Hindsight is 20/20 – Federalists, Anti-federalists and our Current National Predicament

By: J. Dale Weaver, M.Div., M.A.

January 11, 2021

When the United States won its independence from Great Britain in 1783, we began to govern ourselves by “The Articles of Confederation.” The Second Continental Congress had constructed the document in 1777, in hopes that they would actually get to govern themselves after the war. It was anything but certain in 1777. But, with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, since most of the major fighting was over, the Articles went into effect….

And they were pretty much a disaster. At least in the eyes of — well, the majority of Americans. There was only one branch of Government, the Legislature. They could not raise an army, levy a tax, nor amend the Articles without ALL 13 States approving the change (which was never going to happen). Each state had separate currencies, laws, rules, regulations… If you traveled from South Carolina to Massachusetts in 1778, you would have to exchange your money a half-dozen times or more, at every State border, just to do business…. And, each state levied fees for the exchange, of course. Business was almost impossible across State lines. Farmers were hurt the worst — many lost their farms, which actually led to a rebellion in Massachusetts.

It was time for a change — or so the majority thought. Even those who wished to retain the Articles, knew they needed amending. But two groups formed, with two different philosophies, as to what kind of Government SHOULD be formed to succeed the “Articles of Confederation.”

Eventually, in 1787, the States agreed they had to do something, so they agreed to send delegates to Philadelphia to “fix” the Articles. Some of our Founders bitterly criticized the conference, and those who attended, saying it was an attempt to build a national government that would run roughshod over the States just like Britain had…. Hmmm…

Of course, the document that came out of that Philadelphia Convention — was the United States Constitution. But the argument had just started. They didn’t just offer a “fix” to the Articles, they offered a complete replacement, with a Federal Government, which would have certain powers delegated to it by the States, over which they would have supreme authority. And the States had to “ratify” the Constitution in their Legislatures. It could only go into effect AFTER nine of the thirteen States passed it….

That took two years. And the intellectual and philosophical battle lines were drawn. Those who’d introduces the proposed Constitution, and who supported its ratification, were called “Federalists.” Those who opposed the Constitution, and did not want a “strong” national government, were called “Anti-federalists.” And neither group was without its giants among the Founders,

Among the most prominent Federalists were George Washington, Ben Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Some of the most prominent Anti-federalists were Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason and George Clinton.

During this two year period, men from each of these groups wrote essays supporting their positions, or attacking the arguments of the other side. Of course, the side that eventually “won,” the Federalists, became the most popular and widely read. In fact, “The Federalist Papers” is still an essential document if one really wants to understand what the Founders desired of, and meant for, the Constitution to be. “The Anti-federalist Papers” have also been preserved, though they are not as widely read — and that’s a real shame. I’ll tell you why.

Once the Constitution went to the States for ratification, most of the Legislatures were not interested. There were far more Anti-Federalists than Federalists. They had a number of complaints, but their main issues were that the document nowhere explicitly protected the liberties of individuals, nor the rights of the individual States. Alexander Hamilton snidely dismissed the concern (yeah — I don’t care much for Hamilton), simply saying, “the Federal Government nowhere is charged with effecting any of those things, so there is no reason for their protection from a Federal Government.”

The Anti-Federalists were: “Yeah. Right. Sure.”

James Madison, however, understanding the concerns of the Anti-Federalists in the States, made a deal with them. He proposed that, if the States would ratify the Constitution, the very first act he would offer for passage in the new Congress, would be a “Bill of Rights,” which would amend the Constitution to specifically protect individual liberties and States Rights. With these assurances, nine States ratified the Constitution. True to his word, Madison proposed 12 Amendments to the Constitution in September, 1789, which were approved and sent out to the States for ratification. In 1791, ten of those Amendments were passed by nine States, and the “Bill of Rights” became “law.”

Now, having said all that, it is worthy of note that many of the Anti-federalists still did not like the Constitution. Sam Adams, Patrick Henry — these guys were hard core. Oh, they didn’t raise a rebellion. They accepted the fact that their countrymen had chosen this path, and they would follow along with them, as the loyal opposition. However, they never repented of their opposition to the “Federal Government,” saying that the Constitution would not matter. They were convinced that when a central government fell into the hands of “designing men,” that the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights would provide protection against their usurpation of power for their own gain.

A few days ago, I heard a scholar and sometimes pundit make the statement that “the Anti-federalists were right, all along. Everything they warned us would happened, has happened, and is happening.

Yes. Yes they were. And yes, it is. And that is why Americans should read BOTH the Federalist AND the Anti-federalist Papers.
– JDW


AUTHORS NOTE: In the American History classes I teach, students ARE assigned to read a selection of BOTH the Federalist and Anti-federalist papers. It should be required reading for all Americans.


c. 2021, all rights reserved.

Published by jdaleweaver

J. Dale Weaver, M.Div., M.A., has been an ordained Minister for over 32 years, and a College Lecturer in History and Religion for over 22 years.

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