The Anti-Federalists opposed the ratification of the 1787 U.S. Constitution because they feared that the new national government would be too powerful and thus threaten individual liberties, given the absence of a bill of rights.
Their opposition was an important factor leading to the adoption of the First Amendment and the other nine amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.
The Constitution, drafted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, needed to be ratified by nine or more state conventions (and by all states that wanted to take part in the new government). A clash erupted over ratification, with the Anti-Federalists opposing the creation of a strong national government and rejecting ratification and the Federalists advocating a strong union and adoption of the Constitution.
Anti-Federalists were concerned about excessive power of national government
The Anti-Federalists included small farmers and landowners, shopkeepers, and laborers. When it came to national politics, they favored strong state governments, a weak central government, the direct election of government officials, short term limits for officeholders, accountability by officeholders to popular majorities, and the strengthening of individual liberties. In terms of foreign affairs, they were pro-French.
To combat the Federalist campaign, the Anti-Federalists published a series of articles and delivered numerous speeches against ratification of the Constitution.
The independent writings and speeches have come to be known collectively as The Anti-Federalist Papers, to distinguish them from the series of articles known as The Federalist Papers, written in support of the new constitution by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the pseudonym Publius.
Although Patrick Henry, Melancton Smith, and others eventually came out publicly against the ratification of the Constitution, the majority of the Anti-Federalists advocated their position under pseudonyms. Nonetheless, historians have concluded that the major Anti-Federalist writers included Robert Yates (Brutus), most likely George Clinton (Cato), Samuel Bryan (Centinel), and either Melancton Smith or Richard Henry Lee (Federal Farmer).
By way of these speeches and articles, Anti-Federalists brought to light issues of:
- the excessive power of the national government at the expense of the state government;
- the disguised monarchic powers of the president;
- apprehensions about a federal court system;
- fears that Congress might seize too many powers under the necessary and proper clause;
- concerns that republican government could not work in a land the size of the United States;
- and their most successful argument against the adoption of the Constitution — the lack of a bill of rights to protect individual liberties.
Anti-Federalists pressured for adoption of Bill of Rights
The Anti-Federalists failed to prevent the adoption of the Constitution, but their efforts were not entirely in vain.
Although many Federalists initially argued against the necessity of a bill of rights to ensure passage of the Constitution, they promised to add amendments to it specifically protecting individual liberties. Upon ratification, James Madison introduced twelve amendments during the First Congress in 1789. The states ratified ten of these, which took effect in 1791 and are known today collectively as the Bill of Rights.
Although the Federalists and Anti-Federalists reached a compromise that led to the adoption of the Constitution, this harmony did not filter into the presidency of George Washington.
Political division within the cabinet of the newly created government emerged in 1792 over fiscal policy. Those who supported Alexander Hamilton’s aggressive policies formed the Federalist Party, while those who supported Thomas Jefferson’s view opposing deficit spending formed the Jeffersonian Party.
The latter party, led by Jefferson and James Madison, became known as the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party, the precursor to the modern Democratic Party.
Election of Jefferson repudiated the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts
The Democratic-Republican Party gained national prominence through the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1801.
This election is considered a turning point in U.S. history because it led to the first era of party politics, pitting the Federalist Party against the Democratic-Republican Party. This election is also significant because it served to repudiate the Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts — which made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and criminalized oral or written criticisms of the government and its officials — and it shed light on the importance of party coalitions.
In fact, the Democratic-Republican Party proved to be more dominant due to the effective alliance it forged between the Southern agrarians and Northern city dwellers.
The election of James Madison in 1808 and James Monroe in 1816 further reinforced the importance of the dominant coalitions within the Democratic-Republican Party.
With the death of Alexander Hamilton and retirement of John Quincy Adams from politics, the Federalist Party disintegrated.
After the War of 1812 ended, partisanship subsided across the nation. In the absence of the Federalist Party, the Democratic-Republican Party stood unchallenged. The so-called Era of Good Feelings followed this void in party politics, but it did not last long. Some scholars continue to see echoes of the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates in modern party politics.
This article was originally published in 2009. Mitzi Ramos is an Instructor of Political Science at Northeastern Illinois University.