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Lesson 1:
Federalists Versus Antifederalists

From Lessons on the Federalist Papers: Supplements to
High School Courses in American History, Government, and Civics

© Stevens & Shea.
On September 17, 1787 the Constitutional Convention ended. Thirty-nine delegates, representing twelve of the thirteen United States of America (all except Rhode Island) signed the Constitution, which they had created during a long, hot summer in Philadelphia. They sent the proposed frame of government to Congress, the governing body of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

On September 28, Congress voted to send the proposed Constitution to the legislature of each state. Congress asked each state to convene a special convention, which would decide to approve (ratify) or reject the proposed Constitution. If nine states voted to ratify it, the Constitution of 1787 would become the supreme law of these United States.

On September 27, only ten days after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, a letter was printed in the New York Journal that sharply criticized the Constitution of 1787 and urged the people to reject it. The author used a pen name "Cato" to disguise his identity. Many New Yorkers, however, believed that their Governor, George Clinton, either wrote the "Cato" letter or influenced the person who did it.

On October 1, a reply to "Cato" was printed in the New York Daily Advertiser and signed "Caesar" - a pseudonym chosen by Alexander Hamilton, who had represented New York at the Constitutional Convention. He was disappointed in the Constitution created at Philadelphia, but Hamilton strongly preferred it to the existing alternative, the weak government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

The clash between "Cato" and "Caesar" in New York was an example of debates on the new nation's future that had been taking place throughout the United States during the 1780s. Americans argued about how to solve serious problems that threatened the survival of the United States. Would the Constitution of 1787 both strengthen the United States and preserve liberties of the people, which had been won through the recent War of Independence?

Supporters of the Constitution - such as "Caesar" - called themselves Federalists. Their opponents— "Cato" and others - were known as Antifederalists. What opinions on government divided the Federalists and Antifederalists?

What Ideas Separated the Federalists and Antifederalists?

Following is a brief and general discussion of a few main ideas of the Federalists and the Antifederalists.

Limited Government and the Rule of Law. Both Federalists and Antifederalists favored limited government and the rule of law; that is, they wanted a written constitution that restricted the powers of government officials - that indicated what they could and could not do under the law of the land. However, they disagreed about how much to limit the powers of government. Antifederalists tended to favor a weak government of the United States, such as Congress under the Articles of Confederation. They feared that a strong national government would threaten the rights of the people and their state governments. By contrast, Federalists wanted a national government that could act forcefully to maintain order, provide security, and guarantee liberty under law.

Republicanism and Federalism. Both Federalists and Antifederalists wanted a republic - government by representatives of the people acting for the people. Both groups also wanted federalism - a division of power between a central government and several state governments. However, the Antifederalists preferred the kind of federal republic established by the Articles of Confederation. In the Antifederalist definition of a federation (or confederation), the central government is only a creation of the states, who retain their sovereignty and independence of action. Antifederalists believed that state governments should have more powers and duties than the central government, because they are closer and more responsive to the people. By contrast, the Federalists favored a division and sharing of powers between state governments and a national government in which the national government is supreme within its own sphere of action. This means that state governments cannot defy or contradict laws or actions of the national government that are permitted by the Constitution. The Constitution of 1787 gave much more power to the government of the United States than it had under the Articles of Confederation. The Antifederalists favored states' rights and believed that the Constitution of 1787 gave too much power to the national government at the expense of the states. They believed that the Constitution of 1787 would create a consolidated government of the United States, in which the states would be greatly reduced in power and importance.

Popular Sovereignty. Both Federalists and Antifederalists wanted popular sovereignty - government by popular consent. However, Antifederalists believed that government by and for the people was best achieved by giving most powers of government to a legislature comprised of members elected by the people. Thus, they tended to support the Articles of Confederation, in which the Congress (national legislature) dominated the government. By contrast, the Federalists believed that power in the national government should be shared by legislative, executive, and judicial branches. They also believed that the people (eligible voters) should directly elect only members of one part of the legislative branch - the House of Representatives. Antifederalists feared that the Constitution of 1787 gave too much power to the executive branch at the expense of the other branches of government.

A Bill of Rights. Antifederalists criticized the Constitution, because it lacked a Bill of Rights to guarantee civil liberties of the people (freedom of speech and assembly, and so forth) against the powers of government officials. Federalists argued that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary, because the national government had only those powers granted to it in the Constitution. Thus, the government would not be able to deprive individuals of their basic civil liberties.

Identifying Federalist and Antifederalist Ideas

Examine statements in the following list. Can you distinguish the Federalist from the Antifederalist statements? Write the letter "F" in the space next to each statement that fits the Federalist position. Write the letters "AF" in the space next to each statement that expresses the Antifederalist position. Be prepared to give reasons for your answers.

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  1. . . . the absurdity must continually stare us in the face of confiding to a government the direction of the most essential national interests, without daring to trust to it the authorities which are indispensable to their proper and efficient management.
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  1. . . . - a federal government . . . ought to be clothed with all the powers requisite to complete execution of its trust.
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  1. Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.
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  1. We are now fixing a national consolidation.
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  1. This country should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.
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  1. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. . . . In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.
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  1. States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated National Government of the people of all the States.
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  1. The states should respectively have laws, courts, force, and revenues of their own sufficient for their own security; they ought to be fit to keep house alone if necessary; if this be not the case, or so far as it ceases to be so it is a departure from a federal to a consolidated government.
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  1. I am against inserting a declaration of rights in the Constitution. . . . If such an addition is not dangerous, it is at least unnecessary.
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  1. A bill of rights . . . serves to secure the minority against the usurpation and tyranny of the majority.
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  1. The . . . new form of government . . . declares a consolidation or union of all the thirteen parts, or states, into one great whole. . . It is an intuitive truth that a consolidated republican form of government [will lead] . . . into a monarchy, either limited or despotic.
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  1. The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.
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  1. In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite under the Confederation to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. It has happened as was to have been foreseen. The measures of the Union have not been executed; and the delinquencies of the States have step by step matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government and brought them to an awful stand.
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  1. . . . one government . . , never can extend equal benefits to all parts of the United States. Different laws, customs, and opinions exist in the different states, which by a uniform system of laws would be unreasonably invaded.
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  1. The number of the representatives [called for in the Constitution of 1787] appears to be too few, either to communicate the requisite information of the wants, local circumstances, and sentiments of so extensive an empire, or to prevent corruption and undue influence in the exigencies of such great powers.

Classifying Ideas of Federalists and Antifederalists

Use the preceding statements by Federalists and Antifederalists to answer the questions below.
  1. (a) What are five examples of the Antifederalist position on federalism—their views on how powers should or should not be divided between a central government and the states? (b) How did this position differ from that of the Federalists?
  2. (a) What is one example of the Antifederalist position on popular sovereignty? (b) How did this position differ from that of the Federalists?
  3. (a) What is one example of the Federalist position on a Bill of Rights? (b) How did this position differ from that of the Antifederalists?
  4. (a) What are five examples of the Federalist position on limited government and the rule of law? (b) How did this position differ from that of the Antifederalists?
  5. Write a paragraph according to the following directions. In the first sentence, state the Federalist position on ratification of the Constitution of 1787. In the second sentence, present one reason in support of the Federalist position. In the third sentence, write a second reason in support of the Federalist position. In the fourth sentence, write a third reason in support of the Federalist position.
  6. Write a paragraph on the Antifederalist position on ratification of the Constitution of 1787. State the Antifederalist position in the opening sentence and present three reasons in support of the opening statement in three sentences that follow the lead sentence.

Teachers have permission to reproduce these lessons and to use them with their students.