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ANTIFEDERALISTS. When those who sought ratification of the Constitution of the United States (1787–1788) coopted the name "Federalist," they forced onto their opponents the unfortunate label "Antifederalist." This reversal of names made the Antifederalists appear purely negative when they in fact stood for affirmative visions of government that were simply different from the framework advocated by the Constitution's defenders. The term also falsely projected unity onto a disparate group that to a significant extent was united mainly in its opposition to the proposed government. Perhaps most misleading of all, the designation "Antifederalist" applied to a group that generally supported a less centralized "federal" government in which the states would retain more power, while the term "Federalist" fell to those who advocated the more centralized national government that they believed the Constitution would guarantee. The Antifederalists, like many of history's losers, have been misunderstood and underappreciated.

Despite certain differences among them, the Anti-federalists' opposition to the Constitution reflected several common themes. These more genuine "federalists" tended to retain a belief in majoritarian representative government as best implemented at the state or local level, with powers delegated to the national government only in matters in which the states would be unable or unlikely to act in a united fashion. Antifederalists generally believed that governmental power was best concentrated in the legislature as the most democratically responsive branch. They were also more likely than not to maintain that such local, legislatively oriented government offered the best protection for fundamental rights. Moreover, one way to insure each of these protective mechanisms was through the precise allocation of government power through specific texts. Antifederalists therefore feared that the dangerously vague Constitution delegated too much power to the federal government at the expense of the states, allocated excessive authority to the executive and judiciary to the detriment of Congress, and established a government that threatened the very freedoms Americans has just recently defended against Great Britain.

Amidst these general tendencies, opposition to the Constitution was hardly monolithic. To some Antifederalists, for example, the Senate represented a dangerous concentration of aristocratic power, while to others it was an inadequate check on a near-dictatorial presidency. Scholarship has also drawn a distinction between elite Antifederalists, who championed power at the state level specifically, and their more "middling" counterparts, who preferred greater authority at the local level on the ground that even the state governments were too distant and unrepresentative.

In making their cases, the Antifederalists failed to produce either leaders or writings to equal their antagonists. While the Federalists could rely on the power of names like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the opposition at best could muster either older revolutionary figures of less national stature, such as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, or George Mason, or younger advocates who had yet to establish their reputations fully, including George Clinton, James Monroe, and Melancton Smith. Likewise Antifederalists never produced a manifesto as compelling as James Wilson's widely reprinted "Speech at a Public Meeting in Philadelphia" or as coherent as The Federalist, though the latter had far less of an impact at the time than subsequently. Probably the closest comparable works from the Antifederalist side were Mason's "Objections to the Constitution," Letters from the Federal Farmer, most likely by Melancton Smith, and the essays of "Brutus."

The opposition that these writings reflected was substantial and widespread. Antifederalists commanded clear majorities in Rhode Island, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina; outnumbered the Federalists by closer margins in Massachusetts and Virginia; and boasted significant strength in every other state except Delaware and New Jersey. Throughout the nation the Antifederalist cause tended to flourish more strongly in western regions than along the coast. At one time it was widely believed that the Federalists primarily drew their strength from social and economic elites, while the Antifederalists mainly drew from persons of more modest status and means. Re-search has shown that these broad generalizations do not withstand scrutiny and that the correlation between class and support for the Constitution is far more subtle and complex.

More straightforward are the traditions from which the Antifederalists drew. Many Antifederalist advocates saw themselves as defenders of a more genuine vision of republican self-government that was embodied in the early state constitutions drafted after independence as well as in the struggle for independence itself. This legacy in turn owed a large debt to English Whig thought, which had furnished an important basis for the colonies' struggle for greater autonomy from Britain. Invoking these understandings, Antifederalist rhetoric equated opposition to the distant, unrepresentative, and dangerous new federal government with the revolutionary struggle against the British Parliament and Crown. Federalist leaders such as James Madison and Wilson countered that the Constitution instead sought to guard against certain abuses of republican government the better to preserve it. Antifederalists nonetheless remained skeptical, viewing the Federalist project as nothing less than a betrayal of the principles of 1776.

Despite their advantage in numbers and reliance on familiar understandings, the Antifederalists proved no match for their Federalist counterparts. Among other things, they failed to organize as effectively, to counter the Federalists' superior command of the plan they proposed, or to offer an alternative of their own to address the widely perceived problems the nation faced. The Federalists outmaneuvered their adversaries in arguing that the special conventions in which the Constitution would be considered demonstrated a greater trust in the people than the state governments the Antifederalists defended. In Massachusetts, ratification stalled until Federalists agreed to forward recommended amendments that the new government would take up once the Constitution went into effect. This device successfully undermined Antifederalist opposition in each state thereafter. Pockets of strong opposition remained, however, and by the time the first Congress met in 1789, North Carolina had yet to overturn its initial rejection of the Constitution, and Rhode Island had still not voted in the first place.

Even in defeat the Antifederalists managed to score a number of lasting victories. Most notably they forced an extensive, wide-ranging, at times highly detailed debate over the proposed Constitution's underlying assumptions as well as over the meaning of its many specific and often terse provisions. The fears Antifederalists expressed in many instances forced Federalists to publicly retreat from positions they may otherwise have desired. When, for example, Antifederalist polemics charged that the necessary and proper clause would lead to a consolidated national government of limitless power, those who defended the Constitution typically countered by minimizing the authority the provision conveyed. One ironic result of this give and take is that some of the most expansive interpretations of federal power come from the Antifederalists who most abhorred it, while narrower constructions often come from the same Federalists who wanted broad national authority. Whether any of the competing interpretations that emerged as a result can be said to have yielded an "original understanding" is a question best treated with care and caution.

Another Antifederalist legacy is the Bill of Rights (1791). Few of the Constitution's features generated more persistent and widespread criticism than its failure to include a genuine enumeration of liberties, an omission that stood in stark contrast to the constitutions of the states. Certain Federalist leaders, notably Alexander Hamilton, Madison, and Wilson, replied that a bill of rights was irrelevant on the grounds of popular sovereignty. In this view the people at large, assembled in conventions, granted specific, enumerated powers to the new government, none of which authorized the infringement of rights they otherwise retained. This argument, however, did not mollify opposition as effectively as the strategy of recommended amendments, a significant portion of which called for the listing of traditional rights. Thanks partly to a change of heart by Madison, the First Congress made good on the Federalist pledge to propose such a list, which the states then ratified as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The extent to which Antifederalist goals survived in the catalog fashioned by the Federalist dominated Congress is debatable. To cite one instance, while numerous recommended amendments sought to make clear that the federal government received only those powers "expressly" granted, the Tenth Amendment offered the less restrictive formulation that the states and the people retained merely those powers not delegated to the new government.

The Antifederalist inheritance lingers in the idea of a loyal opposition. By engaging in the ratification process so fully, the Constitution's opponents paradoxically legitimated it, making it far more difficult to reject whatever outcome the final votes produced. Washington's election as president and Congress's approval of the Bill of Rights, however flawed, further set Antifederalist minds at ease. Rather than resist the new government, those who had argued against its adoption therefore chose to seek their goals within its framework. As a result a number of prominent former Antifederalists, including Elbridge Gerry, Lee, Luther Martin, and Monroe, took their seats in early Congresses or other government positions. None of these leaders attempted to create an "Antifederalist" party, and none emerged. Organized parties remained suspect, and new, unanticipated controversies forged new alliances that cut across the older Federalist-Antifederalist divide.

Instead, it was in their writings, understandings, and rhetoric that the Antifederalists endured—in certain respects, even into the twenty-first century. Historians generally agree that their views contributed heavily to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian thought. Antifederalist concerns also emerged in later dissenting traditions, including elements of the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since the New Deal (1933–1941), fears of a too-powerful, too-distant federal government have also echoed the Antifederalists' original concerns. Ironically, later advocates of state power and democratic accountability often invoked the Federalists rather than their true forebears. In this the Antifederalists continued to lose, even as they won.


Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788–1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. A fresh and rigorous interpretation.

Hutson, James A. "Country, Court, and the Constitution: Antifederalism and the Historians." William and Mary Quarterly 38, no. 3 (July 1981): 337–368. Extremely useful.

Kenyon, Cecilia. "Men of Little Faith." William and Mary Quarterly 12, no. 1 (January 1955): 3–43. Continues to frame discourse.

Kramnick, Isaac. "The 'Great National Discussion': The Discourse of Politics in 1787." William and Mary Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 1988): 3–32.

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

McDonald, Forrest. "The Anti-Federalists." In The Reinterpretation of the American Revolution, 1763–1789. Edited by Jack P. Greene. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Murrin, John. "The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolutionary Settlements in England (1688–1721) and America (1776–1816)." In Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776. Edited by J. G. A. Pocock. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Highly original overview.

Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Knopf, 1996. Wide-ranging synthesis.

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. New York: Norton, 1972. Germinal work.

———. "Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution." In Beyond Confederation: Origins of the American Constitution and National Identity. Edited by Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Rethinking of earlier ideas.

Martin S.Flaherty

See alsoBill of Rights in United States Constitution ; Constitution of the United States ; Federalist Papers .