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The Federalist-Antifederalist Debate

After the Constitutional Convention finalized a plan of government in September 1787,  a long public debate began. Each state would call its own convention to deliberate and vote whether to ratify the new Constitution. In the meantime, opponents of the Constitution aired their objections in essays published in major newspapers and circulated in pamphlets; those supporting the new plan did the same, most famously in the collection of essays (coauthored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, but appearing under the shared pseudonym Publius) called The Federalist.

Today, scholars regard The Federalist as the most thorough exposition of our Constitutional form of government ever written, and students of politics continually mine these essays for insights into the problems representative government must overcome if it is to survive. But the arguments of the antifederalist writers are also worth examining, since they spell out some very practical worries facing those who had to decide whether to ratify the Constitution. Moreover, it is easier grasp the ingenuity of the arguments made in The Federalist if one is familiar with the other side of the debate.

Below are a selection of antifederalist and federalist documents that students might consider in whole or in part. (For suggestions on ways to excerpt and examine key portions of these documents, including plans for dividing the task among various study groups, consider this lesson plan written by Ashland University Professor Christopher Burkett and West Virginia high school teacher Patricia Dillon: The Federalist and Anti-federalist Debates on Diversity and the Extended Republic (2 Lessons). The unit includes an interesting role playing exercise that allows students to test the federalist arguments about legislative factions.)

On the Antifederalist side of the ratification debate:

Brutus No. 1, October 18, 1787: Consolidating the states under one unified government will lead either to despotism or anarchy, Brutus says, citing the political philosopher Montesquieu. Either the government will fall apart because the representatives split into many factions, or a single wealthy person will seize an opportunity to dominate everyone else. Law enforcement will be difficult because of the distance and time separating the seat of government from the furthest states, leading either to anarchy, or the forcible execution of the law by military means.

Brutus No. 4, November 29, 1787:  Support for federal law will be lacking because of the diversity of interests among the people of various regions and because those making laws will deliberate at a distance from their constituents and not be personally known to or trusted by them.http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/federal-farmer-ii/, October 9, 1787: A powerful central government would favor the states near the seat of government and disadvantage the “remote states,” who could not adequately represent their interests.

The Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee) No. 2, October 9, 1787: A powerful central government would favor the states near the seat of government and disadvantage the “remote states,” who could not adequately represent their interests.

On the Federalist side:

Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 9: Hamilton gives another interpretation of Montesquieu, countering the argument in Brutus No. 1 that large republics soon break down into anarchy or yield to despotism.

James Madison, The Federalist No. 10: Madison says that one may hope a small number of representatives drawn from a large population will be more likely to legislate with a mind to the general public good than would those who represent fewer people. But in cases where representatives stubbornly pursue factional interests, the combination of representatives of many different interests will prevent any particular faction from getting the upper hand.

James Madison, The Federalist No. 51: Madison’s long discussion here covers both the danger that one part of the government (legislative, executive, or judicial) will dominate over another and the danger that within the legislature, a majority faction will suppress the rights of a minority. He outlines the safest way of dividing the three powers and then elaborates his argument in No. 10 that the multiplicity of factions represented in the central government will prevent a single faction from dominating.

 

 

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