The opposing visions of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists have battled and continue to battle each other since the U.S. Constitution was ratified (passed) between 1787 and 1790. These political parties have switched roles at differing times in American history.
From the start, Federalists sought a strong central government and were inclusive, allowing non-mainstream groups to be part of the nation. Anti-Federalists favored strong states’ rights and a weak central government. Anti-Federalists have historically tended to be exclusive – not wanting periphery groups like blacks, Latinos and immigrants to be considered as fully American.
Before, during and after the Civil War, the Republican Party took the Federalist role, pushing for civil rights for former slaves. Democrats were the Anti-Federalists. Their members tried to subvert and nullify black freedom and voting rights.
This battle was never so clearly defined as during the landmark Slaughterhouse Supreme Court Case of 1873, the first test of the 14th Amendment.
The issue was over the interpretation of the newly ratified amendment, passed in 1870. This amendment was voted on in the North while the defeated Confederate states had no say. Ratifying this amendment became a requirement of readmission of the Confederate states into full and equal status in the U.S. government – in essence, the terms of the peace treaty ending the Civil War.
There were three legs to this amendment, which has been called the Second American Constitution, so sweeping were its changes. One leg is the requirement of due process and the second is the familiar phrase, “equal protection of the law.” The third leg is not mentioned anymore, although is it a major part of the law. It is called the “privileges or immunities clause.”
What “privileges or immunities clause” means is that the Bill of Rights would be enforced not just nationally, but also in the states. After the Civil War, ex-Confederate whites worked very hard to nullify the Union victory by finding clever and violent ways to keep former slaves from enjoying their rights as American citizens, bestowed on them by the 14th Amendment. (For the full story, go to http://landmarkcases.c-span.org/Case/3/The-Slaughterhouse-Cases.)
The Slaughterhouse Case was one way this part of the Constitution was shoved aside. The setting was New Orleans. Butchers cutting up animals would throw the unwanted parts of their business into the Mississippi River. Unsightly and unsanitary dung, heads, entrails and other offal would flow downstream to pollute the drinking water of the residents of the city. Resulting cholera epidemics killed so many people that New Orleans gained the nickname, “the necropolis” (city of the dead).
The Louisiana state Legislature, made up of about one-third African-Americans, tried to find a way to garner favor with former confederates by attempting to fix this unpopular and unsightly issue over the city’s butchers. The legislature passed a law to force the butcher’s guild to move to the other side of the river and concentrate their operations there. What the ex-Confederates did, instead, acting as Anti-Federalists, was to turn this case on its head and to make it an issue to weaken the “immunities or privileges clause” of the 14th Amendment. The whites in the town, forgetting the stench, filth and cholera epidemics, supported the hated butchers in their fight to “put the blacks in their place.”
The butchers sued the Legislature, eventually ending up before the Supreme Court. Their argument was that in forcing the butchers to move their slaughtering operations to the other side of the river, their rights under the 14th Amendment had been taken away by an intrusive and overreaching state law. They were not getting “equal protection of the law.”
These Anti-Federalist Democrats used this court case to rip the rights of recently-freed blacks from them and to return African-Americans to their second-class status in the South. The effect of the Supreme Court decision was to negate the Bill of Rights protections guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to former slaves.
This decision would set the precedent for almost 100 years of discrimination against African-Americans in the form of Jim Crow Laws in the South that kept blacks from voting, as well as segregating them from whites on buses and railroad cars, in restrooms, restaurants, drinking fountains and in schools. These civil rights violations were only ended because of the demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Today, partly due to these laws enacted in the 1960s, the Republican Party became Anti-Federalist, favoring a small national government, while the Democrats have taken the mantle of the Federalists favoring inclusion of minorities. Their issues and roles have changed, but the attitudes have endured since the battle for the ratification of the Constitution. What appears to be change is just part of a never- ending pattern.