views updated May 11 2018


The anti-Federalists voiced objections to the proposed Constitution in 1787–1788. This diverse group was concerned about the amount of power the Constitution would grant the national government, apprehensive about representation at the national level, and disturbed over the lack of safeguards for citizens' rights. Anti-Federalists were a significant presence in most states. In several of them, supporters of the Constitution (who took the name "Federalists" and probably pinned the negative-sounding label on their opponents) agreed to recommend amendments to secure support from mild anti-Federalists. This concession facilitated ratification, but it also created the expectation that the Constitution would be changed to address certain of its opponents' concerns. After ratification, the anti-Federalists worked within the Constitution's bounds. They expected Federalists to do so as well, holding them to their ratification fight pledge that the Constitution granted the national government only specifically listed powers.

the constitution's alleged deficiencies

The Constitution was made public in September 1787 and faced opposition almost immediately. Controversy exists over the primary motivation of the anti-Federalists. Some think they opposed the Constitution primarily for economic reasons. Others argue that they wanted to protect their own political power. Still others find that they were influenced mainly by political theory. Despite questions about their motivations, anti-Federalists clearly expressed their objections as a set of broadly applicable political views.

Phrases in the Constitution led anti-Federalists to believe that the power of the national government would, in theory, be virtually unlimited. Article I, section 8 listed the powers of Congress. At the end of that list was a clause that allowed Congress "to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing Powers." Anti-Federalists frequently argued that this phrase would allow the national government to formulate any law it wished, including ones that would be harmful and unrepresentative. Additionally, the Constitution contained a "supremacy clause" in Article VI that recognized the national government as the final arbiter of its disputes with the states. This clause led anti-Federalists to conclude that states and their citizens would be at the mercy of the national government.

Anti-Federalists considered extensive national power problematic for a number of reasons. They complained that the national government could tax them without constraint, that it could build an expensive and dangerous army, and that it could even take away the rights that Americans expected government to protect. The most problematic omission in the Constitution, especially in the view of moderate anti-Federalists, was the lack of a bill of rights. Not protecting freedom of the press or due process rights for the criminally accused made many anti-Federalists suspicious of Federalist motives. Most did not think that a new national government would act tyrannically immediately. However, they argued it was best to write safeguards against tyrannical action into a constitution at the outset rather than rely on the good nature of politicians not to enact tyrannical measures.

Most anti-Federalists felt they could not rely on national representatives as much as they could on state representatives. Officials elected at the state level were closer to the people they served. They frequently returned home to face their constituents and they served short terms. This regular contact helped ensure that state legislators would follow constituent wishes. Furthermore, state legislators were much more likely to be representative of the populace. They tended to be middle-class farmers and local businessmen, like most voters. The national Congress would not be made up of such individuals. The Constitution itself dictated that every member of the House would have more than thirty thousand constituents. Most senators would represent many more than thirty thousand. Anti-Federalists reasoned that only the wealthy and prominent would be sufficiently well-known to get elected, giving Congress an upper-class bias. The distance between most states and the national capital meant that national representatives would only infrequently mingle with their constituents. Long terms, particularly in the Senate, meant that constituents would exert less control over what representatives did. At the very least, anti-Federalists called for a significant expansion of the House of Representatives to remedy these problems. The more aggressive anti-Federalists argued that the national government could never accurately represent citizens.

Anti-Federalist objections to the Constitution were based on well-known political theory. Republican thinkers, particularly the English Whig opposition of the 1730s and 1740s, had argued that popular governments were almost inevitably short-lived. Great vigilance was necessary to prevent the concentration of power, which would destroy popular government and result in tyranny. Anti-Federalists justified

their opposition as necessary to save popular government. They also argued, citing John Locke (1632–1704) as their inspiration, that the powers of government needed to be strictly separated. Federalists had unnecessarily written shared powers into the Constitution, including those over appointments and treaties. Many anti-Federalists felt that the Senate and president could conspire to control the new government.

Finally, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), by Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), had convinced many that a republic could not exist in a large nation. Montesquieu argued that popular government required a common culture. The states were relatively homogeneous and therefore could be viable republics. The nation, with its many different ethnicities, religions, and economic interests, would be unlikely to produce a broad array of policies that its diverse citizenry would support. Therefore, anti-Federalists reasoned that states should retain significant powers. Many argued that the nation should simply be a confederation of sovereign states.

leaders and adherents

Some of the nation's best-known political leaders were among those who opposed the Constitution. Famed orator Patrick Henry led the anti-Federalists in Virginia, joined by the author of the Virginia declaration of rights, George Mason, who had attended the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign the document. Governor George Clinton organized opposition to the Constitution in New York. The Massachusetts Patriot leader Elbridge Gerry, a future vice president, also objected to the Constitution after participating in the Constitutional Convention. Samuel Adams, the organizer of the Revolution in Massachusetts, initially expressed his opposition to the Constitution (although he ultimately voted for ratification after his constituents instructed him of their support for it and the Massachusetts convention recommended amendments). Many other anti-Federalists were prominent politicians of their day. Other critics of the Constitution became famous after ratification. The future president James Monroe opposed ratification, as did John Quincy Adams, a young law student in 1787–1788.

While many prominent anti-Federalists expressed their opposition to the Constitution openly, most who wrote against the document employed pseudonyms. There was a long tradition of doing so, because arguments rather than personalities were supposed to sway the public. The best-known anti-Federalists wrote series of letters under pseudonyms like "Brutus," "Cato," "Centinel," and "Federal Farmer." Each represented a different perspective. Centinel was among the harshest of anti-Federalists, calling the Federalists "conspirators" and believing that it was the framers' design to take away the people's right to govern themselves. Federal Farmer was one of the milder and more learned opponents of the Constitution. He felt the new national government would benefit the nation if rights were safeguarded and the House of Representatives was expanded to become a "true picture" of the people. Most anti-Federalist views fell somewhere in between these extremes. The majority believed that the national government should be granted more power than it had under the first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, though not nearly as much as the new Constitution allowed. Most frequently, anti-Federalists recognized that the national government required a stable source of revenue and the ability to regulate interstate commerce, neither of which it had under the Articles of Confederation.

Far more anti-Federalists lived inland than on the coasts. The reason for this was simple. Commercial interests favored the Constitution and they predominated in more highly developed coastal areas. It was understood that the national government would eliminate trade barriers between the states, spurring commerce and benefiting the coastal economy where goods were more easily transported. Additionally, the national government would repay its longstanding debt, helping to restore health to the nation's ailing commercial economy. These matters were not of great concern to those who did not live near the coast or major rivers. Most of them were small farmers with few goods to sell on the open market. The Constitution's commercial benefits were unlikely to benefit them much.

The states' different economic interests help to explain why anti-Federalist strength in them varied significantly. For instance, many imported goods came into New York City's harbor. Under the Articles of Confederation, the state of New York could charge a tariff on these goods, many of which would eventually wind up in New Jersey or Connecticut. New York State could finance its government at the expense of those neighboring states. Under the new Constitution that practice would not be allowed. New Yorkers thus had an incentive to oppose ratification while those in New Jersey and Connecticut almost uniformly supported the Constitution.

Economic interests, however, were not the sole reason for one's position on the Constitution. The most fervently anti-Federalist state, Rhode Island, was also the most coastal. The citizens of Rhode Island displayed a notorious independent streak and opposed ratification in order to guard their state's own decision-making power. Some prominent individuals who lived on the coast opposed the Constitution too, including Elbridge Gerry, one of the nation's wealthiest merchants.

Many citizens concerned about slavery were anti-Federalists. Southerners expressed fears that under the Constitution the eight northern states would gang up on the five southern states, passing legislation which would harm their slave-based economies. Many northerners lamented that the nation would have to recognize and protect something so contrary to universal rights.

ratification debate dynamics

Several practical matters complicated the anti-Federalists' quest to alter or defeat the Constitution. The call to form a convention came from the Federalists. They were interested in making radical changes to the structure of the national government and were highly motivated to attend the Philadelphia Convention. Anti-Federalists wanted less far-reaching changes and thus were less motivated to attend the Constitutional Convention. Two of its attendees were the nation's most respected political leaders, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, both of whom clearly favored the Constitution. Washington and Franklin were heroes of the Revolution. Most citizens trusted their judgment.

The great majority of the nation's ninety newspapers published during 1787–1788 were printed near the coast. These papers naturally reflected the prevailing interest of their local areas, which were predominantly Federalist. About eighty of these newspapers were firmly Federalist in orientation, while only about a half dozen were firmly anti-Federalist. This dynamic hindered dissemination of the anti-Federalists' message, while it facilitated the spread of Federalist views.

Federalists also skillfully controlled the ratification process. They wrote into the Constitution the provision requiring just a two-thirds majority of the states (nine of the thirteen) to ratify and set up the new government. Had they abided by the rules of the Articles of Confederation, all thirteen states would have had to agree to the change. Anti-Federalists protested the more lax requirement but could do little about it. Five states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut—ratified the Constitution quickly by wide margins. In stark contrast to the other four states, Pennsylvania's ratification proved to be highly divisive because of heavy-handed Federalist tactics. Anti-Federalists and Federalists clashed physically in Carlisle on 25 and 26 December 1787. A petition asking the state legislature to void the state's ratification circulated in western Pennsylvania and eventually netted six thousand signatures, a huge number for the time.

Ratification was not a foregone conclusion in any other state, with the exception of Maryland. To obtain ratification in the tightly contested states, Federalists changed their tactics. Beginning with Massachusetts in February 1788, Federalists agreed to recommend amendments in exchange for support from the mildest anti-Federalists. By late June 1788 ten states had ratified, including Massachusetts and Virginia, the two most populous states. Without the approval of these two states the Constitution could hardly have succeeded.

The Constitution was not immediately implemented. During the months between ratification and implementation, politicians in the holdout states of New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island came to understand that it was in their state's interest not to be left out of the nation. These states ratified the Constitution, though it took North Carolina two ratification conventions to do so. North Carolina's Outer Banks made commercial navigation difficult. Its economy was primarily agrarian and its populace firmly anti-Federalist. Even so, the second state ratification convention approved the constitution in until November 1789. Rhode Island held out until May 1790, well after the new government began operations in April 1789.

With only a few exceptions, anti-Federalists agreed to abide by the ratified Constitution. Their reasoning was that good citizens are obligated to support all laws. If anti-Federalists did not accept the ratified Constitution, then anybody who fundamentally disagreed with a law could refuse to follow it. To the anti-Federalists, not accepting ratification was a prescription for anarchy, and that was something they would not tolerate. At the same time, many anti-Federalists did call for a second constitutional convention to consider the recommended amendments. The New York ratifying convention had called for such a meeting and Virginia's legislature, with a majority of anti-Federalists in it, did so as well, indicating that the anti-Federalists continued to think of the new framework of government as inadequate.

Accepting the Constitution's legality, however, carried a political price. To many citizens it appeared as if anti-Federalist leaders were conveniently willing to accept what they had vehemently disputed in order to retain their political influence. The careers of several prominent anti-Federalists ended as a result, and as a whole the group suffered electorally into the mid-1790s.


Though the Constitution was ratified, the anti-Federalists did not leave the fight empty-handed. They expected that the recommended amendments would be seriously considered even though the push for a second convention failed to have an impact. Yet few anti-Federalists were elected to the new Congress. With massive Federalist majorities in both the House and the Senate, they had little hope that Congress would deal with the amendments in good faith. Some pressed Congress to consider the amendments immediately while others sought delay, hoping for a better opportunity to get them approved.

While many Federalists in Congress were content to ignore the promise of amendments, James Madison was not. He felt amendments that safeguarded rights would shore up support for the new government. He also wanted to prevent changes that would alter the new government's structure. Accordingly, Madison wrote amendments and used his considerable influence to push them through the First Congress. Ten amendments were ultimately ratified by the states, becoming the Bill of Rights. Most former anti-Federalists were pleased that rights were expressly secured. However, those who doubted that a national government could be representative were still deeply disturbed by the new regime and expressed frustration that the amendments were inadequate.

Former anti-Federalists tended to dislike Federalist policies. They complained that the Federalists were going back on their word that the Constitution granted only clearly enumerated powers to the national government. That argument had been voiced forcefully by the Pennsylvania Federalist James Wilson during the ratification debate and that idea was seemingly set into the Constitution by the Tenth Amendment, which stated that "powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited by it [the Constitution] to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." On many issues, particularly in the controversy over establishing a national bank, former anti-Federalists accused Federalists of exceeding their rightful authority. Some who had been Federalists, like James Madison, agreed. Madison's group allied with the anti-Federalists and organized as a political party, with Thomas Jefferson as its leader.

This alliance proved durable. In the election of 1800, these Jeffersonian or Democratic Republicans captured majorities in the House and the Senate, and Jefferson won the presidency. Many of the former anti-Federalists continued to be a vital part of the Democratic Republican Party into the nineteenth century. They had been on the losing side in the ratification debate, but they also felt vindicated by their having preserved state power and, with it, the federal nature of the American government.

See alsoArticles of Confederation; Bill of Rights; Constitutional Convention; Democratic Republicans; Madison, James .


Banning, Lance. "Republican Ideology and the Triumph of the Constitution, 1789–1793." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 31 (1974): 167–188.

Cornell, Saul. "The Changing Historical Fortunes of the Anti-Federalists." Northwestern University Law Review 84 (1989): 39–73.

——. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalists and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788–1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Duncan, Christopher M. The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Finkelman, Paul. "Turning Losers into Winners: What Can We Learn, If Anything, from the Antifederalists?" Texas Law Review 79 (2001): 849–894.

Jensen, Merrill, ed. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. 19 vols. plus microfiche supplements. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976–.

Kenyon, Cecelia. "Men of Little Faith: The Anti-Federalists on the Nature of Representative Government." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 12 (1955): 3–43.

Lienesch, Michael. "In Defense of the Anti-federalists." History of Political Thought, 4 (1983): 65–87.

Siemers, David J. The Antifederalists: Men of Great Faith and Forbearance. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

——. Ratifying the Republic: Antifederalists and Federalists in Constitutional Time. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Storing, Herbert. The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

David J. Siemers


views updated May 23 2018


The Anti-Federalists were a loosely associated group of men and women who opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution in the wake of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although the intensity of and reasons for their opposition varied by individual, state, and region, a common thread bound Anti-Federalists: fear that a powerful, distant, and centralized national government was a direct threat to democracy (defined as local self-government or states' rights) and individual rights and liberties. Anti-Federalists believed passionately that the U.S. Constitution with its Supremacy Clause (Article VI) and the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, sec. 8) would create a tyrannical central government and so they agitated vigorously against its adoption in newspapers, on the streets, and in state ratifying conventions.

To understand the Anti-Federalists as they understood themselves, it is important to know that they were ardent supporters (and many were veterans) of the American Revolution. For Anti-Federalists, the American Revolution was fought on behalf of the liberal principles of liberty, equality, and democracy as asserted in the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. For them, the war was a sacred event representing a blood sacrifice on the part of American patriots to vanquish tyranny and give birth to liberty. They believed that the Revolutionary War was fought to diminish the power of government to prevent centralization of authority. It was their belief that men like Alexander Hamilton and other nationalists had constructed a constitution that would ultimately betray the principles of the Revolution and transform the fledgling democracy into an authoritarian aristocratic or monarchical nation in fairly short order. Their fears were based on the seemingly open-ended clauses noted above along with provisions like the lifetime tenure of Supreme Court Justices and the long length of Senatorial terms. They were alarmed by Hamilton's statements that he greatly admired Julius Caesar and by his proposition that the American president be elected for life.

bill of rights

Prominent Federalists like James Wilson and James Madison supported ratification and argued vehemently that the new constitution was a "limited document for limited ends" that should be read as only authorizing the grants of power and authority that were specifically outlined in the text itself. Leading Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Mercy Warren, Elbridge Gerry, George Clinton, and others were not convinced, and saw the seeds of political expansion and potential tyranny in the document. They pushed its supporters to add a Bill of Rights that would limit the power and scope of the new regime. These well-known provisions of the Constitution are stated with typical Anti-Federalist simplicity and parsimony. They begin with the well-known phrase "Congress shall make no law" and continue on to detail a number of important limits on national power, such as prohibiting Congress from abridging freedom of speech and freedom of press. They conclude with the much-debated and often-maligned Tenth Amendment which preserves to the states and the people respectively all powers not expressly prohibited to them nor delegated to the United States.

That final amendment is, indeed, the true heart and soul of Anti-Federalist political ideology. Embedded in that brief sentence is the whole of their hope that the Constitution would be strictly constructed to limit the power of the federal government. It is critical to note that the Bill of Rights as proposed was intended only to apply to the actions of the national government. Each state had its own constitution (often with its own bill of rights) that was designed to delineate the scope and limits of their power and authority within their own borders. As odd as it may seem to contemporary readers given the issues of slavery, civil rights, and women's rights, the Anti-Federalists believed that it was the states, not the national government, that could be trusted to defend the rights and liberties of the citizenry. To use the Second Amendment as an example, Anti-Federal proponents of states' rights thought that the "right to keep and bear arms" was necessary to physically defend themselves from a centralized government turned tyrannical. Beginning with the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), the federal government guaranteed equal protection under the Constitution. America gradually adopted the notion that all citizens possessed the same rights and that it was the responsibility of the national government to ensure those rights and liberties.

While the latter transformation was certainly not foreseen in the debates surrounding ratification, and perhaps not even desired by many who later passed the Fourteenth Amendment, the Anti-Federalists were responsible for forcing the adoption of the Bill of Rights. It is considered not only the hallmark of our own Constitution, but also the measuring stick by which other nations' own democratic legitimacy is gauged. So pervasive were their arguments and so persistent was their presence that in fairly short order after the Constitution was ratified, the remnants of the Anti-Federalists migrated toward Thomas Jefferson (the author of their beloved Declaration of Independence), and the emerging Republican Party (bringing James Madison along for good measure). While the Anti-Federalists ceased to exist as a party, they left an enduring legacy. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Americans sustained the Anti-Federalist convictions that government is best that is closest to home and that "government governs best that governs least." In this way the Revolutionary War and the struggle over the Constitution continue to shape politics and social values.


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

Duncan, Christopher M. The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Siemers, David J. Ratifying the Republic: Antifederalists and Federalists in Constitutional Time. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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

Wolin, Sheldon S. The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Christopher M. Duncan

See also:Articles of Confederation; Commonwealth Men; Constitution: Creating a Republic.


views updated May 23 2018


A loose organization of delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who shared political goals became known as the Anti-Federalists. They opposed the policies for a strong central government supported by a larger group of delegates, members of the Federalist Party . The presence of the Anti-Federalists forced some compromises during the writing of the Constitution . The government created by the Constitution, however, was stronger than the Anti-Federalists desired.

Anti-Federalists worked during the writing of the Constitution to preserve the power of state government. Mindful of their experience under an overbearing English government, they sought to limit the power of a single national government. Some Anti-Federalists believed that state government was important for maintaining control over local affairs and keeping power in the hands of the people rather than an elite ruling class. Other Anti-Federalists simply wanted most governmental power to come from the state rather than from a central national government. Still others were concerned that a strong central government could too easily violate individual rights to liberty (freedom). Although they often spoke in terms of democratic governance by the people, the AntiFederalists generally did not favor political rights or civil liberties for women, slaves, and similar groups.

Although the Anti-Federalists managed to work out some compromises during the Constitutional Convention, many opposed the final draft of the Constitution. They felt that, on balance, it gave too much power to the federal government. When Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), James Madison (1751–1836), and John Jay (1745–1829) wrote the Federalist Papers to support the ratification (acceptance) of the Constitution, Anti-Federalists wrote articles to encourage the defeat of the Constitution.

The Anti-Federalists failed to defeat the Constitution, which was ratified in 1788. They generated enough political pressure, however, to force the Federalists to agree to incorporate a Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Containing the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights protects individual liberty from unfair conduct by the federal government. The bill also says that any power not granted to the federal government is reserved to the states and the people.

The Anti-Federalists never organized themselves into a political party. As a group, they faded under the first installation of the federal government in 1789. The aggressive economic policies of Hamilton, who was the secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington (1743–1826; served 1801–9), stirred more opposition to the Federalists. Many who had aligned with the Anti-Federalists organized under Thomas Jefferson 's leadership to oppose the Federalists as Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republican Party survived well into the nineteenth century.

Anti-Federalist Party

views updated May 23 2018

Anti-Federalist Party Organized in 1792 to oppose the proposed Constitution of the United States, mainly on the grounds that it gave the central government power. Anti-Federalist leaders included Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia, and George Clinton of New York. Their support came mostly from the back country and agricultural sections.

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