincy Adams from politics, the Federalist Party disintegrated.
After the War of 1812 ended, partisanship subsided across the nation. In the absence of the Federalist Party, the Democratic-Republican Party stood unchallenged. The so-called Era of Good Feeling followed this void in party politics, but it did not last long. Some scholars continue to see echoes of the Federalist–Anti-Federalist debates in modern party politics.
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- Alexander Hamilton
- Bill of Rights
- Constitutional Convention of 1787
- James Madison
- Patrick Henry
- Sedition Act of 1798 (1798)
- Thomas Jefferson
The Anti-Federalist Papers. This Nation.com: American Government and Politics Online, 2006
Duncan, Christopher M.The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995.
Ketcham, Ralph L., ed. The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. New York: Signet Classics, 2003.
Storing, Herbert J. What the Anti-Federalists Were For: The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Mitzi Ramos. 2009. Anti-Federalists [electronic resource]. The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University (accessed Dec 02, 2018). http://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1175/anti-federalists
On this day in 1787, the debate over the newly written Constitution began in the press after an anonymous writer in the New York Journal warned citizens that the document was not all that it seemed.
“This form of government is handed to you by the recommendations of a man who merits the confidence of the public; but you ought to recollect, that the wisest and best of men may err, and their errors, if adopted, may be fatal to the community,” said the author who took the pen name “Cato” to voice his displeasure with parts of a Constitution championed by George Washington, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. (The identify of Cato was reportedly then-New York Governor George Clinton, pictured here.)
Most Americans know of the Federalist Papers, the collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Madison, in defense of the U.S. Constitution. Fewer know of the Anti-Federalist Papers authored by Cato and other incognito writers, their significance to American political history, or their responsibility for producing the Bill of Rights.
When the Constitution was drafted in the summer of 1787, its ratification was far from certain; it still needed to be ratified by at least nine of the 13 state legislatures. The failure of the Articles of Confederation made it clear that America needed a new form of government. Yet there was worry that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government. The original draft of the Constitution did not have a Bill of Rights, declared all state laws subservient to federal ones, and created a king-like office in the presidency. At the Philadelphia Convention and in the Federalist Papers, James Madison argued against having a Bill of Rights, fearing that they would limit the people’s rights.
Opposition to the Constitution after the Philadelphia Convention began with Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason, the “Three Dissenters” who refused to sign the document. It then grew to include Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, heroes of the Revolutionary War who objected to the Constitution’s consolidation of power. In time, the various opponents to the new Constitution came to be known as the Anti-Federalists. Their collected speeches, essays, and pamphlets later became known as the “Anti-Federalist Papers.”
While each of the Anti-Federalists had their own view for what a new constitution for the United States should look like, they generally agreed on a few things. First, they believed that the new Constitution consolidated too much power in the hands of Congress, at the expense of states. Second, they believed that the unitary president eerily resembled a monarch and that that resemblance would eventually produce courts of intrigue in the nation’s capital. Third, they believed that the liberties of the people were best protected when power resided in state governments, as opposed to a federal one. Lastly, they believed that without a Bill of Rights, the federal government would become tyrannous.
These arguments created a powerful current against adopting the Constitution in each of the states. In state legislatures across the country, opponents of the Constitution railed against the extensive powers it granted the federal government and its detraction from the republican governments of antiquity. In Virginia, Patrick Henry, author of the famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, called the proposed constitution, “A revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain.” In the Essays of Brutus, an anonymous author worried that without any limitations, the proposed Constitution would make “the state governments… dependent on the will of the general government for their existence.”
The Anti-Federalists mobilized against the Constitution in state legislatures across the country.
Anti-Federalists in Massachusetts, Virginia and New York, three crucial states, made ratification of the Constitution contingent on a Bill of Rights. In Massachusetts, arguments between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists erupted in a physical brawl between Elbridge Gerry and Francis Dana. Sensing that Anti-Federalist sentiment would sink ratification efforts, James Madison reluctantly agreed to draft a list of rights that the new federal government could not encroach.
The Bill of Rights is a list of 10 constitutional amendments that secure the basic rights and privileges of American citizens. They were fashioned after the English Bill of Rights and George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. They include the right to free speech, the right to a speedy trial, the right to due process under the law, and protections against cruel and unusual punishments. To accommodate Anti-Federalist concerns of excessive federal power, the Bill of Rights also reserves any power that is not given to the federal government to the states and to the people.
Since its adoption, the Bill of Rights has become the most important part of the Constitution for most Americans. In Supreme Court cases, the Amendments are debated more frequently than the Articles. They have been cited to protect the free speech of Civil Rights activists, protect Americans from unlawful government surveillance, and grant citizens Miranda rights during arrest. It is impossible to know what our republic would look like today without the persistence of the Anti-Federalists over two hundred years ago.
Ugonna Eze is a Fellow for Constitutional Studies at the National Constitution Center.
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