Essay Question # 7: Federalists v. Anti-Federalists
The Constitution of the United States is the system of fundamental laws of the United States of America. The Constitution was drawn up by 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 and ratified by the states in 1788. According to Professor Lowi, the Constitution was based on three principles of limitation: federalism–the “vertical” division of power, separation of powers-the “horizontal” division of power, and individual rights- the “concentric” division of power. However this ratification did not come without disgruntlement. The positions of the Federalists, those who supported the Constitution, and the anti-Federalists, those who opposed it, were printed and reprinted by scores of newspapers across the country. The Federalists often referred to the need for “much more energy, stability, and efficiency in the national government (Reader, p.7); and the Anti-Federalists “were apprehensive about unrestrained power, about the great risk of national consolidation rather than a true confederation.”(Reader, p.7) The Anti-Federalists and Federalists agreed on issues like governmental tyranny, individual rights, and political representation, but the opinions of both sides differed as to how those issues are applied to the nation; similar to that of today’s Democrats and Republicans.
The ratification debate was, in the end, a political debate. More narrowly it was a debate over the distribution of political power, more specifically, the threat of tyranny- the unjust rule by the group in power. Both sides acknowledged the existence of the individual states and the existence of the wider American republic. Just as the Federalists never entertained the notion of abolishing the states, the Anti-Federalists never denied the need for some type of unity between the states. But how power was to be shared between the two levels and how it was to flow amongst the two formed the basic disagreement between the two sides. “The Anti-Federalists was worried about the possibility that there will be a tendency of all governments to become gradually more and more aristocratic in character.”(Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir; p.102) This caused Anti-Federalists to become critical of those features of the Constitution that separated governmental institutions from direct responsibility to the people.
The Federalists on the other hand believed that the danger particularly associated with republican governments was not aristocracy, but instead, majority tyranny. They were concerned that a “popular majority, united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, would endeavor to trample on the rules of justice.”(Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir; p.102) The Federalists believed that it was precisely those features of the Constitution attacked as potential sources of tyranny by the Anti-Federalists that actually offered the best hope of averting the threat of oppression.
Almost all those involved in the debates surrounding the constitution agreed that the purpose of government was the regulation and protection of individual rights. They all looked to a limited, republican form of government, and had basic agreement over the nature of man and the ends of political life. The debate over the constitution was not over these basic tenants, but over how best to enact them. However, when the Federalists first completed the Constitution, it was left deeply flawed. It did not include a specific declaration of individual rights. It specified what the government could do but did not say what it could not do. For another, it did not apply to everyone. The “consent of the governed” meant propertied white men only. The Federalists opposed including a bill of rights on the ground that it was unnecessary.
On the other side, the Anti-Federalists were more avid about having a Bill of Rights. They did not want an ambiguous interpretation of individual rights that could not be clearly understood by the common man. They wanted specific absolute prohibitions imposed on what government would be allowed to do, written in plain language, meant to protect certain rights each of person possesses simply by virtue of being born a human being.
One major area of contention between both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was the question of representation. Both sides knew the importance of quality representation for the people. The Anti-Federalists asserted that representatives must be a “true picture of the people, possessing the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants.”(Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir; p.101) The Anti-Federalists argued that this could be achieved only in small, relatively homogenous republics such as existing states. “In their view, the size and extent of the entire nation precluded the construction of a truly representative form of government.”(Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir; p.101)
The Federalists saw no reason that representatives should be precisely like those they represented. “In the Federalists view, one of the great advantages of a representative government over a direct democracy was precisely the possibility that the people would choose as their representatives individuals possessing ability, experience, and talent superior to their own.”(Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir; p.101) They believed representatives must be those who possess the most wisdom to discern, and the most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.
The ways in which the political discourse of the Federalist and Anti-Federalists parallel that of today’s Republicans and Democrats is the enduring issues of conservatism and liberalism. The Federalists of the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and the Republicans of today have always tended to be a conservative group. These individuals in both eras prefer the traditional state and local levels of government, because “policies made at those levels have tended to favor owner over renter, employer over employee, higher status over lower, males over females, and, earlier, whites over people of color.”(Ginsberg,Lowi,Weir;p.652) This is the opposite for the Anti-Federalists and Democrats of today who tend to be more liberal. These individuals prefer to emphasize equality over liberty.