Federalists and Anti-Federalists

All: fair warning, this is one of those long posts (some will say “What else is new?”), but it might be worth reading. A week or so ago, I posted that the terms Republican and Democrat, as a proper definition of identity for the parties was no longer meaningful, therefore no longer operative. I proposed a better naming might be a return to Federalist and Anti-Federalist.

In the wake of that post, I received inquiries about what that meant and who these groups were – as a result, I threw some information together and shared it with them, I thought it might be informative to share here. It’s sort of a Reader’s Digest look at the two factions that played a defining role in what our newborn nation was to become. Here it is:

There were two distinct groups bearing the Federalist moniker. One refers to the group that supported a strong central government (little “f” federalists), the other was the Federalist Party (big “F” Federalists) that was formed in opposition to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans during the presidency of George Washington.

They both chose the “federalist” moniker because it implied a commitment to a loose, decentralized system of government – which seems contrary to their belief in a strong central authority – but that strong central authority was conceived to cover a limited and distinct set of issues common to all the states, not an overweening, all-powerful central government. Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution specifically lists powers prohibited to the states, which are limited and specific, and the 10th Amendment states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” which are expansive.

There was significant disagreement as the country struggled with how to blend the independence of the former colonies (which became the first states) with the need for a central authority that spoke for all states, causing a clash in 1788 over ratification of the Constitution by several state conventions. In this fight, the Federalists were the supporters who battled for a strong union and the adoption of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who fought against the creation of a stronger national government and sought to leave the predecessor of the new Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, intact.

The Federalists were the owners of significant property in the North, conservative small farmers and businessmen, wealthy merchants, clergymen, judges, lawyers, and professionals. They favored such aspects of governance as weaker state governments, a strong centralized government, the indirect election of government officials, longer term limits for officeholders, and representative, rather than direct, democracy.

Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay are responsible for the 85 articles published in support of the ratification of the new Constitution, collectively known as the Federalist Papers. Some would say that James Madison was not truly a federalist, but I disagree because some of the most influential of these articles were penned by him, especially Federalist #51. Madison’s true worth would be proven later as he became the practical side to Jefferson’s idea factory of a mind. In my opinion, I doubt either man would have become as important without the other as a counterbalance.

I personally include #10, #46, #51, and #68 on my most significant list of the Federalist Papers.

The Anti-Federalists (perhaps the most prominent was Patrick Henry, although these men chose to write under pseudonyms), who opposed the ratification of the Constitution, did so 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. They are primarily responsible for the addition of the first 10 Amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights.

An important point to note is that the Bill of Rights is not an enumeration of individual rights, it is a list of things the federal government may NOT do to individual citizens and the several states, essentially a charter of negative rights.

The Anti-Federalists were mostly the small farmers and landowners, shopkeepers, and laborers. 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.

They published the Anti-Federalist papers, articles which opposed the new Constitution. Patrick Henry and Melancton Smith (no relation, unfortunately) came out publicly against the ratification of the Constitution (and later, some others), but most who advocated their positions chose to do so anonymously by writing under pseudonyms. Historians have generally concluded that the major Anti-Federalist writers included Robert Yates (Brutus), possibly (most likely) George Clinton (Cato), Samuel Bryan (Centinel), and either Melancton Smith or Richard Henry Lee (Federal Farmer).

The new Constitution was signed by 39 of the 55 delegates on September 17, 1787 (Patrick Henry did not sign because he did not see the need for a new constitution). George Washington was a signatory as part of the Virginia delegation (Madison was abroad on a diplomatic mission) and since he became the first president (from 1789 to 1797), Washington was the first president who signed the Constitution.

George Washington was not technically a Federalist (big “F”), never actually being publicly recognized as a member of that group – he warned against the dangers of factions (i.e. political parties) but he also saw the manifest weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. He was an admirer of Hamilton and was a facilitator of getting the first six of the Federalist papers published after Madison sent them to him and identified himself as their author.

Did the Federalists accomplish their goals? To a great degree, yes. We owe the three co-equal branches of our federal government to them – but to avoid the possibility of a second convention, they did agree to the Anti-Federalists’ call for a Bill of Rights, which the Federalists deemed unnecessary. The Federalist position was that there were too many individual rights to name and to try would result in some being excluded – the Anti-Federalists were afraid the lack of specific enumerated limits on government through a Bill of Rights would lead to an all-powerful government. Even with the addition of a Bill of Rights, the imprimatur of the federalist ideals was there because, as noted, the B of R is an accounting of negative rights, not positive rights. It bestows upon no citizen any rights, merely codifying a list of things the government shall not abridge, restrict, or eliminate. It would be helpful to us today if more people understood that concept – that “shall not” means “not just no, Hell no”.

If you take a look at the founding principles of America – the text of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, you will notice three things.

First you will notice that they are short. The Constitution, the founding document of our Republic, contains 4,543 words, the Declaration has 1,458. If you figure an average of 500 words to an 8.5 X 11 page, that is 9 pages for the former and 3 for the latter. The key foundational documents for creation and governance of our Republic total 12 pages.

Secondly, you will notice that these documents are very direct and specific about the limits of the power of the federal government, employing words like “shall make no law” and my personal favorite, “no”.

The last thing you will notice is that they are written in clear, succinct, common language, designed to be understood by the common man. It was not even necessary for a colonist to be able to read, these words were easy to recite and comprehend because they are based on natural laws and natural laws are like gravity – it does not matter if you agree with them or even understand them, they still apply equally to everyone.

The Federalist Papers are perhaps as important as the Constitution itself (if not more so) because they explain the intent of the authors of the Constitution. They give us a window into how the originators of our entire system of governance thought it was intended to function, and beyond that, they warn us about how the Constitution may be abused, corrupted, and usurped – much of which was ignored and has resulted in the situations we find ourselves in today. More and more, the Anti-Federalists’ positions have gained salience and validity, for many of the issues that concerned them have come about.

Talk Amongst Yourselves:

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