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Constitutional Topic: The Federalists and Anti-Federalists

The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists and the struggle for ratification. Generally speaking, the federalists were in favor of ratification of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists were opposed. Note the the Anti-Federalists are often referred to as just Antifederalists (without the hyphen). Either form is generally acceptable.

Other pages of interest would include: Ratification Timeline, Ratification Documents, Ratification Dates and Votes.

After the Constitutional Convention, the fight for the Constitution had just begun. According to Article 7, conventions in nine states had to ratify the Constitution before it would become effective. Some states were highly in favor of the new Constitution, and within three months, three states, Delaware (with a vote of 30-0), Pennsylvania (46-23), and New Jersey (38-0), had ratified it. Georgia (26-0) and Connecticut (128-40) quickly followed in January, 1788 (for the exact dates of ratification, see The Timeline).

More than half-way there in four months, one might think that the battle was nearly won. But the problem was not with the states that ratified quickly, but with the key states in which ratification was not as certain. Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia were key states, both in terms of population and stature. Debates in Massachusetts were very heated, with impassioned speeches from those on both sides of the issue. Massachusetts was finally won, 187-168, but only after assurances to opponents that the Constitution could have a bill of rights added to it.

After Massachusetts, the remaining states required for ratification did so within a few months, with Maryland (63-11) and South Carolina (149-73) falling in line, and New Hampshire (57-47) casting the deciding vote to reach the required nine states. New York and Virginia still remained, however, and many doubted that the new Constitution could survive without these states.

New York and Virginia

Early in the ratification process, the proponents of the Constitution took the name "Federalists."

Though those who opposed the Constitution actually wanted a more purely federal system (as the Articles provided), they were more or less forced into taking the name "Anti-Federalists." These men had many reasons to oppose the Constitution. They did not feel that a republican form of government could work on a national scale. They also did not feel that the rights of the individual were properly or sufficiently protected by the new Constitution. They saw themselves as the true heirs of the spirit of the Revolution. Some very notable persons in United States history counted themselves Anti-Federalists, like Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, George Mason, George Clinton, and Luther Martin.

There were some true philosophical differences between the two camps. In many instances, though, there was also a lot of personal animosity. For example, in New York, George Clinton was a political opponent of John Jay, a prominent Federalist, and also disliked Alexander Hamilton. And in Virginia, Patrick Henry was a political rival of James Madison.

In addition, many letters were written to newspapers under various pseudonyms, like "The Federal Farmer," "Cato," "Brutus," and "Cincinnatus." These letters and several speeches are now known as "The Anti-Federalist Papers."

In response to the speeches and letters of the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists gave their own speeches and wrote their own letters. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison coordinated their efforts and wrote a series of 85 letters under the name "Publius." These letters both explained the new Constitution and answered the charges of the Anti-Federalists. The letters were collected into a volume called "The Federalist," or "The Federalist Papers." Though the influence of The Federalist at the time is questionable, the letters are noted today as classics in political theory. Perhaps of far greater importance were the Federalist stances of George Washington and Ben Franklin, very prominent men both in their day and today. Their opinions carried great weight.

The votes in Virginia and New York were hard-won, and close. Virginia voted 89-79, and New York, a month later, voted 30-27 to ratify. With all the major states now having ratified, confidence was high that the United States under the Constitution would be a success, or, at least, have a fighting chance. The new Congress met, and George Washington became the first President. As suggested by many of the ratifying conventions, one of the first tasks tackled was the writing of a Bill of Rights to be attached to the Constitution. The Bill, Amendments 1-10, eased the minds of many hold-outs. Shortly thereafter, North Carolina ratified (194-77), and lone hold-out, Rhode Island, finally relented and ratified on a close 34-32 vote.


The Federalists were successful in their effort to get the Constitution ratified by all 13 states. The Federalists later established a party known as the Federalist Party. The party backed the views of Hamilton and was a strong force in the early United States. The party, however, was short-lived, dead by 1824.

The Anti-Federalists generally gravitated toward the views of Thomas Jefferson, coalescing into the Republican Party, later known as the Democratic Republicans, the precursor to today's Democratic Party.

The Arguments

One of the most succinct enumeration of the arguments of the Anti-Federalists against the Constitution is found in a letter commonly known as Anti-Federalist number 44. The author anonymously signed the letter "Deliberator." The author listed several points raised by a Federalist in another letter published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Packet under the name Freeman. Most of the points made by Deliberator have actually proven true over time. For example, Freeman argued that the federal government could not train the militia — our modern National Guard, the descendant of their militia, is trained by the federal government. Freeman also noted that the federal government would not be permitted to inspect "the produce of the country", but our modern system of inspection of everything from food to drugs to cars has shown Freeman to be wrong and Deliberator to be right.

The bulk of Deliberator's letter is not a refutation of Freeman's letter, though, but a list of the features of the Constitution that Deliberator, and many other Anti-Federalists, objected to. These, along with commentary, are shown below.

· Congress may, even in time of peace, raise an army of 100,000 men, whom they may canton through the several states, and billet out on the inhabitants, in order to serve as necessary instruments in executing their decrees.

Today's modern military would probably alarm even the most strident Federalist, but our military evolved with time and most Americans cannot imagine the world without a strong national military. The Anti-Federalist concern about billeting, however, is addressed in the 3rd Amendment.

· Upon the inhabitants of any state proving refractory to the will of Congress, or upon any other pretense whatsoever, Congress may can out even all the militia of as many states as they think proper, and keep them in actual service, without pay, as long as they please, subject to the utmost rigor of military discipline, corporal punishment, and death itself not excepted.

History has shown some of this concern to be true — for example, when the governor of Arkansas refused to implement a Supreme Court decision regarding school desegregation, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to enforce the ruling. The soldiers, however, were not unpaid, though they were subject to military discipline.

· Congress may levy and collect a capitation or poll tax, to what amount they shall think proper; of which the poorest taxable in the state must pay as much as the richest.

This is true — but the Congress has never imposed a direct (capitation) tax, and with the ratification of the 16th Amendment, there seems to be little need to be concerned with this point.

· Congress may, under the sanction of that clause in the constitution which empowers them to regulate commerce, authorize the importation of slaves, even into those states where this iniquitous trade is or may be prohibited by their laws or constitutions.

The Congress banned the importation of slaves as soon as it was constitutionally able to do so, in 1808. No state was required to allow slaves contrary to their own laws or constitutions, but the outcome of the Dred Scott case illustrates that this concern was real.

· Congress may, under the sanction of that clause which empowers them to lay and collect duties (as distinct from imposts and excises) impose so heavy a stamp duty on newspapers and other periodical publications, as shall effectually prevent all necessary information to the people through these useful channels of intelligence.

This was a real concern, especially considering the Stamp Act that the British has imposed on the colonies. However, no such tax was ever implemented and with the ratification of the 1st Amendment, such a tax probably would have been found unconstitutional by the courts.

· Congress may, by imposing a duty on foreigners coming into the country, check the progress of its population. And after a few years they may prohibit altogether, not only the emigration of foreigners into our country, but also that of our own citizens to any other country.

Congress could effectively close the borders to immigration, and as a matter of policy has strictly regulated the immigration of people from certain countries for centuries — limitations that continue today. It is unlikely that a ban on emigration would be upheld by the courts, however, given the unenumerated right to travel.

· Congress may withhold, as long as they think proper, all information respecting their proceedings from the people.

The Constitution requires that the Congress keep journals and publish them "from time to time." The definition of "time to time" might have allowed the publication of journals to be delayed for a long time, but today, with the advent of computerized journals and the Internet, "time to time" means no more than 24 hours.

· Congress may order the elections for members of their own body, in the several states, to be held at what times, in what places, and in what manner they shall think proper. Thus, in Pennsylvania, they may order the elections to be held in the middle of winter, at the city of Philadelphia; by which means the inhabitants of nine-tenths of the state will be effectually (tho' constitutionally) deprived of the exercise of their right of suffrage.

Congress does have the power to alter state plans for time, place, and manner of election, but the Congress does not micro-manage elections in this way, though it has set a national date for elections. It is still possible that the Congress could flex its muscle in this way, though it seems unlikely.

· Congress may, in their courts of judicature, abolish trial by jury in civil cases altogether; and even in criminal cases, trial by a jury of the vicinage is not secured by the constitution. A crime committed at Fort Pitt may be tried by a jury of the citizens of Philadelphia.

These concerns were addressed by the 6th and 7th Amendments.

· Congress may, if they shall think it for the "general welfare," establish an uniformity in religion throughout the United States. Such establishments have been thought necessary, and have accordingly taken place in almost all the other countries in the world, and will no doubt be thought equally necessary in this.

This concern was addressed by the 1st Amendment.

· Though I believe it is not generally so understood, yet certain it is, that Congress may emit paper money, and even make it a legal tender throughout the United States; and, what is still worse, may, after it shall have depreciated in the hands of the people, call it in by taxes, at any rate of depreciation (compared with gold and silver) which they may think proper. For though no state can emit bills of credit, or pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts, yet the Congress themselves are under no constitutional restraints on these points.

The federal government does, indeed, print paper money. This fiat currency, money which has no intrinsic value in and of itself, is a concern of many even today. However, relying on a gold or silver standard was not a viable economic solution either. While it cannot be said that we have evolved the best possible system of economics and monetary policy, the system in place today does lead to a stable currency and economy.

· The number of representatives which shall compose the principal branch of Congress is so small as to occasion general complaint. Congress, however, have no power to increase the number of representatives, but may reduce it even to one fifth part of the present arrangement.

The concern here is that the number of representatives in the House could not exceed one for every thirty thousand — that there could be one for every hundred thousand, but not one for every ten or twenty thousand. Today, this seems almost quaint, since the rate of representation is now about one for every 650,000. The number of representatives is fixed at 435, but that number can be revised by Congress. Most Americans, however, would find little use for more members of Congress. At the rate of one for every thirty thousand, today we would have over nine thousand representatives in the House.

· On the other hand, no state can call forth its militia even to suppress any insurrection or domestic violence which may take place among its own citizens. This power is, by the constitution, vested in Congress.

The power of a state to quell insurrection within its own borders is not precluded by the Constitution. This power is a concurrent one, one which both the state and federal governments can exercise.

· No state can compel one of its own citizens to pay a debt due to a citizen of a neighboring state. Thus a Jersey-man will be unable to recover the price of a turkey sold in the Philadelphia market, if the purchaser shall be inclined to dispute, without commencing an action in one of the federal courts.

This is true — such an interstate case must be brought and heard in a federal court. By the framers, however, this was seen as a protection, and not a violation of a right. The thought was that the New Jersey courts would be inherently biased against the Pennsylvania purchaser. This has become a bigger issue in the Internet age, as parties in a dispute could be widely separated geographically. A tactic of some large corporations is to sue small companies or individuals in courts they are no capable of attending without great expense, the point being to extract a settlement prior to trial. The ability to sue in state courts across state lines would not solve this problem, however.

· No state can encourage its own manufactures either by prohibiting or even laying a duty on the importation of foreign articles.

This is true — but the reason was an eminently practical one. Without a uniform system for tariff and duty, importers would have had to contend with thirteen different sets of regulations, which is the way things worked under the Articles of Confederation. This was almost universally seen as one of the great defects of the Articles.

· No state can give relief to insolvent debtors, however distressing their situation may be, since Congress will have the exclusive right of establishing uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States; and the particular states are expressly prohibited from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts.

This was true then and is still true, though states could, if they wished, pass laws that provided funds for debtors to help pay back debt — not that they likely would, but they could. The primacy of contracts and their inviolability by the government, state or federal, is a key feature of the Constitution. Its historical effect on the economy is certainly debatable, but the assurance of both parties to a contract that the government cannot relieve either of its terms has a stabilizing effect, not the opposite.

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