America’s first government was under the Articles of Confederation, which had a weak central government and proved inadequate to form a strong nation. Delegates charged with the task of reforming the government decided to create a whole new form of government. The government that they created, under the Constitution, tried to solve the many problems the states were facing under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution received mixed reactions from people all over the country. Some people supported the Constitution, known as the Federalists and others opposed the Constitution, known as the Antifederalists.1 It is important to note that the division between the two groups was not whether the country should have a federal government or not, but whether the Constitution formed a government that would meet the country’s needs and ensure liberty and justice for the people. The Antifederalists never called themselves by that name. It is best to describe the two positions as whether they believed the Constitution should be ratified** Ratify - The approval from the legislative branch required to validate government agreements. The state legislatures had to give their approval of the Constitution. or not.2 All the states set up special conventions ** The ratifying conventions served the necessary function of informing the public of the provisions of the proposed new government. They also served as forums for proponents and opponents to articulate their ideas before the citizenry. to decide whether their state should ratify the Constitution. In order for the Constitution to become effective, nine out of the thirteen states had to ratify it.3
The Federalists argued that the Constitution allowed for a strong central government that would be essential to carry out necessary governmental functions, such as the regulation of trade and international relations, without impinging** Impinge (verb)- to have an effect or impact, especially a negative one on the rights of citizens. Even the Federalists were concerned about the government becoming tyrannous; however, they ensured people that the separation of power between the branches would help prevent tyranny. In general, most Federalists were well-educated and wealthy, usually merchants and plantation owners such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.4 They emphasized that a strong government was needed because there were several problems in society such as expansion, taxation, and foreign relations that the weak central government created by the Articles of Confederation was ill-equipped to handle. Federalists reasoned that under the Constitution, many of the problems facing the country would be addressed properly.
Federalists acknowledged that the Constitution was not a perfect document; however, it was a good alternative to the government that existed. They understood that the Constitution was a compromise that tried to incorporate the needs and values of the different states.5 In order to try to address some of the concerns that the Antifederalists had about the Constitution, some Federalists created the Federalist Papers. In these publications, Federalists would explain why the Constitution gave the central government certain powers and elaborate on their arguments to ratify the Constitution, including the problems with the confederation** Confederation (noun) - an organization that consists of a number of parties or groups united in an alliance or league., the defense of republicanism** Republicanism - the ideology of governing a society or state as a republic, where the head of state is a representative of the people who hold popular sovereignty., and the importance of an effective government.6 Federalists believed that although the Constitution would take away some of the states’ powers, the Constitution would also defend people’s rights and protect their liberty while creating a strong unified government.
Antifederalists opposed the Constitution, stating that the structure would result in tyrannical** a tyrannical government is an oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler. rule. Most of the Antifederalists were farmers, debtors, and people of lower classes, although some, like Patrick Henry, George Mason, Samuel Adams, and Elbridge Gerry, defied these descriptions. The Antifederalists wanted to ensure that the independence that many Americans fought and died for would be preserved. They were concerned that under the Constitution, the government could use the powers granted to it to keep taking power away from the people. Not all Antifederalists were opposed to the creation of a central government, but they differed on the question of how the government should be structured.7 They were less organized than the Federalists and more varied in their reasoning for opposition to the Constitution.8 Some thought that a central government was needed, but diverged** Diverge (verb) – to go in a different direction. at the level of strength it should possess, while others thought there should be little deviation** Deviation (noun) – the action of departing from an established course or accepted standard. from the Articles of Confederation.9 Some people even thought that a central government was not needed and each state should handle its own matters.10
Many Antifederalists worried that once the Constitution was ratified, it would be extremely difficult to change it and make amendments. They were not convinced of the Federalists’ argument that the Constitution was an enumerated document** All the powers not specifically given to the federal government was reserved to the states and the people. and thought that because there was no bill of rights, then the people’s rights would not be protected. Some of their additional arguments were that the president could veto the people’s representatives in the legislature, federal courts would encroach** Encroach (verb) - advance gradually beyond usual or acceptable limits. on local courts, and that there were not enough representatives in the national legislature.11 They believed the Constitution should not be ratified until these concerns were addressed. These problems had to be fixed before the enactment of the Constitution or the new government could refuse to resolve them. Antifederalists were suspicious of establishing an imperfect government and trying to fix it later, so in their opinion, the Constitution as it stood should not be ratified.
A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference. - Thomas Jefferson
The ratification debates dominated this time period and occurred in meeting halls, homes, newspapers, and even on the street. Many questions about the future of the country needed to be answered—what should the government look like? Should the states or the federal government have more power? What was the best way to protect people’s rights? These questions, among others, were what the ratification debates tried to address.12 The Federalists and Antifederalists shared many commonalities such as the fear of tyranny and protection of liberty, but differed in many ways such as the strength and individual powers that the government should possess. Both sides of the argument provide valuable insight in understanding the Constitution and the history of the United States.
For More Information
- Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010)
- Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship, The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison (New York: The Modern Library Classics, 2005)
- Jeffrey K. Tulis and Nicole Mellow, “The Anti-Federal Appropriation,” American Political Thought, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014),157-166, doi: 10.1086/675654.