The United States Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, is the founding legal document upon which the nation’s government was created. But the creation of these documents was not a smooth and easy affair. Rather, the Founding Fathers and the rest of the nation became locked in a spirited, and often bitter, debate over the powers that the government should possess.
At the heart of the conversation were the opposing views of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. These two factions were at odds over how the fledgling government should protect the rights of the states and their citizens.
A Constitutional Matter
The primary source of contention between the two camps was whether or not the United States should have a strong central government, or whether the country would be better served by a less influential federal government. The Federalists were in favor of more centralized control held by a federal government, while the Anti-Federalists preferred to deprive the federal government of certain powers, which would instead be held by the states. The debate also centered on the Constitution itself; Federalists believed the document should be ratified, while the Anti-Federalists were more skeptical.
The debate took place both in public speeches and written arguments. The Federalist Papers were created to make a case for a stronger central government. The Anti-Federalists responded with writings of their own. This discussion gave birth to the documents that mandate how the U.S. government should behave to this day.
Strong Government Federalists
The Federalist faction, which was led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, advocated for a strong central government to rule over the people. They were typically wealthy merchants and businessmen and would be considered to represent the upper-elite classes of their time. They and their followers argued this type of government was necessary for creating a “more perfect union” that could more effectively protect the rights of the people. In this way, they hoped to ensure that the majority of Americans could not infringe on the rights of the minority.
They asserted that the federal government should have specific powers to enact certain types of policies. Anything outside of these powers would be decided by the states.
When it comes to taxation – which was and still is a major concern – the Federalists believed that the central government should possess the power to impose and collect taxes directly from the people. They thought this was necessary for the union to provide national defense and pay debts to other countries.
The group also felt the central government should hold the power to create and implement commercial trade policy with other nations. They favored a unified trade policy that would allow the federal government to make decisions regarding trade without having to go through a lengthy process.
Weak Government Anti-Federalists
The Anti-Federalists, a group that was led by George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, argued against a strong central government. While they did not agree with each other on all aspects of how the government should look, they knew they did not want a state that would interfere in the lives of everyday citizens. This group fought against the ratification of the Constitution because they believed it gave the federal government too much power while not doing enough to protect the rights of ordinary people.
Anti-Federalists were typically farmers and less-wealthy workers. They wanted to see a more local form of government that could not be eclipsed by a stronger federal system. This group believed the central government should only provide basic functions like diplomacy, foreign policy, and national defense. One of the other sticking points for this faction was the lack of a bill of rights that would safeguard individual liberties. This was missing from the Constitution that was being put forth by the Federalists.
When dealing with taxation, the Anti-Federalists did not like the idea of a central government that could tax citizens directly. They were concerned about the possibility that this federal power could become tyrannical by imposing oppressive taxes on the populace.
The group did not believe the central government should have the power to make decisions regarding trade. They thought a federal government could use this power to punish or favor individual states as a way to further its own agenda. George Mason asserted that all laws regarding international trade should require a three-quarter supermajority vote in both chambers of Congress. He refused to sign the Constitution because it did not contain this requirement.
How Did it Work Out?
The two factions ran campaigns to sway public opinion on how the people would be governed after the Revolutionary War. Some of the states sided with the Federalists while others supported the Anti-Federalists. Heated debates ensued, and in some cases, violence almost broke out. In Rhode Island, about 1,000 armed Anti-Federalists marched to the state capital to oppose the ratification of the Constitution.
Some states were warmer towards the Constitution but still feared that such a document would grant too much power to the central government and allow it to infringe on liberty. Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and New Hampshire only agreed to ratify the Constitution if it also included a bill of rights.
In 1789, the states ratified the Constitution, and directly after this occurred, Congress submitted a list of 12 amendments. It ratified ten of the amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights. In the end, the Federalists got what they wanted, a Constitution, even though they had to accept the Bill of Rights they did not want. The Anti-Federalists lost the battle over the Constitution, but they did manage to get the Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty. These compromises enabled the Founders to create the nation in which we live today.