Federalists

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The Constitutional Convention elaborated what some of its participants already called “federation” in place of “confederation”; subsequently the new system came to be known as a “modern federation.” Not everyone embraced it as an improvement within federalism. From a pure and fixed Confederalist standpoint, it was seen as a betrayal of federalism.

Proponents of the Constitution seized for themselves the title of Federalists, using it for The Federalist Papers while labeling their opponents “Anti-Federalists.” The label seemed unfair since most Anti-Federalists thought of themselves as the “true federalists” and favored at least in principle some strengthening of the federal power, yet was partly fair since many Anti-Federalists in practice opposed any real strengthening of federal power as contrary to their doctrine of the sovereignty of the member states, and since modern federation retained many elements of federalism while giving them a more effective form.

With the victory of the Constitution, the “Federalist” and “Anti-Federalist” labels stuck. A few years later, as parties emerged, one of them, built around Alexander Hamilton and pro–federal government views, called itself the Federalist Party. The opposing Democratic-Republican party, built around Thomas Jefferson and supported by James Madison, included many former Anti-Federalists; having accepted the Constitution once a Bill of Rights was added, they advocated “strict construction” of the Constitution to restrain the growth of federal power. The Federalists built on the first words of the Constitution’s preamble and on the Elastic Clause; the Democratic-Republicans built on the last words of Bill of Rights: the Tenth, or states’ rights, Amendment.

Despite the linguistic victory of the Federalists in taking over the word, the view widely persisted that the Anti-Federalists were the true federalists. After the union was consolidated and its territorial growth completed, this view was in some respects reinforced: with the success of modern federation, decentralization not unification seemed like the sole remaining activist or ideological business for federalism within the United States. “New federalisms” were proclaimed by presidents in the late 1900s, always with a decentralizing thrust, although movements for international unions also put out publications entitled “New Federalist.” Sometimes the term “federalism” has been associated with extreme decentralizing ideologies reintroducing “Anti-Federalist” themes; this is seen in the Federalist Society, an association of lawyers whose membership has overlapped with a less well-known Antifederalist Society.

The validity of the decentralizing trend in usage is as open to question as the centralizing Federalists’ earlier seizure of the word. In Europe the term “federalism” remains closely associated with the ideas of The Federalist and of forming a continent-wide Union. The original usage of the term “federalism,” from the days of classical antiquity to the 1780's, was for bringing several states together into a union: e pluribus unum. This was the primary purpose of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and the Federalist Party alike. The federal decentralization of unitary states—a sort of ex uno plura (out of one, many: the opposite “e pluribus unum” out of many, one)—was an idea that arose later within well-entrenched national states. The reason it arose was due to the success of modern federation in the United States in reconciling federalism with the benefits that other modern nation-states had come to cherish from the sovereignty of their central government. Modern federation having proved itself as a sophisticated form of government at the same time as proving itself an efficient form for uniting people, it could be reapplied in a kind of reverse engineering for decentralizing hitherto unitary states.

The Federalist Party itself, ascendent under Presidents Washington and Adams, suffered from the Adams-Hamilton feud, fell from power with the election of Jefferson to the presidency, suffered a further decline into a New England regional party, and embarrassed its very federalism by resorting to secessionist threats to back up its opposition to the War of 1812. In fairness to the Federalists, it should be acknowledged that the dilemmas they faced, as a party of union within a union torn by the issue of slavery, were well nigh unresolvable: should they proceed as an impatient, northern, antislavery party to push toward a free and homogeneous union, or should they proceed as a party of compromise and wait on history to find a way to make the union work better? They tended toward the first path and faded out.

The Whig Party arose in their place, and subsequently the Republican Party. It followed up on Federalist themes, under Lincoln as the party seeking the elimination of slavery and the consolidation of the Union as a single form of society, and under Theodore Roosevelt as the neo-Hamiltonian party favoring a strong federal government, a unified national economic policy, and alliance with the British Empire on the world stage. In later decades, the Republican and Democratic parties partly switched their Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian themes, the Democrats favoring a larger federal economic role although the Republicans still favoring strong if lean government.

Ira Straus

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Anti-Federalists; Constitutional Convention of 1787; The Federalist Papers