The American Revolution, a struggle against encroaching British authority, left most Americans deeply distrustful of centralized power. Yet between 1787 and 1790 the Federalists achieved what had once seemed impossible: the fusion of thirteen disparate former colonies into a potentially powerful national union.
nationalism in 1787
During the 1780s, despite American mistrust of strong central government, many concluded that Congress's powers were inadequate under the Articles of Confederation. Faced with economic depression throughout the decade, many states were unable to deal with their Revolutionary War debts. The lack of a national commercial policy fueled a trade imbalance with Britain; consumer debt soared, leaving merchants vulnerable to creditors; debt and high state taxes threatened farmers with foreclosure. America's feeble diplomatic credibility, with diplomats such as John Adams and John Jay repeatedly humiliated by their vague and uncertain authority, made it nearly impossible to secure favorable treaties or trade concessions.
Americans were increasingly divided between what historians have labeled "cosmopolitans" and "localists." The former mostly included those with broad economic and social contacts—merchants, urban artisans, commercial farmers including southern planters—who wanted energetic state and continental governments to promote trade, stabilize the currency, and pay public debts. Localists, including farmers and rural artisans, wanted government kept small, seeking state debtor relief and paper money to depreciate individual debts and tax burdens.
Localists generally dominated state governments. Cosmopolitans looked to the central government, but the Confederation Congress was nearly impotent. With no taxation power, Congress failed to raise much revenue through requisitions upon the states; dangerous sectional divisions and separate state interests undermined foreign policy. Increasingly, cosmopolitans pondered a new national government to institute a single national trade policy and tariff and to block inflationary paper money.
George Washington's 1785 call for a conference between Virginia and Maryland, bypassing Congress to settle a dispute over the Potomac River, inspired former congressman James Madison of Virginia to call for a broader convention on trade at Annapolis. There, in September 1786, Alexander Hamilton of New York, once a distinguished officer on Washington's staff, urged that a general convention meet in Philadelphia the following May to revise the Articles and strengthen the union. Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts and similar popular outbursts sparked by debt and taxes encouraged responses to Hamilton's call, especially when the Continental government proved unable to defend its Springfield arsenal from the Shaysite rebels. Perhaps most important, the disorders persuaded Washington himself to chair the convention. Congress endorsed the plan in February 1787, and every state but Rhode Island agreed to attend.
the constitutional convention and the emergence of federalism
The Constitutional Convention was divided between those who wished merely to strengthen the Articles, and those who wished to replace them with a new national government. Leaders of the centralizing group included Madison, Hamilton, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and Rufus King of Massachusetts, all delegates from large states with broad economic ties. Their main proposal was Madison's, calling for a bicameral legislature, with both houses proportional to population, that would choose a national executive and judiciary and have a veto over state laws. When the small states objected, the nationalists adjusted, accepting a compromise that preserved equal state representation in the Senate and dropping the veto on state laws. But federal laws were declared supreme, and the courts were expected to strike down incompatible state statutes. The centralizers achieved a genuine national government in federal balance with the states—the key, they believed, to preserving the republican legacy of the Revolution.
Despite some historians' long-standing arguments that the Convention was a virtual conspiracy to promote a particular economic interest, a remarkably heterogeneous group ultimately supported the new constitution. Of fifty-five delegates, four left in protest and three refused to sign the final document. At least forty-five, from large states and small, backed ratification. The ability of this compromise system to unite a wide range of viewpoints, backgrounds, and private interests was the key strength of those who now began to call themselves "Federalists."
federalist constituencies and their priorities
The framers' decision to submit the Constitution to popularly elected state conventions transformed ratification into a broad public debate. The pro-Constitution stand of Washington and Benjamin Franklin, arguably the two most eminent men in America, helped sway opinion, but only to a point: Americans were wary of mere appeals to authority.
The pro- and anti-constitutional schism resembled the prior divide between cosmopolitans and localists. Federalists tended to be people with broader connections and interests: merchants, lawyers, and other educated professionals; clergy; and commercial farmers and planters. They found themselves faced mainly by yeoman farmers and rural leaders with mainly local connections, who feared broad new powers exercised by a distant elite. Those with entrenched interests in existing state powers were also frequently hostile. The Federalists branded their opponents "anti-Federalists," shrewdly tarring them with the stigma of a purely negative agenda.
In general, Federalists were concentrated in the east. Coastal areas, dependent on trade, linked economically, culturally, and intellectually to other states and other countries, favored a revitalized government that looked beyond their immediate localities. They viewed their generally inland, western opponents as ignorant backcountry rustics supported by self-interested state politicians.
Federalists enjoyed a key advantage in their over-whelming enlistment of printers, most of whom were eastern, commercially oriented, and cosmopolitan. A concerted Federalist campaign was mobilized in newspapers and pamphlets, where the "Federalist" label first emerged in print. Once a term for opponents of the nationalists, it was now used to invoke the layered system and emphasis on balanced powers that had emerged at Philadelphia. Federalist writers stressed the Constitution's preservation of popular sovereignty through the electoral delegation of authority and its steady equilibrium of powers. A pivotal argument, developed by Madison in the influential Federalist Papers, contradicted the traditional assumption that republics could function only on a small scale. Such republics, Madison observed, had invariably failed when factions achieved a majority and became tyrannical. In a large-scale government, the diversity of local interests would make control by a single majority interest impossible.
Anti-Federalists accused the Federalists of an elitist plot to remove power from ordinary citizens and create a moneyed aristocracy, a claim echoed by some modern historians. But the Federalists firmly defined themselves as the saviors of the Revolution and republicanism. The 1780s had, they believed, shown that myriad weak, local governments were undermining the achievements of 1776. Believing that a people as well as their government required checks and balances, the Federalists defended a careful delegation of authority to the best-known and ablest men, who would in turn be checked by their balanced constitutional powers. Yet the Constitution imposed no property qualifications for officeholding, and it was in fact the anti-Federalists who sought to restrict offices to professing Christians. And of course, anti-Federalists were often highly supportive of local elites.
The Federalists, however, were never monolithic. The Constitution's compromise nature attracted a wide range of supporters, giving the Federalists their strength and adaptability. But parties to a compromise are likely to interpret it according to their own desires: different Federalists inevitably understood the new system differently. Indeed, they did differ on the nature and role of elites. Some believed merit would rise; others assumed the socially prominent should govern; Hamilton stressed the interrelation of government with moneyed interests; others, such as Madison, were more concerned with the broad voice of the people, refined but preserved through constitutional delegation. The ratification struggle subsumed such differences. In time they would reemerge.
federalist strategies for ratification
The Federalists enjoyed an initial wave of easy victories, with anti-Federalists stifled by the very localism, lesser education, and lack of broad connections that helped define them. Small states, mollified by equality in the Senate and eager to supplant the highhanded commercial policies of the large port states, rallied as Federalist strongholds. Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia (eager for federal aid in protecting its border), and Connecticut quickly and easily ratified. Later, Maryland and South Carolina would follow—though New Hampshire deadlocked, swayed by suspicion of the South and the fear of non-Christian officeholders, and Rhode Island refused even to call a convention.
Federalists realized the key battles would come in the large states. In Pennsylvania the Federalists, led by James Wilson, pushed ratification through before the rural backcountry could mobilize. But ratification was increasingly faced with an articulate anti-Federalist opposition. The Federalist charge that the anti-Federalists lacked a positive agenda had some validity; the Constitution's foes knew what they opposed but were weak on specific alternatives—though most acknowledged the Articles were inadequate as they stood. But a key anti-Federalist objection to the Constitution, the absence of a bill of rights, resonated with many. Federalists denied the need, noting that the federal government would have only those powers specifically granted by the Constitution and warning that enumerating some rights could undermine others. But the issue persisted.
Rufus King and other Federalist leaders faced troubles in Massachusetts. Anti-Federalists had a clear majority, although their most experienced and articulate leaders were actually from coastal areas with Federalist majorities and thus were not elected to the ratifying convention. The anti-Federalists wanted the convention to ratify only on the condition that a bill of rights was added to the Constitution. Faced with defeat, the Federalists proposed that recommendatory rather than conditional amendments accompany ratification. The convention, they suggested, should ratify the Constitution and at the same time recommend amendments, on the understanding that the Federalists would then help to pass the amendments in the new Congress. Again, compromise succeeded in broadening Federalist support. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, influential local politicians who were uneasy about the Constitution, were reluctantly won over. Delegates from the coastal areas remained heavily Federalist, and the proposed amendments secured enough inland votes to narrowly win ratification.
Although the anti-Federalists, encouraged by their strength in the large states, were growing increasingly organized, this new Federalist strategy of recommendatory amendments began to undercut the opposition's main argument. In Virginia the heavily Federalist Tidewater region was faced with an overwhelmingly anti-Federalist majority in the rest of the state. Unlike in the North, where urban areas challenged the rural interior, here both sides were agrarian: in the virtual absence of cities, coastal planters with broad ties and interests faced inland farmers determined to preserve their independence. Madison skillfully led the Federalist minority in the state convention, urging recommendatory amendments and stressing the lack of concrete anti-Federalist proposals. Governor Edmund Randolph, who had refused to sign the Constitution in Philadelphia, wavered back to reluctant support. New Hampshire's second attempt at ratification had meanwhile succeeded: the nine states officially required to ratify the Constitution had adopted it. Federalists now warned that if Virginia rejected, the union itself might crumble. Enough inland votes were swayed to narrowly pass ratification.
Federalists were likewise a clear minority in New York, but again their opponents failed to offer clear alternatives. After Virginia ratified, Hamilton, backed by Madison, cautioned that the anti-Federalist plan to ratify on condition of future amendments might leave New York out of the union. Pragmatism, coupled with renewed Federalist assurances that a bill of rights would follow, again secured a slim majority for ratification.
the last federalist challenge
It was by no means obvious that eleven ratifications signaled the end of the Federalists' struggle. All along, anti-Federalists had energetically sought a second constitutional convention, a scheme Federalists feared would unleash chaos. Yet important New York Federalists, courting anti-Federalist votes, had dismayed their own allies by endorsing a second convention to consider amendments. Some feared even a limited convention might go dangerously far, undermining federal authority and throwing power back to the states. Now North Carolina, one of the final two holdouts, adopted a scheme once proposed by Thomas Jefferson (who had meanwhile been persuaded by recommendatory amendments to back the Constitution): after most states had ratified, the remainder should hold out until a bill of rights was added. North Carolina's Tidewater Federalists were heavily outnumbered. The anti-Federalists kept control, refused to ratify, and demanded a second convention.
The call for a new convention proved abortive, but Federalists knew the climate could yet change. Madison and others also feared anti-Federalist attempts to elect a Congress that would annihilate itself and the Constitution. Such ideas certainly existed, and failed less decisively than is sometimes imagined. In the new Senate, twenty-four Federalists were in undisputed control, but the anti-Federalist legislature of powerful Virginia sent two firmly anti-Federalist senators. In the House, fifty-one Federalists outnumbered fourteen anti-Federalists. But two of eight representatives from Massachusetts, three of five from South Carolina, three of ten from Virginia, two of eight from Pennsylvania, and two of six from New York were anti-Federalist, and close elections in the latter two states—extremely close in New York—narrowly prevented anti-Federalist majorities. Even Federalist representatives did not forget the misgivings of their constituents. As the first federal congress divided into blocs for and against the Washington administration, anti-Federalists unanimously went anti-administration—but many Federalist representatives from antiratification districts also joined the anti-administration party.
With the anti-Federalists in retreat but by no means gone, the need to pass a bill of rights was urgent. Madison, elected to the House from Virginia, led the fight; he had come to see genuine advantages in properly framed amendments and also knew they were a political necessity to complete the Federalist victory. He and his supporters acknowledged that a bill of rights could enhance the Constitution's safeguards against governmental abuses without returning important federal powers to the states, but they also knew how many influential men had backed ratification on the understanding that such amendments would follow. Even after Congress had passed the amendments, Virginia's anti-Federalist senators continued to press for a second convention. Most had been willing to wait and see what the new Congress would do, and after the Bill of Rights was added most anti-Federalists were willing to work within the new system. But had Congress repudiated the promises made in so many key conventions, a reinvigorated anti-Federalist movement might conceivably have yet toppled the new Constitution, destroying everything the Federalists had worked to achieve.
As it was, North Carolina conceded in late 1789 (though two of the five representatives it now elected were anti-Federalists), and Rhode Island, threatened with secession by its own coastal merchants, narrowly ratified in 1790. But as the Federalist majority turned to the actual business of setting up the new government and instituting policy, the compromise coalition inevitably began to come apart. The mercantile, monetary elitism of Hamilton and his backers drove them apart from Madison and many others, with their greater emphasis on popular participation and their suspicion of control by a moneyed interest. There was no neat transformation of Federalists into the Federalist Party of the 1790s, or anti-Federalists into Democratic Republicans. The diverging Federalists contributed constituencies and leadership to both parties.
See alsoAdams, John; Articles of Confederation; Bill of Rights; Congress; Constitution, Ratification of;Constitutional Convention; Constitutionalism; Federalist Papers; Federalist Party; Founding Fathers; Franklin, Benjamin; Government: Overview; Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Popular Sovereignty; Presidency, The: George Washington; Shays's Rebellion; Washington, George .
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Jeremy A. Stern