Debating the Constitution: A Brief Overview of Concerns between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists

This post was originally submitted as an assignment for an American History class at Regent University. It has been edited for publication.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787-1788, there were two main ideological camps trying to push their agenda for the new government. They were the Federalists, and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists included the common historical names like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington. The Anti-Federalists did not have as many reputable names in their camp; Thomas Jefferson was the major proponent of Anti-Federalist policy in early America. Each side had different approaches for the new government. One side wanted a stronger federal government to keep a strong union (Federalists); the other wanted a more agrarian republic based on voluntary consent and local governance (Anti-Federalists). It is important to remember that both groups had the same ends in mind; it was the means of doing so that became the point of argument.

One of the main issues the Federalists were concerned about was factionalism. They argued that in a small republic factions would develop easily and create division in the republic. There were two ways to rid a nation of factionalism, according to Federalist 10. The first was to destroy the liberty essential to its existence; the other was to give each citizen the same “opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” (Federalist 10). Since a large republic would represent so many interests, it would be difficult for factions to form and control the government. If one faction did control the government, they feared a majority faction that would tyrannize the minority, as stated in Federalist 51. The hope of the Federalists was that human nature’s tendency to rally around common beliefs would unite the country; the Federalists hoped to capitalize on this part of human nature.The_Federalist_Papers- Jay Madison Hamilton

Another argument for a stronger federal government was that a large republic would be organized under a system of checks and balances. Separation of powers was essential to liberty, Madison states in Federalist 51. Each department would be focused on its own objectives, and would largely stay out of the affairs of the others. However, no power can truly be in check unless the people are the primary source of that power, and the ultimate check of it. In Federalist 51 Madison states, “[B]ut experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions” (dependence on the people). The separation of powers created “double security;” what Madison used to persuade people that unlike a single republic, there would be multiple layers that would provide better protection than a single republic. Madison also made clear that the separation of powers would prevent a tyrannical majority.

The Anti-Federalists had strong concerns about the Federalists’ proposals in the Constitution. One of their main criticisms was that the method for governance was too far removed from the people, much resembling an oligarchy. Richard Henry Lee stated in his objections to the Constitution that “a government of the few is, of all governments, the worst.” Also in his objections was a note on the lack of a bill of rights for Americans. If government was not restrained, how civil liberties would be protected was one of Lee’s major points of argument. Especially emphasizing the right to trial by jury, Lee makes it clear that without specific rights labeled in the new Constitution, the liberties they desired could not survive.

Patrick Henry on vigilance via The Federalist Papers
Patrick Henry on vigilance
via The Federalist Papers

Another concern of Anti-Federalists was that a large republic was only feasible under force. In Patrick Henry’s speech at the Virginia ratifying convention, he made very clear his concern that a standing army would have to be used to enforce the laws of the federal government. “What resistance could be made?” Henry pointed to Congress’ unlimited power to tax and to legislate. Ultimately, this would not be the haven of liberty America wanted to become. If America was bound to become a place of liberty, it would not be due to a government that was “strong and energetic” as Henry stated. If the government ever gained this kind of power, enforceable by a national army, human nature dictates that none are able to relinquish such power.

Each position had strong cases for their positions. In the end however, the Federalists won the debate because they actually provided a plan. The Anti-Federalists, while making strong cases against the Constitution, made no plan to fix the problems of the Articles of Confederation. The Bill of Rights was included in no small part due to the concerns of the Anti-Federalists about civil liberties. The Federalist idea of “double security” was designed to protect civil rights with those layers. In today’s political era, we can see some of the concerns of both camps coming to light, especially in terms of factionalism (think Affordable Care Act).

Want to know more about the Federalists and Anti-Federalists?

Visit The Federalist Papers


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