“Anti-Federalist” describes the philosophical and political position of individuals who, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the subsequent state ratification debates (1787–89), generally opposed the constitution proposed to replace the Articles of Confederation. After ratification of the new Constitution and after the Washington administration took office, the Anti-Federalists formed a political party that was the first opposition party within the American political system. The Anti-Federalist Party evolved over time into the Democratic-Republican Party and ultimately into the Democratic party. Anti-Federalist leaders included individuals such as Patrick Henry of Virginia and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. Though brief in existence, the Anti-Federalist movement (1787–89) and the Anti-Federalist Party (1789–1800) exerted a profound and lasting effect on American politics.
The Anti-Federalist position referred both to a philosophy about government, as well as to a preferred structure for government and manner in which society ought to be arranged. Anti-Federalist thought cannot be fully and properly understood absent consideration of the larger context, in which one of the paramount concerns of the colonists precipitant of the late Revolution was opposition to a strong central government. As such, the Anti-Federalist paradigm stood in contrast to a number of fundamental assumptions held by proponents (“Federalists”) of the proposed constitution. The under pinning objection of the Anti-Federalists was the nature and degree of power (particularly compared to the arrangement existing under the Articles of Confederation) that the proposed new national government would be granted.
Consider the words of the Anti-Federalists in the “Dissent of the Pennsylvania Minority”: “[The people of the United States are asked] to consider of a constitution proposed by a convention of the United States, who were not appointed for the purpose of framing a new form of government, but whose powers were expressly confined to altering and amending the present Articles of Confederation. . . . [And furthermore], that the new government will not be a confederacy of states, as it ought, but one consolidated government, founded upon the destruction of the several governments of the states” (Pennsylvania Packet 1787).
Consequently, the Anti-Federalist position developed in response to and reflected concerns about the possible perils that the adoption of a more powerful central government could instigate, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Chief among these included too great of a distance, both geographically and politically, between the rulers and the ruled; encroachments on the freedom of individuals; and the undermining of state sovereignty.
To Anti-Federalists, central government meant distant government. Government at a distance was regarded as (1) ineffective because it would not and/or could not be properly attentive to the needs and wishes of the citizenry, and (2) easily corrupted because the people could not particularly monitor or control those in power. In sum, the existence of strong central government was perceived as being generally antithetical to encouraging genuine self-government on the part of a citizenry.
Despite the negative connotation embedded in the label “Anti,” it should be pointed out that adherents of the Anti-Federalist position did stand “for” certain propositions. The Anti-Federalists envisioned an American society composed of a collection of small republics. Among other implications, small republics were envisioned as entrusting political power and decision making at the local and state levels. In general, the Anti-Federalists expected that people could and would be self-reliant and self-sufficient in their communities, and that the best instrument for this purpose is some form of limited republican government.
The Anti-Federalists considered the Federalists to overstress devising governing structures that best control people and their potential worst impulses. By contrast, Anti-Federalist philosophy stressed that small self-governing republics served as natural fonts of virtue, and the abundance of virtue would exert sufficient control on individuals.
To the Anti-Federalists, concentrating power at the local and state levels (consistent with the precepts of small republics) creates societies in which people are freer, more virtuous, and, perhaps most critically, more trusting of government and more willing to allow government to undertake certain activities for the public good. The latter in particular is made possible because all citizens, both philosophically and practically, feel themselves a part of government and the decisions being made. Given all the foregoing, then, the Anti-Federalists did not view any need for a stronger central government.
The Anti-Federalists did not prevail in the ratification debates and political contests of their time, as the states eventually approved passage of what became the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, the Anti-Federalists did have significant victories that shaped the Constitution, and the legacy of their thought and actions can be discerned today in the contemporary U.S. federal system.
The most significant and far-reaching accomplishment of the Anti-Federalists is that the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution) was drafted and passed in large measure to satisfy objections that the Anti-Federalists raised about the proposed constitution. However, as Herbert Storing noted (1981), the Anti-Federalists divided their proposed amendments into two categories, one with protections for individual freedoms and the other with changes in political institutions. The amendments proposed by the Federalists drew almost exclusively from the protection of individual liberties and hardly at all from the changes Anti-Federalists advocated for institutions (i.e., one-year terms for senators and prohibition of direct federal taxation). Nonetheless, the Anti-Federalist legacy is substantially reflected in the Bill of Rights, which has become the exemplar, not just in the United States but indeed around the world, of freedom and civil rights and the need for their vigilant protection.
The Anti-Federalist philosophy contributed an enduring perspective that remains relevant to discussions in contemporary times about the American federal system and the proper balance of power among the various levels and units therein. The Anti-Federalist perspective is the historical and philosophical legacy for those who most emphasize the important role of state and local government within the federal system, the ideal of self-government for and by a citizenry, and the principle of strict construction in interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, any discussion today about the appropriate policy scope of the federal government is perpetuation of a debate the Anti-Federalists initiated at the time the Constitution was first proposed, and in many respects has continued ever since.
W. B. Allen and Gordon Lloyd, eds., The Essential Anti-Federalist (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Allan Bloom, ed., Confronting the Constitution (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1990); Martin Diamond, “What the Framers Meant by Federalism,” in From a Nation of States (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1974); Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, December 18, 1787; and Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, 7 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Duane D. Milne and Michael W. Hail
Last updated: 2006
SEE ALSO: American System; Articles of Confederation; Bill of Rights; Constitutional Convention of 1787; Cooperative Federalism; Creative Federalism; Federalists; Fiscal Federalism; Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Local Government; Sovereignty