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Introduction to the Antifederalists

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Why the name Antifederalist?

Who were the Antifederalists and what did they stand for? The name, Antifederalists, captures both an attachment to certain political principles as well as standing in favor and against trends that were appearing in late 18th century America. It will help in our understanding of who the Antifederalists were to know that in 1787, the word “federal” had two meanings. One was universal, or based in principle, and the other was particular and specific to the American situation.

The first meaning of “federal” stood for a set of governmental principles that was understood over the centuries to be in opposition to national or consolidated principles. Thus the Articles of Confederation was understood to be a federal arrangement: Congress was limited to powers expressly granted, the states qua states were represented equally regardless of the size of their population, and the amending of the document required the unanimous consent of the state legislatures. A national or consolidated arrangement by contrast suggested a considerable relaxing of the constraints on what the union could and could not do along with a conscious diminution in the centrality of the states in the structure of the arrangement as well as the alteration of the binding document.

The second meaning of “federal” had a particular American character. In the 1780s, those folks who wanted a firmer and more connected union became known as federal men. People like George Washington., Gouverneur Morris, James Madison., Alexander Hamilton., and James Wilson. were known as federal men who wanted a firmer federal, or even national, union. And those people like Patrick Henry., Richard Henry Lee., George Clinton., Melancton Smith., and Roger Sherman., who opposed or who raised doubts about the merits of a firmer and more energetic union acquired the name of antifederal men who opposed an inclination to strengthen the ties of Union with a focus on centralized direction.

In the rough and tumble of American politics, the name by which one is known is often not of one’s own doing. The Antifederalists would have preferred to be known as democratic republicans or federal republicans, but they acquired the name antifederal, or Anti-federal, or Antifederal as a result of the particular events of American history. If we turn to principles to define what they stood for, the content of their position was what was known in history as an attachment to federal principles: a commitment to local government and limited general government, frequent elections and rotation in office, and to writing things down because our liberties are safer as a result.

Put differently, the actual name “Antifederalists” did not exist before 1782. It is a 1780s American contribution to the enduring American issue of what should government do, which level of government should do it, and which branch of which level should do it. This “problem in nomenclature” has led scholars over the ages to suggest, we think unfortunately, that the pro-constitutional nationalists like Madison. and Hamilton., actually consciously “stole” the name Federalist for propaganda purposes to improve their chances of persuading the electorate and the delegates to the ratifying conventions to adopt the Constitution. Rhetoric, both on behalf of, and in restraint of, the role of the federal government, is built into the very fabric of the American system. And the controversy over the name “Antifederalist” reflects that inherent quarrel.

Matching up the Antifederalist essays with The Federalist essays

There were no three Antifederalists who got together in New York, or Richmond, and said, “Let’s write 85 essays in which we argue that the Constitution should be either rejected or modified before adoption.” Thus, in contrast to the pro-Constitution advocates, there is no one book——like The Federalist (Papers)——to which the modern reader can turn to and say, “Here’s The Antifederalist (Papers).” Their work is vast and varied and, for the most part, uncoordinated.

There is thus a sense in which The Federalist makes our understanding of the American Founding relatively easy: here is the one place to go to get the authoritative account of the Constitution. One purpose of this website is to recover the arguments of the opposition. This recovery is based on a) a conversation that took place over several years and in which no blood was spilled, and b) the views of the Antifederalists, which are deeply embodied in the Constitution and the American tradition. The Antifederalists, as we argue in the section on the Antifederalist Legacy, are still very much alive and well in 21st century America.

An attempt to create an imaginary The Antifederalist Papers, to put along side The Federalist Papers for comparison purposes, is actually doing two contrary things: a) creating an impression that this specific Federalist paper matches up with that specific Antifederalist paper and b) capturing the worthwhile and accurate fact that a conversation of vital importance took place and both sides did address the concerns of the other side. The Timeline encourages the reader to see the following interplay: the pro-constitutional Caesar essays were responded to by the Antifederalist Brutus and Cato essays and these in turn were responded to with the launching of the essays by Publius that became The Federalist Papers in 1788. And this sort of interplay continues throughout the ratification process.

In certain places, as we show in the Brutus entries in the Essential Antifederalist section, one can certainly match up several Antifederalist essays with essential essays in The Federalist. The Antifederalists, as Herbert Storing has correctly suggested, criticized the Constitution and The Federalist criticized the Antifederalists. It makes sense, on the whole, however, to argue that the conversation took place at the founding at a thematic level rather than try to portray a conversation that took place at an individual specific essay-by-specific-essay level.

As the Timeline indicates, the Antifederalists were active in their opposition to the adoption of the Constitution even before the signing on September 17, 1787. And by November and December, they were actually winning the out-of-doors debate at least in terms of the sheer number of newspapers who carried their message in the key states of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. And if we take a look at the Six Stages of Ratification table, we can see the impact of their pamphlet war on the selection of the delegates in these three key states.

Three Kinds of Antifederalists

There are three kinds of Antifederalists, but each voice is an important one in the creation and adoption of the Constitution and the subsequent unfolding of American politics. For a more detailed analysis of the coherence and relevance of the Antifederalists, see the link entitled The Legacy of the Antifederalists.

The first kind is represented by politicians such as Roger Sherman. and Oliver Ellsworth. of Connecticut. They entered the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with a suspicious disposition toward the Virginia Plan and its attempt to give sweeping powers to Congress and to reduce the role of the states in the new American system. This first group achieved considerable success in modifying this national plan back in the direction of federal principles. Thus, in the final document, the powers of Congress are listed, each state is represented equally in the Senate and composed of Senators elected by the state legislatures, the president is to be elected by a majority of the people plus a majority of the states, the Constitution is to be ratified by the people of nine states, and the Constitution is to amended by 2/3 of the House plus 2/3 of the Senate plus 3/4 of the state legislatures. Put differently, Sherman. and Ellsworth. secured the federal principles in the very Constitution itself and thus the Constitution is actually partly national and partly federal. In the end, Sherman. and Ellsworth. supported the adoption of the Constitution and thus secured the presence of the Antifederalist position in the American tradition.

The second kind of Antifederalist is one who was not privy to the debate in Philadelphia, and has some deep concerns about the POTENTIALITY of the Constitution to lead to the concentration of power in the new government. We are talking about people such as Melancton Smith, Abraham Yates (Brutus), and George Clinton in New York, Richard Henry Lee (Federal Farmer) in Virginia, Samuel Bryant (Centinel) in Pennsylvania, and John Winthrop (Agrippa) in Massachusetts. They warned that without certain amendments, including a bill of rights that stated clearly what the new government could and could not do, the new Constitution had the POTENTIALITY to generate a consolidated government over a large territory in which one of the branches of government——the Presidency and the Judiciary were the leading candidates——would come to dominate. They warned that the partly national and partly federal Constitution would veer naturally in the direction of wholly national unless certain precautions were put in place to secure the partly-national and partly-federal arrangement. These Antifederalists are the ones we have included in our selection of the Essential Antifederalists on this website. Although we have to knit together their position from a number of sources, and although the Constitution was unconditionally ratified, their views entered the amended Constitution by way of James Madison and the First Congress.

The third and final group of Antifederalists was those who wanted as little deviation from the Articles as possible and saw the partly-national and partly-federal compromise as totally unsustainable. The arrangement was doomed to produce a wholly national outcome unless radical amendments were secured that altered and abolished the very structure and powers that the Framers took four months to erect. Ratifying delegates like Patrick Henry come to mind; he deliberately made a nuisance of himself at the Virginia Ratifying Convention disrupting the orderly process of debates at will. George Mason and Elbridge Gerry also come to mind. They started off as warm supporters of a stronger national government but within twelve months had become open opponents of even the friendly amendments proposed by the second type of Antifederalist. Within this third type of Antifederalist, we would also include Philadelphia delegates Luther Martin, John Lansing, Robert Yates, and John Mercer. We have not included them in the Essential Antifederalist listings. Their legacy, as we have tried to capture in The Antifederalist Legacy, is probably to be found in the Calhoun movement in favor of secession from the American founding.

So I would argue, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, that while The Federalist Papers are among the best essays ever written on representative government, they would not be as good as they are, or as many essays as there are, if it were not for the persistent critique of the Antifederalists who helped define the American conversation over what should government do, which level of government should do it, and which branch of that level of government should do it. Those questions are what the Essential Antifederalists bring to the conversation.