Federalists and Anti-Federalists: The Debates

The anti-federalists generally opposed certain provisions in the proposed Constitution that will replace the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union back when America was yet to establish itself as a country with established laws recognized by other sovereign nations. The anti-federalists saw two principal objections against the Constitution: the Constitution gave the national government an overwhelming degree of power and, as a result, the rights of citizens might be overridden by the power of Congress especially in terms of legislating laws that can sacrifice the welfare of the people.

The substance of the opposition of the anti-federalists is the fear that the Constitution gives the national government too much power at the expense of the people. James Madison is one of those who supported the proposed Constitution and understood the necessity to create a national government that would officially make America a country that has a central authority that governs. Apparently, Madison and his colleagues thought that it was better to have a national government as embodied by the Constitution instead of none.

They argued that a lack of a core government aside from the local governments in each state would degrade the freedom gained from the hands of the British monarchy. Moreover, they saw that a nation with a central government can better defend itself from possible invasion of another sovereign country since America can stand as a unified force against the enemy. In fact, Article 3 of the Articles of Confederation explicitly establishes the United States for the common defense of the member states inasmuch as it seeks to secure their mutual and general welfare.

The anti-federalists, however, were reluctant to easily give-in to the premises of the new Constitution pushed by the group of Madison—the so-called “federalists”. They argued that the Articles endowed the central government tremendous power which could be the possible source of conflict between the interest of the national government and the interest of the states. In order to address the issue, the federalists tried to include a Bill of Rights after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation.

The Bill essentially stood as a compromise between the two contending parties. It was the way of the federalists to continue with their hope of creating the United States of America in perpetual union. However, Patrick Henry, an anti-federalist, doubted whether Congress would even propose amendments to the Constitution, let alone Congress calling for a convention after the ratification of the Constitution (Labunski, p. 81).

Madison—the first author of the Bill of Rights—responded with the arguments of Henry in the debates, stating that “if any dangerous and unnecessary powers be given to the Legislature, let them be plainly demonstrated” and that the men in the convention should “not rest satisfied with general assertions of danger without examination” (Labunski, p. 89). Henry also noted the weakness of those who support the proposed Constitution—“unless a right is reserved to the people by some express provision, [the right] is relinquished to rulers” Labunski, p.105).

Recognizing the arguments raised by the anti-federalists, the federalists went on to champion several clauses in the Bill which, for the most part, include the Clauses of Free Exercise, Establishment and Freedom of Speech. The Bill also secured the right of the people to bear arms as well as the key judicial concept of due process and of self-incrimination. It also promoted the rights of the accused such as the right to a speedy public trial through a jury system that is fair as well as the right to counsel.

The Clauses sought to ensure that the rights of the people will be recognized by the federal government even if much power is going to be delegated to the Legislature. However, the anti-federalists yet saw another hole in the ratified Constitution together with the Bill of Rights. While the rights of the citizens were mentioned in the Bill, the anti-federalists thought that the official establishment of those rights in legal writing might lead to the exclusion of other rights. That is, the rights that were not mentioned in the Bill might eventually be dismissed as rights because they are not part of the Bill.

The probable result of the apparent flaw in the Bill, as the anti-federalists understood, can only be detrimental on the part of the individual citizens. The federal government can still create laws that infringe the rights of the people that were not explicitly stated in the Bill. Madison knew that the argument raised by the anti-federalists was crucial in fostering the growth of the United States as a nation with a central body of government able to recognize and consider the rights of the people.

As a result, the federalists yet again proposed for the inclusion of several other provisions in the Bill of Rights that will secure the rights of the people that are not stated in letter in the Constitution. Several amendments were made to the original Bill of Rights, part of which includes the ninth amendment which specifically recognizes and protects the rights of the people that are not specifically enumerated in the Bill.

Other amendments were made to the Constitution through the years that followed, but the fact remains that had it not been for the deep exchange of arguments between the federalists such as Madison and anti-federalists such as Henry the Constitution of the United States of America that we know of today may have been far different than what we could begin to think.

Work Cited Labunski, Richard E. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.