When the American public learned of the new constitution, most people opposed it. To salvage their work in Philadelphia, the architects of the new national government began a campaign to sway public opinion in favor of their blueprint for a strong central government. In the fierce debate that erupted, the two sides articulated contrasting visions of the American republic and of democracy.
Supporters of the 1787 Constitution, known as Federalists, made the case that a centralized republic, with a strong federal government, provided the best solution for the future. Convention delegates Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay best expressed the Federalist vision of the Constitution in a series of essays that, gathered together in 1788, were titled The Federalist, also known as The Federalist Papers.
Federalists argued that the Constitution could best protect individual liberty because the system of checks and balances implemented by the new national government would prevent abuse of power by any one body of government at the national or state level. Here are a few common examples:
EXAMPLEUnder the Constitution, the President can veto any law passed by Congress. However, Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority vote.
EXAMPLEUnder the Constitution, the President has the authority to appoint federal judges. However, Congress must approve the appointment. Federal judges are then able to serve for life.
EXAMPLEUnder the Constitution, Congress writes the “supreme Law of the Land” when it comes to matters such as interstate commerce and taxation. However, local, day-to-day matters such as law enforcement and education are left to the states.
Opponents to the ratification of the Constitution, known as Anti-Federalists, argued that the document would consolidate all power in a national government and rob the states of the ability to make their own decisions. They believed that the United States covered too large of a territory to sustain a republican form of government that protected the interests of all the people. Rather, they believed that the federal government proposed by the Constitution would soon mimic the British regime, in which a far-off government made laws that trampled upon individual liberty and local interests. Similar to Great Britain, Anti-Federalists believed that wealthy elites would run the new federal government and that they would monopolize power to benefit their own interests, at the expense of those of ordinary citizens. Most important, Anti-Federalists pointed out that the proposed Constitution did not contain a bill of rights, which stipulated the individual liberties that government could not infringe upon.
In order for the new national government to be implemented, delegates at the Constitutional Convention agreed that each state should hold a special ratifying convention. When nine of the 13 states had approved the new government, the Constitution would go into effect.
In the meantime, a fierce debate ensued as each state elected delegates to attend their respective ratifying convention. Hundreds of articles and pamphlets were published, each discussing the pros or cons of the proposed Constitution. Numerous other public meetings were held. Meanwhile, debates within the ratifying conventions were spirited.
|Alexander Hamilton (New York)||Samuel Adams (Massachusetts)|
|James Madison (Virginia)||John Hancock (Massachusetts)|
|John Jay (New York)||Patrick Henry (Virginia)|
|John Adams (Massachusetts)||Melancton Smith (New York)|
Having just fought for independence against a perceived corrupt and centralized government in Great Britain, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists remained fearful of tyranny. When reading the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, however, it becomes clear that both sides feared the tyranny of one group in particular.
Federalists were skeptical toward democracy, or direct representation and majority rule. Such practices, Federalists argued, could lead to tyranny by the majority or, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, an “ungovernable mob.”
During the ratifying convention in New York, Alexander Hamilton presented a bleak picture of this phenomenon in reply to the Anti-Federalist critique that the Constitution would not reflect the will of the people:
“Experience has proven, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity. When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies, the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another."
In contrast, Anti-Federalists argued that the ratification of the Constitution would lead to tyranny by an elite few who would trample upon individual liberty and self-government. Patrick Henry of Virginia, who had denounced the British Crown by issuing the Stamp Act Resolutions in 1765, was among the most notable Anti-Federalists.
Whereas Federalists feared tyranny by the majority, Henry argued that the Constitution would consolidate political power into the hands of a few political elites at the national level, at the expense of state governments and individuals.
In one particular argument against the Constitution during Virginia’s ratification convention, seen below (Foner, 2014), Henry painted a grim picture of what such a government might look like:
The statements by Hamilton and Henry reflect the broader concerns toward the abuse of power that was central to much of the debate over the Constitution. Where both sides differed lay in who tended to abuse power. Hamilton described democracy as rule by an “ungovernable mob,” in which factions around particular interests emerged and tyrants, informed by individual ambitions, could arise amidst the chaos. Meanwhile, by using language such as “consolidation,” “empire,” and “subjects,” Henry envisioned a government under the Constitution that might not have looked much different from Great Britain’s during the colonial period. Rather than a federal government, complete with a system of checks and balances that respected various interests and localities, Henry foresaw a government in which the interests of individuals and the states were subject to imperial rule.
When criticizing the Constitution, a popular argument that many Anti-Federalists utilized was the idea that the United States was too large and diverse a nation to sustain a republican form of government. They pointed to history by suggesting that previous republican governments, such as the Dutch Republic or the Italian city-states during the Renaissance period, existed only in small territories.
Many Anti-Federalists argued that only the republican governments of the respective states, with minimal oversight by the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, could best reflect the will and interests of the people. Patrick Henry in particular worried that the national government under the Constitution would adopt many responsibilities better left to the states, essentially replacing the state governments in the process.
Henry asked, “Is the Government of Virginia a State Government after this [national] Government is adopted?” He then argued that officials would carry out their responsibilities on behalf of the national government at the expense of the states:
Federalists countered arguments such as Patrick Henry’s by suggesting that the structure of the new national government, with a system of checks and balances between its respective branches, along with the size and diversity of the United States, would effectively secure individual liberty and not infringe upon the state governments. Rather than a “consolidated government” that Henry predicted, Federalists such as James Madison envisioned a “compound republic” in which local, state, and national governments were in balance with each other.
Madison (1787) outlined the “compound republic” in The Federalist, No. 51:
Whereas Patrick Henry feared a national government that would take control of all responsibilities that had heretofore been left to the states under the Articles of Confederation (most notably, taxation), James Madison argued that the Constitution created a governing structure, or “compound republic,” in which the national government and state governments would have distinct responsibilities. Each would check the other, thus preserving liberty.
Demarcating responsibilities in this manner, Madison believed, also ensured the survival of the republic in a nation as large as the United States:
In other words, the size and diversity of American society would prevent any consolidation of the national government under the Constitution that Anti-Federalists such as Patrick Henry feared.
By the fall of 1788 — in large part because the Federalists were better organized — the Constitution narrowly won approval in the United States. The Federalists dominated the press and much of the public conversation over the Constitution. Indeed, according to one estimate, only 12 American newspapers or magazines published a significant number of pieces written by Anti-Federalists.
Generally, sentiment in favor of the Constitution coalesced in urban areas and rural areas with close ties to marketplaces. That such areas expressed support for the Constitution makes sense given the dire economic and financial straits that the United States was in under the Articles of Confederation. In addition to all of the political arguments that Federalists utilized within the ratification conventions, a number of other supporters of ratification expressed hope that a new national government under the Constitution would help revive the depressed economy.
Still, the votes for ratification were narrow in many conventions.
EXAMPLEIn New York, the vote was 30 in favor to 27 opposed. In Massachusetts, the vote to approve was 187 to 168, and some claim supporters of the Constitution resorted to bribes in order to ensure approval. Virginia ratified by a vote of 89 to 79, and Rhode Island by 34 to 32.
By the fall of 1788, it was clear that the Federalists’ vision of government prevailed. However, implementing this vision would be quite a challenge.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Alexander Hamilton, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2ip3JYr, Image of Patrick Henry, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2hsuhpi, James Madison, The Federalist, No. 51 (1787), in Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, 4th ed., vol. 1 (2014), pp. 123-24, Patrick Henry’s argument against the Constitution (1788), in Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, 4th ed., vol. 1 (2014), pp. 126-28, Derived from Openstax tutorial 7.4, “The Constitutional Convention and Federal Constitution” http://bit.ly/2j3obi1. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.