THE ANTI-FEDERALISTS

Opponents of ratification, called Anti-Federalists, insisted that the Constitution shifted the balance between liberty and power too far in the direction of the latter. Anti-Federalists lacked the coherent leadership of the Constitution’s defenders. They included state politicians fearful of seeing their influence diminish, among them such revolutionary heroes as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry. Small farmers, many of whom supported the state debtor-relief measures of the 1780s that the Constitution’s supporters deplored, also saw no need for a stronger central government. Some opponents of the Constitution denounced the document’s protections for slavery; others warned that the powers of Congress were so broad that it might enact a law for abolition.

Anti-Federalists repeatedly predicted that the new government would fall under the sway of merchants, creditors, and others hostile to the interests of ordinary Americans. Repudiating Madison’s arguments in Federalist nos. 10 and 51, Anti-Federalists insisted that “a very extensive territory cannot be governed on the principles of freedom.” Popular self-government, they claimed, flourished best in small communities, where rulers and ruled interacted daily. Only men of wealth, “ignorant of the sentiments of the middling and lower class of citizens,” would have the resources to win election to a national government. The result of the Constitution, warned Melancton Smith of New York, a member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, would be domination of the “common people” by the “wellborn.” “This,” Smith predicted, “will be a government of oppression.”

Liberty was the Anti-Federalists’ watchword. America’s happiness, they insisted, “arises from the freedom of our institutions and the limited nature of our government,” both threatened by the new Constitution. Maryland Anti-Federalists had caps manufactured bearing the word “Liberty,” to wear to the polls when members of the state’s ratification convention were elected. To the vision of the United States as an energetic great power, Anti-Federalists counterposed a way of life grounded in local, democratic institutions. “What is Liberty?” asked James Lincoln of South Carolina. “The power of governing yourselves. If you adopt this constitution, have you this power? No.”

Anti-Federalists also pointed to the Constitution’s lack of a Bill of Rights, which left unprotected rights such as trial by jury and freedom of speech and the press. The absence of a Bill of Rights, declared Patrick Henry, was “the most absurd thing to mankind that ever the world saw.” State constitutions had bills of rights, yet the states, Henry claimed, were now being asked to surrender most of their powers to the federal government, with no requirement that it respect Americans’ basic liberties.

In New York City’s Grand Federal Procession of 1788, celebrating the ratification of the Constitution, members of each trade and occupation marched together. This document illustrates the variety of crafts in the pre-industrial city.

From David Ramsay,

The History of the American Revolution (1789)

A member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina, David Ramsay published his history of the Revolution the year after the Constitution was ratified. In this excerpt, he lauds the principles of representative government and the right of future amendment, embodied in the state constitutions and adopted in the national one, as unique American political principles and the best ways of securing liberty.

The world has not hitherto exhibited so fair an opportunity for promoting social happiness. It is hoped for the honor of human nature, that the result will prove the fallacy of those theories that mankind are incapable of self-government. The ancients, not knowing the doctrine of representation, were apt in their public meetings to run into confusion, but in America this mode of taking the sense of the people, is so well understood, and so completely reduced to system, that its most populous states are often peaceably convened in an assembly of deputies, not too large for orderly deliberation, and yet representing the whole in equal proportion. These popular branches of legislature are miniature pictures of the community, and from their mode of election are likely to be influenced by the same interests and feelings with the people whom they represent...

In no age before, and in no other country, did man ever possess an election of the kind of government, under which he would choose to live. The constituent parts of the ancient free governments were thrown together by accident. The freedom of modern European governments was, for the most part, obtained by concessions, or liberality of monarchs, or military leaders. In America alone, reason and liberty concurred in the formation of constitutions... In one thing they were all perfect. They left the people in the power of altering and amending them, whenever they pleased. In this happy peculiarity they placed the science of politics on a footing with the other sciences, by opening it to improvements from experience, and the discoveries of future ages. By means of this power of amending American constitutions, the friends of mankind have fondly hoped that oppression will one day be no more.

From James Winthrop, Anti-Federalist Essay Signed “Agrippa” (1787)

A local official in Middlesex, Massachusetts, James Winthrop published sixteen public letters between November 1787 and February 1788 opposing ratification of the Constitution.

It is the opinion of the ablest writers on the subject, that no extensive empire can be governed upon republican principles, and that such a government will degenerate into a despotism, unless it be made up of a confederacy of smaller states, each having the full powers of internal regulation. This is precisely the principle which has hitherto preserved our freedom. No instance can be found of any free government of considerable extent which has been supported upon any other plan. Large and consolidated empires may indeed dazzle the eyes of a distant spectator with their splendor, but if examined more nearly are always found to be full of misery.... It is under such tyranny that the Spanish provinces languish, and such would be our misfortune and degradation, if we should submit to have the concerns of the whole empire managed by one empire. To promote the happiness of the people it is necessary that there should be local laws; and it is necessary that those laws should be made by the representatives of those who are immediately subject to [them]...

It is impossible for one code of laws to suit Georgia and Massachusetts. They must, therefore, legislate for themselves. Yet there is, I believe, not one point of legislation that is not surrendered in the proposed plan. Questions of every kind respecting property are determinable in a continental court, and so are all kinds of criminal causes. The continental legislature has, therefore, a right to make rules in all cases.... No rights are reserved to the citizens.... This new system is, therefore, a consolidation of all the states into one large mass, however diverse the parts may be of which it is composed....

A bill of rights... serves to secure the minority against the usurpation and tyranny of the majority.... The experience of all mankind has proved the prevalence of a disposition to use power wantonly. It is therefore as necessary to defend an individual against the majority in a republic as against the king in a monarchy.

QUESTIONS

1. Why does Ramsay feel that the power to amend the Constitution is so important a political innovation?

2. Why does Winthrop believe that a Bill of Rights is essential in the Constitution?

3. How do Ramsay and Winthrop differ concerning how the principle of representation operates in the United States?

In general, pro-Constitution sentiment flourished in the nation’s cities and in rural areas closely tied to the commercial marketplace. The Constitution’s most energetic supporters were men of substantial property. But what George Bryan of Pennsylvania, a supporter of ratification, called the “golden phantom” of prosperity also swung urban artisans, laborers, and sailors behind the movement for a government that would use its “energy and power” to revive the depressed economy. Anti-Federalism drew its support from small farmers in more isolated rural areas such as the Hudson Valley of New York, western Massachusetts, and the southern backcountry.

In the end, the supporters’ energy and organization, coupled with their domination of the colonial press, carried the day. Ninety-two newspapers and magazines existed in the United States in 1787. Of these, only twelve published a significant number of Anti-Federalist pieces. Madison also won support for the new Constitution by promising that the first Congress would enact a Bill of Rights. By mid-1788, the required nine states had ratified. Although there was strong dissent in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, only Rhode Island and North Carolina voted against ratification, and they subsequently had little choice but to join the new government. Anti-Federalism died. But as with other movements in American history that did not immediately achieve their goals—for example, the Populists of the late nineteenth century—some of the Anti-Federalists’ ideas eventually entered the political mainstream. To this day, their belief that a too-powerful central government is a threat to liberty continues to influence American political culture.

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