Compromise over the United States Constitution

The experience of a remote and centralized British colonial government followed by a weak and inept American central government provided the background to the debates preceding the ratification of the United States Constitution. Federalists sought the creation of a competent central government to deal with issues of national importance in the wake of economic and political unrest caused by flaws in the system of governance under the Articles of Confederation.

Anti-Federalists expressed mistrust of a potentially powerful federal government replicating the experience of British colonial rule. Key features of the United States Constitution including a bicameral Federal legislature, a system of checks and balances between the three arms of national government, and a Bill of Rights all reflect the compromise which Federalists reached with Anti-Federalists during the period of ratification. Compromise over the United States Constitution

The debates over the form and content of the United States Constitution were held in the wake of the American experience of the tyranny of British colonial rule, followed by political and economic tumult caused by weak central government which was established under the Articles of Confederation after the War of Independence. A catalyst for the American Revolution was the distant and unresponsive nature of the British government in its administration of the American colonies.

The Social Contract between the British government and the colonists began to break down. A growing feeling a neglect among the American populace manifested in protest against the taxation policies of the British Government. The slogan “no taxation with representation” was coined and the Boston Tea Party in which an East India company vessel was raided in Boston Harbor and its cargo was thrown overboard became a rallying cry for patriotic sentiment (Shae, Green & Smith, 2009, p. 38).

The Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson articulated the breakdown of the Social Contract in the American colonies, and the emerging ideals of American republicanism. The War of Independence having been won, the American states sought to govern themselves within the framework of the Articles of Confederation. In this system the states remained independent and the central government had no power to enforce policies if the states refused to cooperate (Shae et al. , p. 44).

Whilst autonomy of the states worked well in some respects, it proved disastrous in economic affairs, foreign policy and security. The need for a stronger central government was highlighted by the Shays’s Rebellion of 1786 and 1787, in which the Massachusetts government was unable to control protests by Daniel Shays and his supporters who lead an agrarian revolt against the prevailing economic conditions of the day (Shae et al. , p. 45). Such experience of both tyranny and anarchy lead to the Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. The need for a new model of governance

The need for a middle path between the tyranny of remote British colonial rule and the dysfunctional nature of governance under the Articles of Confederation provided the impetus for the adoption of a new United States Constitution. The essence of the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists could be seen in initial proposals for the model of representation under the new Constitution. The Virginia Plan advocated by James Madison sought to allow each state a number of seats in the national legislature based upon its population (Shae et al. , p. 48).

This was countered by smaller states weary that they would be overwhelmed by bigger states. The New Jersey Plan advocated by William Patterson sought to create equal representation of states in the national legislature (Shae et al. , p. 48). Smaller states wanted the state to be the unit of representation in order to ensure states rights, whilst larger states wanted population to be the basis for representation in the national legislature. On June 30 1787, Roger Sherman of Connecticut presented what came to be known as the Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise (Shae et al.

, p. 49). The Great Compromise included elements of both the Virginia plan and the New Jersey Plan (Shae et al. , p. 49). A bi cameral legislature in which states would receive equal representation in the upper house, and population based representation in the lower house merged the key features of the two plans. In order to clarify the measurement of population in such a system the Three Fifths Compromise was reached in which a slave was to count for three fifths of a white person (Shae et al. , p. 50). The debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists

Federalists supported ratification of the US Constitution, whilst Anti-Federalists initially opposed ratification. The essence of their disagreement lay in the nature of representation in the new federal system. Federalists wanted a strong central government able to act decisively and unencumbered by factions. Anti Federalists feared the power of larger states and the threat of a powerful Presidency and central government which would be able to violate individual rights and neglect smaller states. The debate took place in print. The Federalist position was .

articulated in The Federalist Papers, the most famous of which was Federalist No. 10 by James Madison in which he argues that a stronger national government would be less prone to being unduly influenced by factions, and the will of the majority would always prevail (Shae et al. , p. 57). The Anti Federalist Response published under the byline Brutus, outlined the fears of a powerful Presidency combining with a distant unaccountable national government to violate individual rights (Shae et al. , p. 57). Anti-Federalist influence on the US Constitution

The concerns of the Anti-Federalists were addressed by the adoption of a Bill of Rights in the form of the first ten amendments to the Constitution which ensured protection of civil liberties. The Bill of Rights includes safeguards of personal and political freedoms in addition to safeguards in the judicial process and against arbitrary government action. In order to address concerns that a powerful Presidency could dominate the national government, the United States Constitution features a system of checks and balances in which each branch of government is limited by the other two (Shae et al., p. 53).

Furthermore Anti Federalist fears of smaller states being dominated by larger states were addressed in the Great Compromise which created a bicameral legislature in which states receive equal representation in the Senate and population based representation in the House of Representatives. The Police Powers ensure states rights by reserving powers to state governments related to health, safety and well being of citizens (Shae et al. , p. 53). State powers are further guaranteed in the Bill of Rights in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.

However Federalist imperatives were expressed in the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) and the Full Faith and Credit Clause (Article IV) which aimed to establish Federal legislative and judicial supremacy over the states. The framers allowed for Amendment to the Constitution in Article V of the Constitution. Key features of the United States Constitution which governs the modern American Republic arose from the intense debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists during the Constitutional Convention and subsequent ratification process. The debate centered upon notions of representation and accountability in the Federal system.

The Bill of Rights seeks to protect individual civil liberties, whilst a bicameral legislature balances states rights with population based representation. The system of checks and balances between the three branches of government ensures that a single branch of government does not become all powerful. The endurance of the United States Constitution suggests that the correct balance was struck in the compromise between Federalists and Anti-Federalists during the period of debate and ratification.


Shae, D. M. , Green, J. C. , Smith, C. E. , (2009). Living Democracy, National Edition, Prentice Hall.