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Federalists & Anti-Federalists

US History


Due to various problems in the Articles of Confederation, delegates from various states (except Rhode island) decided to meet at Philadelphia which is popularly known as the Convention of Philadelphia, 1787.

This convention has the honor of drafting the Constitution of United States of America. The participants of this convention were mainly divided into two groups; one which supported the drafting of new constitution and second which were calling for amendments in Articles of Confederation and were against the making of a new constitution.

The proponents of new constitution called themselves as federalists and were mainly cosmopolitans. Those who supported the idea of amending the Articles of Confederation and were opponents of new constitution were known as Anti-federalists.

Federalists were better organized. Prominent federalist leaders were Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Most of the federalists were cosmopolitans and belonged to wealthy families therefore; they had their supporters among sea board and urban regions.

The chief spokesmen of anti federalists were Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry (Virginia), James Winthrop (Masechussetts), Melancton Smith (New York) and George Mason (Virginia). Most of the support for Anti-federalists came from agrarian region i.e. from Maine through Georgia and most of them were local farmers and lesser folks. These two groups held different positions on political and economic issues. They are discussed as follows:

Political Differences:

Ratification Of Constitution:

For Federalists, the Constitution was required in order to safeguard the liberty and independence that the American Revolution had created. Federalists wanted to defend social gains of the Revolution. According to James Madison, one of the leading Federalists explained later, the Constitution was designed to be a "republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." To support the cause of ratification of new constitution, they took help from newspapers and wrote articles to convince the readers to approve the constitution.

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison composed The Federalist papers which advocated the ratification of constitution. National heroes like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington also supported the constitution.

The anti-federalists wanted the continuation of Articles of Confederation with modifications and did not see any need of a new constitution. They did not see any threat to Union if Articles of Confederation are modified.

Nature of Central Government:

Federalists supported strong central government for United States of America in order to prevent inter-state conflicts, strengthen commerce and industries for rapid growth. They were of the view that most of the problems in 1780s stemmed from weak central government created by defects in Articles of Confederation.

Anti-Federalists were in favor of weak central government and strong state governments. They were of the view that strong central government may lead to political dominance and political corruption. Anti-federalists feared that the political dominance of centre may lead to tyranny as practiced by Britain. The President’s new power of veto i.e. overturning decisions made by people’s representatives, dominance of national court over local courts and representation criteria in legislatures were disturbing for them.

George Mason, a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention who refused to support the Constitution, explained, the plan was "totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the state governments." Anti-federalists were not ready to accept rise of national power proposed in constitution at the expense of state powers.

Background of Leaders:

As Federalists mainly hailed from aristocratic classes, they wanted that government should be run by men of “principle and property” as they believed that they have innate qualities of good administrators and leadership which were missing in case of common people. Anti-federalists were of the view that government should be controlled by common people as they had faith in their abilities. Secondly, it would also help in limiting the powers of government to save the interests of common people.

Representation to Congress:

Another political issue was the representation to Congress. Federalists were in favor of representation to Congress on population basis as they had control on most of the big states in North i.e. states with more population should get more seats in Congress.

Anti-federalists supported equal representation of states in Congress irrespective of their size and population in order to prevent exploitation of small states.

Bill of Rights:

Federalists did not support the idea of inclusion of Bill of Rights in constitution as according to them, there was no need to do so. Secondly, they thought that inclusion of Bill of Rights may limit the rights of citizens as those not mentioned in BOR can be denied to them.

Another important point of objection raised by anti-federalists was the absence of protection for individual liberties (Bill of Rights) in the new constitution as present in Virginia model. Due to this very point, most anti-federalists were of the view that federalists wanted to reduce the gains made for ordinary people during the Revolution.

Economic Philosophy:

When Federalists took over the government, US owed a debt of $54 million. George Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a plan to solve the problem of huge national debts and government finances. He insisted on providing revenues, policy of protective tariffs, handling the national debt, payment of state debts and establishment of bank and currency. Therefore, he proposed that the central government assume the war debts of states and combine them with the debt of US into one national debt. Hamilton also proposed establishment of national bank which would hold treasury funds and back federal currency.

The bank would be a government regulated Private Corporation and for its smooth functioning and system of federal taxation; enlarged government bureaucracy would be needed. Hamilton asked for taxes on coffee, tea, wine and spirits (whiskey tax). Western farmers were also informed that the national government had the power to tax them. It was observed that Hamilton’s plan gave protection to industrialist’s class in one form or another.

Hamilton’s economic plan was opposed by anti-federalists for a number of reasons. Jefferson, leader of group who later called themselves as Democratic Republicans was not in favor of the federal taxes, assumption of state debts, formation of national bank (although he did not close it during his presidency) and the enlarged civil service. According to the anti-federalists, the national bank would benefit the elite class mainly from Northeast as they invested in bank and the bonds that were used to pay the debts.

They also did not like the idea of enlarged civil service for this bank which would be appointed by the executive as they were against these huge centre government powers. They opposed Hamilton’s plan simply because it proposed a very strong and powerful, debt driven and patronage wielding national government similar to British government against which they had fought and got independence. Democratic Republicans envisioned a central government that was strong enough to protect property but not strong or active enough to threaten property or other republican rights.

When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he paid off much of the debt that Hamilton had envisioned as a permanent fixture of government. The Jeffersonian then abolished federal taxes other than the tariff, reduced the number of government employees, and drastically reduced the size of the military. They did, however, retain the Bank of the United States.

Election Results (1789-1800):

George Washington was elected as the first President of US as a result of FEB 1789 elections by securing 69 votes while John Adams secured 34 votes and became his Vice President. Federalist Regime remained from 1789 to 1801 which included two consecutive terms of Washington and one term of John Adams from 1797 to 1801 with Thomas Jefferson as his Vice President. Main events, laws formulated by federalists were; addition of Bill of Rights 1791 to the constitution-first ten amendments related to basic rights of citizens, Judiciary Act 1789 which provided structure of Judiciary wing of government across the United States, Treaty of Greenville with Indians, Jay’s Treaty 1794 by which Americans got the disputed territory in North-West from Britain, establishment of national bank and imposition of taxes on coffee, tea, wine, whisky etc.

Alien and Sedition Act mainly considered as an attack on civil liberties. These included clauses which made acquiring US Citizenship harder (14 year’s residence instead of five) and attempt to stir up defection against government were considered a crime mainly to target government critics. Anti-federalists vehemently opposed these acts.

In elections of 1800, main issues were civil liberties and to limit the powers and influence of central government. As Jefferson supported civil liberty, concept of limited government and federalists were already receiving criticism for the Alien and Sedition acts, therefore Jefferson became the President of USA in 1800 elections and ended Federalist rule over US. The deterioration of relations between Hamilton and Adams was also one of the reasons for Jefferson’s triumph.

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