June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Federalists and Anti-Federalists — What is the Difference?

4 min read

In the late 1780’s, the most important debate in America’s history took place. This debate, which started in 1787, pitted the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists. In a tumultuous time, where the newly independent states were riddled with debt, rebellion, and uncertainty, fifty-five men gathered to create the United States Constitution. This constitution would replace the failed Articles of Confederation, thus establishing a new federal government. The Articles, which proved useful in uniting the states together and waging war with Britain, had several flaws. The most severe of these flaws were: 1) that all states were required to amend laws, 2) that the federal government couldn’t raise money through taxes, and 3) there were no national executive or judicial powers; therefore, all powers were vested in Congress.


The new U.S. Constitution differed from the Articles of Confederation in various ways. Most importantly, it implemented changes to fix the aforementioned flaws. However, the way in which the Constitution corrected these issues—the issues which continually kept Congress in a gridlock, rendering the current government ineffective—shaped the American government into a government with federal control. The Articles had originally established the states as a loose confederation, “a firm league of friendship,” whereas the Constitution would establish a firm union with a supreme national government. Once the Constitution was completed, it was sent to all 13 states to be ratified. Feelings about the new government, established under the U.S. Constitution, led to much debate and two groups emerged during the ratification process—the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

The Anti-Federalists were against the United States Constitution. This group of men consisted of historical greats such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and James Monroe. These men believed that the Constitution gave the federal government too much power; they believed that states should have more power. Their logic behind this was that the states could better decide what the people needed. With each state came its own set of needs. How could a federal government, spanning over such a large area, possibly know what was best for each individual state? In Brutus No 1, it was that argued that “in a republic of such vast extent as the United-States, the legislature cannot attend to the various concerns and wants of its different parts. It cannot be sufficiently numerous to be acquainted with the local condition and wants of the different districts, and if it could, it is impossible it should have sufficient time to attend to and provide for all the variety of cases of this nature, that would be continually arising.”

Never in America’s history had so much power been given to a federal court or a federal executive. The Articles of Confederation had intentionally seen to it that such powers were not granted. The Anti-Federalists, who still had fresh memories of oppression under Britain’s King George III, were uneasy in establishing a government that had the potential to turn into a monarchy. They feared that the President of the United States could become a tyrant and with his and Congress’ enumerated powers, such as the power to maintain an army (even in times of peace), take control of the states.

The largest issue that the Anti-Federalists had with the proposed constitution was that it lacked a bill of rights. All states had their own constitutions, with its own bill of rights, but the Anti-Federalists did not believe that this would be enough to protect the citizens from this new, powerful federal government. This issue, as well as all the issues listed above, was mentioned in political writings and speeches which historians have labeled as the Anti-Federalist Papers.

The Federalists were for the implementation of the U.S. Constitution as it was originally written at the Constitutional Convention. Through a series of published articles, entitled the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay argued against the concerns of the Anti-Federalists. Where the Anti-Federalists showed concern that a federal government would lead to rule by majority and that states wouldn’t have the powers to take care of their citizens, Madison argued against this irrational fear in Federalist No 10.


In Federalist No 70, Hamilton gave a compelling argument for the need to have a one-man executive power over shared executive powers. If plural executives were chosen, the separate rulers would “less the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operations of those whom they divide.” Madison argued in Federalist No 51 that neither the executive branch, Congress, nor the judicial branch could become too powerful because of the separation of powers. These separations of power, along with the implementation of checks and balances would provide “[a] great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department.”

Federalist No 84, written by Hamilton, battled the largest concern of the Anti-Federalists—a bill of rights. Hamilton argued that a bill of rights was a dated notion and, in fact, dangerous to the American people. He believed that a bill of rights would “contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted.” He feared that a bill of rights could be interpreted as a list of the only rights which people had.

While I found the arguments of the Anti-Federalists compelling, I believe that a stronger, unified government was necessary at the time. The Articles of Confederation were restrictive to progress and needed to be replaced. While the Anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in their attempts to stop the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, they were successful in amending the Constitution with a bill of rights. The Bill of Rights, added as the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was an excellent addition and an accomplishment that the Anti-Federalists should be proud of achieving.

5 thoughts on “Federalists and Anti-Federalists — What is the Difference?

  1. Fascinating piece, Grant. For a look at how the Federalist/anti-Federalist divide played out in the War of 1812 (which nearly split out nation apart decades before the Civil War), check out my historical novel, “Madness: The War of 1812” at http://www.madness1812.com. Sorry for the shameless pitch, but I thought you might be interested.

  2. Where would we be without shameless pitches? Haha, thanks for stopping by! I will have to check out the book.

  3. There was a very nice Venn diagram on this site when I opened it this morning, but it disappeared by this afternoon.

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