The Anti-Federalists

‘The Looking Glass for 1787’, a pessimistic cartoon about the new nation

Those who did not support the Constitution came to be known as Anti-Federalists or ‘states-rights men’ and their most notable representative was Patrick Henry (who had refused to attend the Convention because of his suspicion of it, declaring “I smell a rat, tending toward monarchy”). Others included George Clinton, Richard Henry Lee and Mercy Otis Warren, the female chronicler. Thomas Jefferson was also sharply critical of the Constitution, though he actively supported some parts of it, and later explained that he was not fully Anti-Federalist but somewhere between the two positions.

As a group, Anti-Federalists were concerned about several issues. They feared that sovereignty, autonomy and states’ rights would be trampled by the newly empowered national government. They argued that over time the power and influence of the states would be eroded or ‘drained’ by the federal government. They worried that the centralisation of power would put control into the hands of an urban-based elite. They expressed concern that the president, with control of the army, might become a military dictator (“[the presidency] would be a foetus of monarchy!” said Edmund Randolph). They feared the separation of powers in the Constitution was not strong enough or distinct enough. They panicked about the possible implications for personal liberties like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to worship freely, which to many Americans had been the real driving issue behind the revolution.

“The basic concept stressed [in many anti-Federalist works] was the evil effect of power. ‘The love of power is natural… it is insatiable…’ wrote Burgh. ‘Power renders men wanton, insolent to others and fond of themselves,’ observed Gordon and Trenchard… This mistrust of power was characteristic of American political thought during this period.”
Jackson T. Main, historian

Unlike their opposition the Anti-Federalists did not engage in a co-ordinated and sustained propaganda barrage. While the Federalist Papers appeared as 85 single editions, published regularly and with clear arguments and tone, the Anti-Federalists wrote sporadically, using pseudonyms such as Cato, Federal Farmer, Centinel and Brutus. The quality of their pamphlets did not approach those of the Federalists. Intellectually outgunned and lacking a figurehead leader such as Washington, the Anti-Federalists were not able to convince enough of their cause, though they enjoyed plenty of support, particularly in the larger states and in the south. Some Americans saw the flaws in both sides and supported neither the federalist or anti-federalist points-of-view. The picture shown here, The Looking Glass for 1787: A House Divided against itself cannot Stand, shows the two camps pulling the state of Connecticut apart with their constant bickering and equivocation.

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