Many Americans know of the Federalist papers, a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay that argued for the ratification of the Constitution. But fewer know of the Anti-Federalist papers, a separate collection of essays that argued against certain provisions in the Constitution, or that there even existed opposition to the Constitution being ratified at all. While the Anti-Federalists may have ultimately lost the fight to the pro-Constitution Federalists, their impact on American political history and the structure of the United States government should not be overlooked.
Federalists vs Anti-Federalists
With the failure of the Articles of Confederation, which was ratified in 1781, it was obvious that America needed a new form of government if the Union was to stay intact. However, the structure and form of that new government was hotly debated. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution and a Federalist, believed that a stronger, centralized government was necessary for the states to thrive.
Anti-Federalists, which included names like George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee, believed that a strong, centralized government was a threat to liberty and freedom. Many Anti-Federalists believed that the Articles of Confederation only needed to be amended and questioned the authority the Constitutional Convention claimed by creating a new Constitution. The Articles of Confederation were never repealed, so how could a new government be created without the consent of each state?
Anti-Federalists were concerned that the checks that the Constitution placed on federal power would be ignored and undermined by generous interpretations of certain provisions in the Constitution. “Promote the general welfare” and “necessary and proper” were two clauses and phrases that worried Anti-Federalists. The general welfare clause could be used to support just about any new law, while the “necessary and proper” clause could override any limit set on federal power. This would create a centralized government that had unlimited powers that most certainly would be abused.
The Constitution seemingly usurped the power of the states and consolidated it in the hands of Congress. Anti-Federalists believed that rights and liberties were best protected when power resided in state governments rather than the federal. They also were worried that the position of President resembled a monarch too much. Anti-Federalists feared that he could eventually consolidate too much power and become a true monarch, controlling all three branches of government. They also believed that the judicial branch could become the most tyrannical of all three branches, contrary to what Hamilton and Madison argued in Federalist #78. Most important of all, Anti-Federalists believed that the federal government would become tyrannous and trample on the rights of the people, unless a Bill of Rights were included in the Constitution.
The ratification fight was intense. Patrick Henry, a staunch critic of the Constitution, called the document “A revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain.” Leaders of each side debated the merits of the Constitution through essays printed in newspapers. These essays later became known as the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers.
Obviously, the Federalists won the battle and the Constitution was ratified in 1788 by the necessary 9 of the 13 states. But the Anti-Federalists claimed a massive victory when many states made their ratification of the Constitution on the addition of a Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights made protections for basic rights and privileges such as free speech and due process explicit in the Constitution. It also reserved all the powers not given explicitly to the federal government for the states and people. It was ratified three years after the Constitution in 1791.
Fears Come True
Since ratification, many of the fears that the Anti-Federalists had concerning the Constitution have been validated. Although not predicted, the Commerce Clause has come to be known as “the everything clause.” It has been used countless numbers of times to justify further centralization of power in the federal government. The 14th Amendment, although it helped provide many benefits to former slaves, further expanded the dominance of the federal government over the states. The fear that Brutus (a contributor to several of the Anti-Federalist papers) expressed when he wrote that the Constitution could make “the state governments dependent on the will of the general government for their existence” obviously came to pass.
Brutus’s prediction about the judicial branch becoming all powerful has also come to fruition in some sense. He claimed that the Supreme Court would interpret the Constitution based on its “spirit” rather than the written law. “This constitutional failing would compound over time in a ‘silent and imperceptible manner,’ through precedents that built on one another.” As can be seen today, the laws of the land are interpreted and changed based on which political ideology holds the majority of seats on the Supreme Court. Rather than the Constitution deciding what government can and can’t do, we now depend on the opinions of the nine Supreme Court justices to tell us what is allowable (at least while they are in power).
The taxation power of the federal government has also been vastly expanded since the Constitution was ratified, thanks to the necessary and proper and general welfare clauses. This has led to a huge expansion in the size and scope of government, allowing the federal government to reach just about every aspect of life in America. Even Federalists may have been reluctant to ratify the Constitution if they knew how large the federal government would become.
Although the Anti-Federalists may have lost the fight for the ratification of the Constitution, there is still much to be learned from them. Their insight on the dangers of centralized power should be understood. While the federal government may or may not be exceeding its Constitutional “limits”, it is still intruding on many aspects of American life that government should not be involved in.
In Federalist #51, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Unfortunately, despite the best attempts by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the Constitution has not set strict enough controls on the federal government. Although it has been given plenty of authority to control the governed, it in no way has obliged to control itself. The U.S. should return to the principles of limited and decentralized government like the Anti-Federalists argued for.