The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Federalists Versus Anti-Federalists

The Federalists and Anti-Federalists conducted a spirited debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution beginning in late 1787 and continuing through the following year. This momentous struggle about the nature of the American union and its future central government had its genesis in the American Revolution, which had ended 6 years earlier.

The Revolution succeeded by virtue of a temporary coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. At one end of the coalition stood the American radicals—men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson. The radicals objected to excessive government power in general and not simply to British rule in particular. Spearheading the Revolution’s opening stages, the radicals were responsible for all the truly revolutionary alterations in the domestic status quo. At the other end of the Revolutionary coalition were American nationalists—men such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Representing a powerful array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests, the nationalists went along with independence, but resisted the Revolution’s libertarian thrust. They preferred an American central government that would reproduce the hierarchical and mercantilist features of the 18th-century British state, only without the British.

The Revolution had started out as a struggle against taxation. What passed among the newly independent American states for a central government did not have direct access even to this most basic and usual of political powers. The Articles of Confederation, a written constitution adopted in 1781, failed to give Congress any authority either to collect taxes or to regulate trade. The war, however, helped spawn various pressure groups that clamored for stronger government. Eastern land speculators agitated for a standing army that could protect their vast claims, and in this effort they were joined by many of the Continental Army’s former officers.

One of the nationalists’ most potent political weapons was the Revolutionary War debt, which provided an enduring rationale for national taxation and another special interest, those to whom the debt was owed, who supported such taxation. An equally popular justification for strengthening Congress was trade regulation. Subsequent accounts have painted a fanciful picture of competing trade barriers among various states that disrupted the American economy. The prevailing practice regarding interstate trade prior to the Constitution, however, was complete reciprocity among the states. What American merchants were actually after was uniform navigation laws discriminating against foreign shippers. At the same time, American artisans wanted nationwide protective tariffs, unmarred by competing state exemptions.

All direct efforts to strengthen the Articles of Confederation proved futile because proposed amendments required the unanimous ratification of the states. Consequently, Hamilton and Madison assumed leadership of the nationalists and attempted to bypass this bottleneck by calling for a special convention to meet in Philadelphia in 1787. Aiding this movement was a growing antidemocratic mood throughout the country brought on, in part, by Shays’s Rebellion, which had erupted in western Massachusetts in 1786. According to the nationalist accounts, it represented an egalitarian assault on the property rights of creditors. In reality, the rebellion was more a tax revolt than a debtors’ revolt. Prior to its outbreak, only Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey had chosen delegates to the Philadelphia convention. Subsequently, every state government except Rhode Island sent delegates.

The convention was officially charged with the task of proposing revisions to the Articles of Confederation, but the delegates, meeting in secret, quickly decided to violate their instructions and draft a totally new document. Of the 55 delegates present, only 8 had signed the Declaration of Independence. Most of the leading radicals were absent, and the convention was dominated by the coalescing nationalist factions. These groups wanted a consolidated government under which the states would be subordinate, like counties within the states. Madison’s Virginia Plan, the basis for the convention’s deliberations, essentially embodied this goal. But like the Revolution, the Constitution turned into a hybrid product, the result of disparate coalitions. The nationalist dream of a central government with plenary powers slowly eroded away. Some of this erosion occurred just as the orthodox interpretation of the making of the Constitution has it, through compromises worked out within the Philadelphia convention. But much occurred outside the convention, through a subtle process of reinterpretation, as the nationalists were compelled to defend their completed handiwork before the general public.

The new proposed Constitution probably did not have the support of a majority of Americans. Yet its framers enjoyed the support of General Washington, who had presided over the Philadelphia convention and whose prestige among the colonists was enormous. Supporters also were more tightly organized than their more provincial opponents. These advantages allowed the nationalists to force the Constitution through the first five state conventions in rapid succession. The Constitution’s supporters furthermore pulled off a significant linguistic coup by successfully seizing the label “Federalist.” They had, in fact, designed the Constitution to replace the federal system of government under the Articles of Confederation with a national system. The true defenders of federalism were therefore the Constitution’s opponents. The misnamed Anti-Federalists weakened their own case by acceding to the need for some additional national power. This compromise permitted the Federalists to vigorously deny that the Constitution would create a national government in which the states would be subordinate. Instead, the document would establish a delicate balance of power between the national and state governments, each sovereign within its own realm. In other words, the much-touted federalism of the United States was not so much an intended consequence of the Philadelphia convention. Rather, it was an unintended and insincere concession that the Anti-Federalists wrenched from the Federalists during the ratification struggle.

This Federalist equivocation spilled over into the Constitution’s most controversial feature—its omission of a bill of rights. This single issue united all Anti-Federalists and gained them the greatest support. The Federalists responded with the claim that the Constitution provided a government possessing only specifically enumerated powers. As a result, argued Hamilton in Federalist no. 84, a bill of rights would be positively harmful. “They would contain various exceptions to power which are not granted” and imply that the national government could do anything not specifically prohibited. The difficulty with this argument was that it contravened a second Federalist argument based on the explicit words of the Constitution. In the same Federalist paper, Hamilton maintained that the Constitution already contained a truncated bill of rights scattered throughout its clauses. This obvious contradiction cast justifiable suspicion on the underlying claim that the Constitution created a government of delegated, rather than plenary, powers.

By the time the Constitution was under consideration in the key states of Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, the Federalists were in trouble. Earlier, at the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, the defeated Anti-Federalists had drawn up a proposed bill of rights, which circulated widely in other states. The Federalists had to draw up a series of recommended amendments to get the Massachusetts convention to join in ratifying the document, and they just barely avoided making Virginia’s ratification conditional upon a series of 40 amendments passed by the convention. At New York’s ratifying convention, the Federalists not only assented to a full slate of proposed amendments, but also to a circular letter calling for a second constitutional convention.

The prospect of amendments mollified enough radicals to allow the Constitution to squeak through. The aging Sam Adams was one such Anti-Federalist, finally voting for ratification at the Massachusetts convention. Jefferson, then serving as the American minister in France, urged ratification, but only by the requisite nine states. The remaining states should, he maintained, hold back until certain crucial amendments were added. Other radicals, such as the still fiery Patrick Henry and his fellow Virginian, Richard Henry Lee, remained implacably hostile to the Constitution. Five states overall coupled their ratifications with proposed amendments, whereas in two others, the minority urged passage of certain amendments they drafted. The North Carolina convention refused to ratify at all unless a bill of rights was added, and Rhode Island would have nothing to do with the Constitution whatsoever. The proposed amendments often went far beyond a simple bill of rights. In particular, a curb on the national government’s taxing power found unanimous support among amendment proposals. Many Anti-Federalists had been consistently willing to permit the central government to collect import duties, but they insisted that all internal taxes be levied only at the discretion of the state governments.

The Anti-Federalists planned to enact these amendments, which would have stripped the central government of many of its new powers, through a convention called by two-thirds of the states. Unable to defeat the Constitution outright, they now pinned their hopes on this second constitutional convention. Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island all promptly endorsed this recommendation, which originated in New York. However, because North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, their endorsement of a new convention could not technically count toward the total in calculating two-thirds of the states. Having made the tactical decision to function within the legal framework of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists discovered that the resulting legitimacy they granted to the new government worked against them.

On the other end of the political spectrum, many ardent Federalists were prepared to renege on their solemn promises to amend the Constitution once the new national government began operations in 1789. However, the politically astute Madison had come to believe that the popular demand for a bill of rights should be placated. There also is some evidence that Madison had altered his views on the need for a federal bill of rights. Regardless of what served as the principal motivation for his change of heart, Madison carefully culled through the more than 200 state proposals. Diehard Anti-Federalists and even Jefferson felt that Madison’s amendments were not radical enough. Nonetheless, Madison successfully steered the Bill of Rights through Congress. Although these widely publicized amendments would not be ratified for several years, they satisfied many opponents of the new government. North Carolina, for instance, finally joined the Union in November 1789.

Most of the Amendments comprising the Bill of Rights restricted the national government’s direct authority over its citizens. Only one section dealt with the relationship between the state and central governments; the 10th Amendment “reserved” to the states or the people all powers not “delegated to the United States by the Constitution.” Nothing better illustrates that, whereas the Anti-Federalists had lost on the ratification issue, they had won on the question of how the Constitution would operate. The Constitution had not established a consolidated national system of government as most Federalists had at first intended, but a truly federal system, which is what the Anti-Federalists had wanted. In simpler terms, the Federalists got their Constitution, but the Anti-Federalists determined how it would be interpreted.


Further Readings

Brown, Roger H. Federalists, Taxation, and the Origins of the Constitution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Cooke, Jacob E., ed. [Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.] The Federalist. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Ferguson, E. James. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Jensen, Merrill. The Making of the American Constitution. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1964.

———. The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1781–1789. New York: Knopf, 1950.

Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Main, Jackson Turner. The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

McGuire, Robert A. To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Storing, Herbert J. What the Anti-Federalists Were For. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Originally published .