The debates waged between those who supported the Constitution and those who opposed it began almost immediately after the Constitution was finished in September, 1787. Understanding the issues debated and what opportunities and challenges the two general sides each perceived is essential to understanding the early years of the Republic. Beyond that, concerns raised by Antifederalists, far from being relics of the late 18th Century, are in many cases surprisingly relevant to American political debate over the last two-plus centuries, and are often immediately relevant to political and policy differences seen in the early 21st Century.
Therefore, instead of viewing the Federalist-Antifederalist Debates only as an event that took place at a point in history – and important to understanding affairs and actions of that time – it is useful to recognize that they were, in many ways, firm expressions of different views on what American republicanism and democracy could and should look like, and what it should and should not do in the lives of individuals and the affairs of the states. In short, it was the opening round in a discussion, or debate, over what American government is and should be – a debate we are still very much engaged in today.
This exhibit provides easy access for those teachers who need to present these events as part of a history, government, or civics course. For all teachers, the Introduction essays are useful to establishing the context in which these debates took place, and especially for describing the varied positions and arguments of the Antifederalists. For the government or civics teacher, the Essentials lists are especially useful, narrowing the massive lists of potential readings to the most impactful ones. Additionally, the Purpose, Powers, and Structure of Government page helps to compare Federalist and Antifederalist ideas over specific issues, making both more accessible, and easily aligned alongside one another. The Legacy of the Antifederalists also provides clear examples and analysis of connections between Antifederalist ideas and their impact over time.
Finally, for the history teacher, the Essentials lists and the page about Federalists and Antifederalists debating a Bill of Rights is particularly useful, given the cause-effect relationship between the various interests across the states and the priorities of the new government once it was formed in 1789.
The years were 1787 and 1788. Along with the debate taking place within state governments, an “out-of-doors” debate raged in newspapers and pamphlets throughout America’s thirteen states following the Constitutional Convention over the proposed new government. Although these debates helped decide the fate of the Constitution, and are therefore informative to the student of American History and political history, many of the issues debated are still surprisingly relevant
- Timeline of the Debates – Chronological
- Timeline – Chronological By State
- The Six Stages of the Ratification of the Constitution, 1787-1788
- Essential Antifederalists
- Timeline of Antifederalist Writings
- The Legacy of the Antifederalists
- Collections of Selected Antifederalist Writings
The Federalist-Antifederalists by Topic
This exhibit was originally prepared by Professor Gordon Lloyd, Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center, and expert on the Constitutional Convention, American Founding, and Bill of Rights. Jeremy Gypton, Teacher Programs Manager at Teaching American History, refurbished and revised the exhibit in early 2022.