Do you know that attitudes created in the 1787-88 ratification of the Constitution are still with us today in our two major parties? Back then they were called Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Today these two perspectives are alive and well within the Republican and Democratic parties.
To understand how Federalism and Anti-Federalists still exist, we need to see their differing viewpoints created out of the conflicts of the late 18th century. Federalists created the Constitution in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, in the summer of 1787. These individuals had seen Shays’ Rebellion threaten the overthrow of the state government of Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. The Massachusetts state legislature had done the same thing to its western farmers that the British had done to the Bostonians in the 1760s and 1770s.
Revolutionary veterans were losing their farms due to unpaid loans and ending up in debtors’ prison. They were being taxed without having a voice in the decisions – The Revolution in redux.
The U.S. government, under the Articles of Confederation, had not paid promised wages to Revolutionary soldiers who owned those farms because Congress had no power to raise taxes to do so. Congress was also helpless under the Articles to do anything to end the rebellion.
While the Massachusetts state militia finally defeated Shays’ Rebellion, it sent a message to the nation’s leaders that this uprising could reoccur in other states. The smell of anarchy was in the air, infecting other states and encouraging other nations to consider carving off sections of the United States for themselves.
A convention was called to meet in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation in the summer of 1787. Instead of amending it, leaders like Madison, with the support of Washington and Franklin, wanted to create a whole new constitution. State power had to be reduced to create a stronger central government.
Since Madison’s purpose of restructuring government was a radical step, what the convention talked about was kept strictly secret. Madison understood that state governments stood to lose the most with the new Constitution and bypassed the state legislatures, going directly to the people – “We the People.” The ratification process was started quickly. Anti-Federalists were given little time to organize opposition. That was part of the plan to get the Constitution ratified.
Both sides tried to convince the public that their approach was the best for the nation. Both sides wrote persuasive letters in major newspapers to convince the people in each state to ratify or not ratify the Constitution. The ratified Constitution was set up in 1789 and a new government was formed.
Federalists emphasized a strong central government that was inclusive, welcoming diversity as part of Madison’s strategy: “Ambition must be made to limit ambition.” Opposing factions would struggle with other factions to create compromise in government.
Anti-Federalists emphasized the opposite: power resided in the states and the people. The central government would be too powerful. They favored states’ and individual rights over a strong central government. Anti-Federalists balked at ratifying the Constitution unless a bill of rights was added – which emphasized individual rights. Among the Anti-Federalists there was less concern for including all groups in the government.
The Federalists, to get the Constitution ratified, finally agreed to add a bill of rights after ratification, which they did during the first Congress.
Can you see that today’s Democrats were the Federalists? They were inclusive and favored a strong central government. Today, the Republicans favor smaller government with power residing in individuals and the states and they are not as inclusive as the Democrats. They favored protecting individual guarantees against a strong central government through the addition of the Bill of Rights. They were the Anti-Federalists of the 1780s.
The history of the Constitution is that the Federalists created it and the Anti-Federalists co-opted it from the very beginning. That tension between Federalists and Anti-federalists has continued throughout our history to the present day.