Who were the Antifederalists and what did they stand for?
Why the name Antifederalist?
The name, Antifederalists, captures both an attachment to certain political principles as well as standing in favor and against trends that were appearing in late 18th century America. It will help in our understanding of who the Antifederalists were to know that in 1787, the word “federal” had two meanings. One was universal, or based in principle, and the other was particular and specific to the American situation.
The first meaning of “federal” stood for a set of governmental principles that was understood over the centuries to be in opposition to national or consolidated principles. Thus the Articles of Confederation was understood to be a federal arrangement: Congress was limited to powers expressly granted, the states qua states were represented equally regardless of the size of their population, and the amending of the document required the unanimous consent of the state legislatures. A national or consolidated arrangement by contrast suggested a considerable relaxing of the constraints on what the union could and could not do along with a conscious diminution in the centrality of the states in the structure of the arrangement as well as the alteration of the binding document.
The second meaning of “federal” had a particular American character. In the 1780s, those folks who wanted a firmer and more connected union became known as federal men. People like George Washington., Gouverneur Morris, James Madison., Alexander Hamilton., and James Wilson. were known as federal men who wanted a firmer federal, or even national, union. And those people like Patrick Henry., Richard Henry Lee., George Clinton., Melancton Smith., and Roger Sherman., who opposed or who raised doubts about the merits of a firmer and more energetic union acquired the name of antifederal men who opposed an inclination to strengthen the ties of Union with a focus on centralized direction.
In the rough and tumble of American politics, the name by which one is known is often not of one’s own doing. The Antifederalists would have preferred to be known as democratic republicans or federal republicans, but they acquired the name antifederal, or Anti-federal, or Antifederal as a result of the particular events of American history. If we turn to principles to define what they stood for, the content of their position was what was known in history as an attachment to federal principles: a commitment to local government and limited general government, frequent elections and rotation in office, and to writing things down because our liberties are safer as a result.
Put differently, the actual name “Antifederalists” did not exist before 1782. It is a 1780s American contribution to the enduring American issue of what should government do, which level of government should do it, and which branch of which level should do it. This “problem in nomenclature” has led scholars over the ages to suggest, we think unfortunately, that the pro-constitutional nationalists like Madison. and Hamilton., actually consciously “stole” the name Federalist for propaganda purposes to improve their chances of persuading the electorate and the delegates to the ratifying conventions to adopt the Constitution. Rhetoric, both on behalf of, and in restraint of, the role of the federal government, is built into the very fabric of the American system. And the controversy over the name “Antifederalist” reflects that inherent quarrel.
Matching up the Antifederalist essays with The Federalist essays
There were no three Antifederalists who got together in New York, or Richmond, and said, “Let’s write 85 essays in which we argue that the Constitution should be either rejected or modified before adoption.” Thus, in contrast to the pro-Constitution advocates, there is no one book——like The Federalist (Papers)——to which the modern reader can turn to and say, “Here’s The Antifederalist (Papers).” Their work is vast and varied and, for the most part, uncoordinated.
There is thus a sense in which The Federalist makes our understanding of the American Founding relatively easy: here is the one place to go to get the authoritative account of the Constitution. One purpose of this website is to recover the arguments of the opposition. This recovery is based on a) a conversation that took place over several years and in which no blood was spilled, and b) the views of the Antifederalists, which are deeply embodied in the Constitution and the American tradition. The Antifederalists, as we argue in the section on the Antifederalist Legacy, are still very much alive and well in 21st century America.
An attempt to create an imaginary The Antifederalist Papers, to put along side The Federalist Papers for comparison purposes, is actually doing two contrary things: a) creating an impression that this specific Federalist paper matches up with that specific Antifederalist paper and b) capturing the worthwhile and accurate fact that a conversation of vital importance took place and both sides did address the concerns of the other side. The Timeline encourages the reader to see the following interplay: the pro-constitutional Caesar essays were responded to by the Antifederalist Brutus and Cato essays and these in turn were responded to with the launching of the essays by Publius that became The Federalist Papers in 1788. And this sort of interplay continues throughout the ratification process.
In certain places, as we show in the Brutus entries in the Essential Antifederalist section, one can certainly match up several Antifederalist essays with essential essays in The Federalist. The Antifederalists, as Herbert Storing has correctly suggested, criticized the Constitution and The Federalist criticized the Antifederalists. It makes sense, on the whole, however, to argue that the conversation took place at the founding at a thematic level rather than try to portray a conversation that took place at an individual specific essay-by-specific-essay level.
As the Timeline indicates, the Antifederalists were active in their opposition to the adoption of the Constitution even before the signing on September 17, 1787. And by November and December, they were actually winning the out-of-doors debate at least in terms of the sheer number of newspapers who carried their message in the key states of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. And if we take a look at the Six Stages of Ratification table, we can see the impact of their pamphlet war on the selection of the delegates in these three key states.
Three Kinds of Antifederalists
There are three kinds of Antifederalists, but each voice is an important one in the creation and adoption of the Constitution and the subsequent unfolding of American politics. For a more detailed analysis of the coherence and relevance of the Antifederalists, see the link entitled The Legacy of the Antifederalists.
The first kind is represented by politicians such as Roger Sherman. and Oliver Ellsworth. of Connecticut. They entered the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with a suspicious disposition toward the Virginia Plan and its attempt to give sweeping powers to Congress and to reduce the role of the states in the new American system. This first group achieved considerable success in modifying this national plan back in the direction of federal principles. Thus, in the final document, the powers of Congress are listed, each state is represented equally in the Senate and composed of Senators elected by the state legislatures, the president is to be elected by a majority of the people plus a majority of the states, the Constitution is to be ratified by the people of nine states, and the Constitution is to amended by 2/3 of the House plus 2/3 of the Senate plus 3/4 of the state legislatures. Put differently, Sherman. and Ellsworth. secured the federal principles in the very Constitution itself and thus the Constitution is actually partly national and partly federal. In the end, Sherman. and Ellsworth. supported the adoption of the Constitution and thus secured the presence of the Antifederalist position in the American tradition.
The second kind of Antifederalist is one who was not privy to the debate in Philadelphia, and has some deep concerns about the POTENTIALITY of the Constitution to lead to the concentration of power in the new government. We are talking about people such as Melancton Smith., Abraham Yates. (Brutus), and George Clinton. in New York, Richard Henry Lee. (Federal Farmer) in Virginia, Samuel Bryant (Centinel) in Pennsylvania, and John Winthrop (Agrippa) in Massachusetts. They warned that without certain amendments, including a bill of rights that stated clearly what the new government could and could not do, the new Constitution had the POTENTIALITY to generate a consolidated government over a large territory in which one of the branches of government——the Presidency and the Judiciary were the leading candidates——would come to dominate. They warned that the partly national and partly federal Constitution would veer naturally in the direction of wholly national unless certain precautions were put in place to secure the partly-national and partly-federal arrangement. These Antifederalists are the ones we have included in our selection of the Essential Antifederalists on this website. Although we have to knit together their position from a number of sources, and although the Constitution was unconditionally ratified, their views entered the amended Constitution by way of James Madison. and the First Congress.
The third and final group of Antifederalists was those who wanted as little deviation from the Articles as possible and saw the partly-national and partly-federal compromise as totally unsustainable. The arrangement was doomed to produce a wholly national outcome unless radical amendments were secured that altered and abolished the very structure and powers that the Framers took four months to erect. Ratifying delegates like Patrick Henry. come to mind; he deliberately made a nuisance of himself at the Virginia Ratifying Convention disrupting the orderly process of debates at will. George Mason. and Elbridge Gerry. also come to mind. They started off as warm supporters of a stronger national government but within twelve months had become open opponents of even the friendly amendments proposed by the second type of Antifederalist. Within this third type of Antifederalist, we would also include Philadelphia delegates Luther Martin., John Lansing., Robert Yates., and John Mercer.. We have not included them in the Essential Antifederalist listings. Their legacy, as we have tried to capture in The Antifederalist Legacy, is probably to be found in the Calhoun movement in favor of secession from the American founding.
So I would argue, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, that while The Federalist Papers are among the best essays ever written on representative government, they would not be as good as they are, or as many essays as there are, if it were not for the persistent critique of the Antifederalists who helped define the American conversation over what should government do, which level of government should do it, and which branch of that level of government should do it. Those questions are what the Essential Antifederalists bring to the conversation.
The eighty-five essays appeared in one or more of the following four New York newspapers: 1) The New York Journal, edited by Thomas Greenleaf, 2) Independent Journal, edited by John McLean, 3) New York Advertiser, edited by Samuel and John Loudon, and 4) Daily Advertiser, edited by Francis Childs. Initially, they were intended to be a twenty essay response to the Antifederalist attacks on the Constitution that were flooding the New York newspapers right after the Constitution had been signed in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. The Cato letters started to appear on 27 September, George Mason‘s objections were in circulation and the Brutus Essays were launched on 18 October. The number of essays in The Federalist was extended in response to the relentless, and effective, Antifederalist criticism of the proposed Constitution.
McLean bundled the first 36 essays together——they appeared in the newspapers between October 27, 1787 and January 8, 1788——and published them as Volume 1 on March 22, 1788. Essays 37 through 77 of The Federalist appeared between January 11 and April 2, 1788. On May 28, McLean took Federalist 37-77 as well as the yet to be published Federalist 78-85 and issued them all as Volume 2 of The Federalist. Between June 14 and August 16, these eight remaining essays——Federalist 78-85——appeared in the Independent Journal and New York Packet.
The Status of The Federalist
One of the persistent questions concerning the status of The Federalist is this: is it a propaganda tract written to secure ratification of the Constitution and thus of no enduring relevance or is it the authoritative expositor of the meaning of the Constitution having a privileged position in constitutional interpretation? It is tempting to adopt the former position because 1) the essays originated in the rough and tumble of the ratification struggle. It is also tempting to 2) see The Federalist as incoherent; didn’t Hamilton and Madison disagree with each other within five years of co-authoring the essays? Surely the seeds of their disagreement are sown in the very essays! 3) The essays sometimes appeared at a rate of about three per week and, according to Madison, there were occasions when the last part of an essay was being written as the first part was being typed.
) One should not confuse self-serving propaganda with advocating a political position in a persuasive manner. After all, rhetorical skills are a vital part of the democratic electoral process and something a free people have to handle. These are op-ed pieces of the highest quality addressing the most pressing issues of the day. 2) Moreover, because Hamilton and Madison parted ways doesn’t mean that they weren’t in fundamental agreement in 1787-1788 about the need for a more energetic form of government. And just because they were written with a certain haste, doesn’t mean that they were unreflective and not well written. Federalist 10, the most famous of all the essays, is actually the final draft of an essay that originated in Madison‘s Vices in 1787, matured at the Constitutional Convention in June 1787, and was refined in a letter to Jefferson in October 1787. All of Jay‘s essays focus on foreign policy, the heart of the Madisonian essays are Federalist 37-51 on the great difficulty of founding, and Hamilton tends to focus on the institutional features of federalism and the separation of powers.
I suggest, furthermore, that the moment these essays were available in book form, they acquired a status that went beyond the more narrowly conceived objective of trying to influence the ratification of the Constitution. The Federalist now acquired a “timeless” and higher purpose, a sort of icon status equal to the very Constitution that it was defending and interpreting. And we can see this switch in tone in Federalist 37 when Madison invites his readers to contemplate the great difficulty of founding. Federalist 38, echoing Federalist 1, points to the uniqueness of the America Founding: never before had a nation been founded by the reflection and choice of multiple founders who sat down and deliberated over creating the best form of government consistent with the genius of the American people. Thomas Jefferson referred to the Constitution as the work of “demigods,” and The Federalist “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.” There is a coherent teaching on the constitutional aspects of a new republicanism and a new federalism in The Federalist that makes the essays attractive to readers of every generation.
Authorship of The Federalist
A second question about The Federalist is how many essays did each person write? James Madison——at the time a resident of New York since he was a Virginia delegate to the Confederation Congress that met in New York——John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton——both of New York—wrote these essays under the pseudonym, “Publius.” So one answer to the question is that it doesn’t matter since everyone signed off under the same pseudonym, “Publius.” But given the icon status of The Federalist, there has been an enduring curiosity about the authorship of the essays. Although it is virtually agreed that Jay wrote only five essays, there have been several disputes over the decades concerning the distribution of the essays between Hamilton and Madison. Suffice it to note, that Madison‘s last contribution was Federalist 63, leaving Hamilton as the exclusive author of the nineteen Executive and Judiciary essays. Madison left New York in order to comply with the residence law in Virginia concerning eligibility for the Virginia ratifying convention. There is also widespread agreement that Madison wrote the first 13 essays on the great difficulty of founding. There is still dispute over the authorship of Federalist 50-58, but these have persuasively been resolved in favor of Madison.
Outline of The Federalist
A third question concerns how to “outline” the essays into its component parts. We get some natural help from the authors themselves. Federalist 1 outlines the six topics to be discussed in the essays without providing an exact table of contents. The authors didn’t know in October 1787 how many essays would be devoted to each topic. Nevertheless, if one sticks with the “formal division of the subject” outlined in the first essay, it is possible to work out the actual division of essays into the six topic areas or “points” after the fact so to speak.
Martin Diamond was one of the earliest scholars to break The Federalist into its component parts. He identified Union as the subject matter of the first 36 Federalist essays and Republicanism as the subject matter of the last 49 essays. There is certain neatness to this breakdown, and accuracy to the Union essays. The fist three topics outlined in Federalist 1 are 1) the utility of the union, 2) the insufficiency of the present confederation under the Articles of Confederation, and 3) the need for a government at least as energetic as the one proposed. The opening paragraph of Federalist 15 summarizes the previous 14 essays and says: “in pursuance of the plan which I have laid down for the pursuance of the subject, the point next in order to be examined is the ‘insufficiency of the present confederation.’” So we can say with confidence that Federalist 1-14 is devoted to the utility of the union. Similarly, Federalist 23 opens with the following observation: “the necessity of a Constitution, at least equally energetic as the one proposed…… is the point at the examination of the examination at which we are arrived.” Thus Federalist 15-22 covered the second point dealing with union or federalism. Finally, Federalist 37 makes it clear that coverage of the third point has come to an end and new beginning has arrived. And since McLean bundled the first 36 essays into Volume 1, we have confidence in declaring a conclusion to the coverage of the first three points all having to do with union and federalism.
The difficulty with the Diamond project is that it becomes messy with respect to topics 4, 5, and 6 listed in Federalist 1: 4) the Constitution conforms to the true principles of republicanism, 5) the analogy of the Constitution to state governments, and 6) the added benefits from adopting the Constitution. Let’s work our way backward. In Federalist 85, we learn that “according to the formal division of the subject of these papers announced in my first number, there would appear still to remain for discussion two points,” namely, the fifth and sixth points. That leaves, “republicanism,” the fourth point, as the topic for Federalist 37-84, or virtually the entire Part II of The Federalist.
I propose that we substitute the word Constitutionalism for Republicanism as the subject matter for essays 37-51, reserving the appellation Republicanism for essays 52-84. This substitution is similar to the “Merits of the Constitution” designation offered by Charles Kesler in his new introduction to the Rossiter edition; the advantage of this Constitutional approach is that it helps explain why issues other than Republicanism strictly speaking are covered in Federalist 37-46. Kesler carries the Constitutional designation through to the end; I suggest we return to Republicanism with Federalist 52.