A Few Lessons from The Federalists and Anti-Federalists

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Part of understanding American history is understanding that division, debate, vitriol and ultimately, begrudging compromise were a part of every political choice made, especially as it concerned the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Before the U.S. Constitution was written (1787) and ultimately ratified in 1789, the Articles of Confederation reigned supreme. So, for a very short period (realize, the U.S. declared its independence in 1776 and then eventually created the Articles of Confederation while fighting in the Revolutionary War), the U.S. government existed under the Articles of Confederation. But the Articles were not destined to last very long, as history shows.

Historical Context

Under the Articles, anarchy brewed. The federal government had little to no authority, little to no money, and no power to execute any of the laws written and passed by the single legislature.

The weak central government makes sense if you think about it. The country had just experienced the lethal effects of a tyrannical, highly powerful centralized, government. This made Americans hyper-sensitive to government power in general— but especially centralized federal government power.

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However, under such a weak central government, anarchy brewed. The people of the states were unruly and took the law into their own hands. There was no universal currency or universal means of trading between states, and no universally respected law or accepted way of handling crime. All of this lack of order created a pressure cooker of chaos waiting to explode.

And, for those readers who have not been following me all along, the American founders were well read and well educated on political philosophy. This means that they were well aware of Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s theories of human nature and the “state of war”.

Quick review: both of these well respected political philosophers assumed that mankind was naturally selfish and first motivated by their own self-preservation. This means that in a world with no government and no society, it’s each man for his own and everyone has a right to everything. This type of society naturally devolves into chaos and violence—or as Locke and Hobbes would call it, a “state of war”. And it is this perpetual “state of war” in a state of nature with no government that necessitates creating a strong government.

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

With this review in mind then, consider what many of the American founders must have been thinking as they watched lawless behavior run rampant in American streets during the infancy of the country. Under the Articles of Confederation, there were many who foresaw the country devolving into chaos, destruction and the “state of war”. It was these American men who proceeded to promote and push for a new Constitution and a stronger federal government. They coined the term federalism—the idea that there can be a stronger centralized government sharing powers with still strong state governments.

These men became known as the Federalists—since they approved of and advocated for a stronger federal government. Some of them, namely, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote the Federalist Papers as propaganda to convince the various states and their legislatures to ratify the new Constitution. Their arguments were beautiful and to this day give us perhaps the greatest insight we have into the intentions and meaning of the Constitution.

However, as I stated at the beginning of this post, there was never a political decision made in the country that wasn’t fought heavily over and forced into a painful but sufficient compromise.

You see, there were also those who vehemently opposed the new Constitution. While they saw the problems inherent under the Articles of Confederation, they felt those issues to be far preferred to the flaws that would occur should the country bend to the federalists and give more power to a centralized government. They called themselves the Anti-Federalists (Patrick Henry, James Monroe, Samuel Adams), as they existed to oppose the positions of the Federalists and to oppose a stronger, more centralized, federal government.

The Anti-Federalist Warnings

“From this investigation into the organization of this government, it appears that it is devoid of all responsibility or accountability to the great body of the people, and that so far from being a regular balanced government, it would be in practice, a permanent aristocracy. ”

Centennial Letter I
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We need voices from all perspectives to fully grasp the consequences of our political choices. The Anti-Federalists had real and legitimate concerns and arguments to make and we did not arrive at the current Constitution and the Bill of Rights without the input of the Anti-Federalists. In the end, neither party felt satisfied. The Federalists felt the central government was still too weak and the Anti-Federalists felt it was still far too strong. But they compromised, as the country is built to do.

Take a look at an argument made in one of the Anti-Federalists papers and consider how vehemently they opposed the Federalists. It should remind you of the parties as they argue that should the opposing party prevail, absolute ruin is guaranteed. And yet we never realize that by villainizing our political opponents we’re missing the very thing that allows us to avoid absolute ruin—compromise.

“But our situation [the Federalists claimed that the situation under the Articles of Confederation was dire and would eventually lead to total chaos and destruction] is represented [by the Federalists] to be so critically dreadful, that however reprehensible and exceptionable the proposed plan of government may be [of course, referring to the newly proposed Constitution], there is no alternative, between the adoption of it [the new Constitution] and absolute ruin [predicted destruction]. – My fellow citizens, things are not at that crisis. It is the argument of tyrants: … for remember, of all possible evils, that of despotism is the worst and the most to be dreaded.” (20).

  • The Anti-Federalists were concerned about what would happen since the Constitution did not provide for specific rights. The Federalists listened, complied and created the Bill of Rights.
  • They warned that there were no real life examples of separation of powers working and actually preventing consolidation of power.
  • They argued that the country was far too large for for one single government; hence the extreme importance of keeping states sovereign and empowered to rule according to what was best for each state.
  • They warned that one of the three branches will end up dominating the other two. A fair and valid and unfortunately true warning.

  • Finally, they claimed that the government wouldn’t really represent the people, per se, but the interests of each branch and party. In other words, each branch would get so caught up in its own ambition for power against the other branches that the government would end up being completely disconnected from the people and operating as an aristocracy of sorts. (aristocracy means: a form of government, in which the whole supreme power is vested in the principal persons of a state; or in a few men distinguished by their rank and opulence.)

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Blessedly, our founders were not so stubborn. They knew that for a country like ours to work, compromise, agreeing to disagree, must reign.

While the fledgling American experiment likely would have fallen into chaos and ruin without the ratification of the new Constitution, the Constitution would not be what it is today without the input of the Anti-Federalists. And unfortunately, many of their warnings have borne out to be true.

Interestingly enough, when I present to my students both arguments (Federalist and Anti-Federalist), they tend to side with the Anti-Federalists. It’s as if Americans are born with an inner distrust and dislike of centralized, federal government. And even if it means putting up with and tangling with our state governments for overstepping, at least it’s the state governments and not the federal. Taking on the federal government is a whole different beast. And at this point, yes, one branch (the Executive) does primarily dominate over the others. And many times, our representatives do get so caught up in their own in-fighting and struggles that they forget what is best for the country.

Conclusion

America was built on compromise. Not the kind of compromise that means compromising what is right for what is wrong—no, the kind of compromise that requires people, who already agree on what is right, to find a middle ground about how to maintain and promote that right thing—in this case, liberty.

There would be no Bill of Rights without the Anti-Federalists. And their warnings about dangers of a stronger federal government, in many ways, came true. Remembering history is critical. We’ve been blessed to avoid complete tyranny so far—but we need to heed all the warnings of our founders in order to make sure those warnings never come true.

The Liberty Belle

1 thought on “A Few Lessons from The Federalists and Anti-Federalists”

  1. Great article. I was wondering if the students considered antifederalists were so in the Trump administration or the current?
    Does political stance come into consideration?

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