Constitutional Topic: The Federalists and Anti-Federalists
The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented
to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ
pages. This Topic Page concerns the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists
and the struggle for ratification. Generally speaking, the federalists were in
favor of ratification of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists were
opposed. Note the the Anti-Federalists are often referred to as just
Antifederalists (without the hyphen). Either form is generally acceptable.
After the Constitutional Convention, the
fight for the Constitution had just begun. According to Article 7, conventions in nine states had to ratify
the Constitution before it would become effective. Some states were highly in
favor of the new Constitution, and within three months, three states, Delaware (with a vote of 30-0), Pennsylvania (46-23), and New
Jersey (38-0), had ratified it. Georgia (26-0)
and Connecticut (128-40) quickly followed in January,
1788 (for the exact dates of ratification, see The
More than half-way there in four months, one might think that the battle was
nearly won. But the problem was not with the states that ratified quickly, but
with the key states in which ratification was not as certain. Massachusetts,
New York, and Virginia were key states, both in terms of population and
stature. Debates in Massachusetts were very heated, with impassioned speeches
from those on both sides of the issue. Massachusetts
was finally won, 187-168, but only after assurances to opponents that the
Constitution could have a bill of rights added to it.
After Massachusetts, the remaining states required for ratification did so
within a few months, with Maryland (63-11) and South Carolina (149-73) falling in line, and New Hampshire (57-47) casting the deciding vote to reach
the required nine states. New York and Virginia still remained, however, and
many doubted that the new Constitution could survive without these states.
New York and Virginia
Early in the ratification process, the proponents of the Constitution took
the name "Federalists."
Though those who opposed the Constitution actually wanted a more purely
federal system (as the Articles provided), they
were more or less forced into taking the name "Anti-Federalists." These men had
many reasons to oppose the Constitution. They did not feel that a republican
form of government could work on a national scale. They also did not feel that
the rights of the individual were properly or sufficiently protected by the new
Constitution. They saw themselves as the true heirs of the spirit of the
Revolution. Some very notable persons in United States history counted
themselves Anti-Federalists, like Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, George Mason,
George Clinton, and Luther Martin.
There were some true philosophical differences between the two camps. In
many instances, though, there was also a lot of personal animosity. For
example, in New York, George Clinton was a political opponent of John Jay, a
prominent Federalist, and also disliked Alexander Hamilton. And in Virginia,
Patrick Henry was a political rival of James Madison.
In addition, many letters were written to newspapers under various
pseudonyms, like "The Federal Farmer," "Cato," "Brutus," and "Cincinnatus."
These letters and several speeches are now known as "The Anti-Federalist
In response to the speeches and letters of the Anti-Federalists, the
Federalists gave their own speeches and wrote their own letters. John Jay,
Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison coordinated their efforts and wrote a
series of 85 letters under the name "Publius." These letters both explained
the new Constitution and answered the charges of the Anti-Federalists. The
letters were collected into a volume called "The Federalist," or "The
Federalist Papers." Though the influence of The Federalist at the time is
questionable, the letters are noted today as classics in political theory.
Perhaps of far greater importance were the Federalist stances of George
Washington and Ben Franklin, very prominent men both in their day and today.
Their opinions carried great weight.
The votes in Virginia and New York were hard-won, and close. Virginia voted 89-79, and New
York, a month later, voted 30-27 to ratify. With all the major states now
having ratified, confidence was high that the United States under the
Constitution would be a success, or, at least, have a fighting chance. The new
Congress met, and George Washington became the first President. As suggested by
many of the ratifying conventions, one of the first tasks tackled was the
writing of a Bill of Rights to be attached to the Constitution. The Bill,
Amendments 1-10, eased the minds of many hold-outs. Shortly thereafter, North Carolina ratified (194-77), and lone hold-out, Rhode Island, finally relented and ratified on a close
The Federalists were successful in their effort to get the Constitution
ratified by all 13 states. The Federalists later established a party known as
the Federalist Party. The party backed the views of Hamilton and was a strong
force in the early United States. The party, however, was short-lived, dead by
The Anti-Federalists generally gravitated toward the views of Thomas
Jefferson, coalescing into the Republican Party, later known as the Democratic
Republicans, the precursor to today's Democratic Party.
One of the most succinct enumeration of the arguments of the
Anti-Federalists against the Constitution is found in a letter commonly known
as Anti-Federalist number 44. The author anonymously signed the letter
"Deliberator." The author listed several points raised by a Federalist in
another letter published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Packet under
the name Freeman. Most of the points made by Deliberator have actually proven
true over time. For example, Freeman argued that the federal government could
not train the militia — our modern National Guard, the descendant of
their militia, is trained by the federal government. Freeman also noted that
the federal government would not be permitted to inspect "the produce of the
country", but our modern system of inspection of everything from food to drugs
to cars has shown Freeman to be wrong and Deliberator to be right.
The bulk of Deliberator's letter is not a refutation of Freeman's letter,
though, but a list of the features of the Constitution that Deliberator, and
many other Anti-Federalists, objected to. These, along with commentary, are
· Congress may, even in time of peace, raise an army of 100,000
men, whom they may canton through the several states, and billet out on the
inhabitants, in order to serve as necessary instruments in executing their
Today's modern military would probably alarm even the most strident
Federalist, but our military evolved with time and most Americans cannot
imagine the world without a strong national military. The Anti-Federalist
concern about billeting, however, is addressed in the 3rd Amendment.
· Upon the inhabitants of any state proving refractory
to the will of Congress, or upon any other pretense whatsoever, Congress may
can out even all the militia of as many states as they think proper, and keep
them in actual service, without pay, as long as they please, subject to the
utmost rigor of military discipline, corporal punishment, and death itself not
History has shown some of this concern to be true — for example, when
the governor of Arkansas refused to implement a Supreme Court decision
regarding school desegregation, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal
troops and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to enforce the ruling. The
soldiers, however, were not unpaid, though they were subject to military
· Congress may levy and collect a capitation or poll
tax, to what amount they shall think proper; of which the poorest taxable in
the state must pay as much as the richest.
This is true — but the Congress has never imposed a direct
(capitation) tax, and with the ratification of the 16th Amendment, there seems to be little need to be
concerned with this point.
· Congress may, under the sanction of that clause in
the constitution which empowers them to regulate
commerce, authorize the importation of slaves, even into those states where
this iniquitous trade is or may be prohibited by their laws or
The Congress banned the importation of slaves as soon as it was
constitutionally able to do so, in 1808. No state was required to allow slaves
contrary to their own laws or constitutions, but the outcome of the Dred
Scott case illustrates that this concern was real.
· Congress may, under the sanction of that clause
which empowers them to lay and collect duties
(as distinct from imposts and excises) impose so heavy a stamp duty on
newspapers and other periodical publications, as shall effectually prevent all
necessary information to the people through these useful channels of
This was a real concern, especially considering the Stamp Act that the British has imposed on the colonies.
However, no such tax was ever implemented and with the ratification of the 1st Amendment, such a tax probably would have been
found unconstitutional by the courts.
· Congress may, by imposing a duty on foreigners
coming into the country, check the progress of its population. And after a few
years they may prohibit altogether, not only the emigration of foreigners into
our country, but also that of our own citizens to any other country.
Congress could effectively close the borders to immigration, and as a matter
of policy has strictly regulated the immigration of people from certain
countries for centuries — limitations that continue today. It is unlikely
that a ban on emigration would be upheld by the courts, however, given the
unenumerated right to travel.
· Congress may withhold, as long as they think proper,
all information respecting their proceedings from the people.
The Constitution requires that the Congress
keep journals and publish them "from time to time." The definition of "time to
time" might have allowed the publication of journals to be delayed for a long
time, but today, with the advent of computerized journals and the Internet,
"time to time" means no more than 24 hours.
· Congress may order the elections for members of
their own body, in the several states, to be held at what times, in what
places, and in what manner they shall think proper. Thus, in Pennsylvania, they
may order the elections to be held in the middle of winter, at the city of
Philadelphia; by which means the inhabitants of nine-tenths of the state will
be effectually (tho' constitutionally) deprived of the exercise of their right
Congress does have the power to alter state plans for time, place, and
manner of election, but the Congress does not micro-manage elections in this
way, though it has set a national date for elections. It is still possible that
the Congress could flex its muscle in this way, though it seems unlikely.
· Congress may, in their courts of judicature, abolish
trial by jury in civil cases altogether; and even in criminal cases, trial by a
jury of the vicinage is not secured by the constitution. A crime committed at
Fort Pitt may be tried by a jury of the citizens of Philadelphia.
These concerns were addressed by the 6th and
· Congress may, if they shall think it for the
"general welfare," establish an uniformity in religion throughout the United
States. Such establishments have been thought necessary, and have accordingly
taken place in almost all the other countries in the world, and will no doubt
be thought equally necessary in this.
· Though I believe it is not generally so understood,
yet certain it is, that Congress may emit paper money, and even make it a legal
tender throughout the United States; and, what is still worse, may, after it
shall have depreciated in the hands of the people, call it in by taxes, at any
rate of depreciation (compared with gold and silver) which they may think
proper. For though no state can emit bills of credit, or pass any law impairing
the obligation of contracts, yet the Congress themselves are under no
constitutional restraints on these points.
The federal government does, indeed, print paper money. This fiat currency,
money which has no intrinsic value in and of itself, is a concern of many even
today. However, relying on a gold or silver standard was not a viable economic
solution either. While it cannot be said that we have evolved the best possible
system of economics and monetary policy, the system in place today does lead to
a stable currency and economy.
· The number of
representatives which shall compose the principal branch of Congress is so
small as to occasion general complaint. Congress, however, have no power to
increase the number of representatives, but may reduce it even to one fifth
part of the present arrangement.
The concern here is that the number of representatives in the House could
not exceed one for every thirty thousand — that there could be one for
every hundred thousand, but not one for every ten or twenty thousand. Today,
this seems almost quaint, since the rate of representation is now about one for
every 650,000. The number of representatives is fixed at 435, but that number
can be revised by Congress. Most Americans, however, would find little use for
more members of Congress. At the rate of one for every thirty thousand, today
we would have over nine thousand representatives in the House.
· On the other hand, no state can call forth its
militia even to suppress any insurrection or domestic violence which may take
place among its own citizens. This power is, by the constitution, vested in
The power of a state to quell insurrection within its own borders is not
precluded by the Constitution. This power is a concurrent one, one which both
the state and federal governments can exercise.
· No state can compel one of its own citizens to pay a
debt due to a citizen of a neighboring state. Thus a Jersey-man will be unable
to recover the price of a turkey sold in the Philadelphia market, if the
purchaser shall be inclined to dispute, without commencing an action in one of
the federal courts.
This is true — such an interstate case must be brought and heard in a
federal court. By the framers, however, this was seen as a protection, and not
a violation of a right. The thought was that the New Jersey courts would be
inherently biased against the Pennsylvania purchaser. This has become a bigger
issue in the Internet age, as parties in a dispute could be widely separated
geographically. A tactic of some large corporations is to sue small companies
or individuals in courts they are no capable of attending without great
expense, the point being to extract a settlement prior to trial. The ability to
sue in state courts across state lines would not solve this problem,
· No state can encourage its own manufactures either
by prohibiting or even laying a duty on the importation of foreign
This is true — but the reason was an eminently practical one. Without
a uniform system for tariff and duty, importers would have had to contend with
thirteen different sets of regulations, which is the way things worked under
the Articles of Confederation. This was almost
universally seen as one of the great defects of the Articles.
· No state can give relief to insolvent debtors,
however distressing their situation may be, since Congress will have the
exclusive right of establishing uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies
throughout the United States; and the particular states are expressly
prohibited from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts.
This was true then and is still true, though states could, if they wished,
pass laws that provided funds for debtors to help pay back debt — not
that they likely would, but they could. The primacy of contracts and their
inviolability by the government, state or federal, is a key feature of the
Constitution. Its historical effect on the economy is certainly debatable, but
the assurance of both parties to a contract that the government cannot relieve
either of its terms has a stabilizing effect, not the opposite.