Who Were the Anti-Federalists?

Patrick Henry addressing the Constitutional Convention
Patrick Henry, Considered Leader of the Anti-Federalist Movement. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Not all Americans liked the new U.S. Constitution offered to them in 1787. Some, particularly the Anti-Federalists, downright hated it.

The Anti-Federalists were a group of Americans who objected to the creation of a stronger U.S. federal government and opposed final ratification of the U.S. Constitution as approved by the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Anti-Federalists generally preferred a government as formed in 1781 by the Articles of Confederation, which had granted the predominance of power to the state governments.

Led by Patrick Henry of Virginia – an influential colonial advocate for American independence from England – the Anti-Federalists feared, among other things, that the powers granted to the federal government by the Constitution could enable the President of the United States to function as a king, turning the government into a monarchy. This fear can to some degree be explained by the fact that in 1789, most of the world’s governments were still monarchies and the function of a “president” was largely an unknown quantity.

Quick History of the Term ‘Anti-Federalists’

Arising during the American Revolution, the term “federal” referred simply to any citizen who favored of the formation of a union of the 13 British-ruled American colonies and the government as formed under the Articles of Confederation.

After the Revolution, a group of citizens who specifically felt that the federal government under the Articles of Confederation should be made stronger labeled themselves the “Federalists.”    

When the Federalists attempted to amend the Articles of Confederation to give the central government greater power, they began to refer to those who opposed them as “Anti-Federalists.”

What Drove the Anti-Federalists?

Closely akin to people who advocate the more modern political concept of “states’ rights,” many of the Anti-Federalists feared that the strong central government created by the Constitution would threaten the independence of the states.

Other Anti-Federalists argued that the new strong government would be little more than a “monarchy in disguise” that would simply replace British despotism with American despotism.

Still other Anti-Federalists simply feared the new government would become too involved in their daily lives and threaten their personal liberties.

The Impacts of the Anti-Federalists

As the individual states debated ratification of the Constitution, a wider national debate between the Federalists—who favored the Constitution—and the Anti-Federalists—who opposed it—raged in speeches and extensive collections of published articles.

Best known of these articles were the Federalist Papers, written variously by John Jay, James Madison and/or Alexander Hamilton, both explained and supported the new Constitution; and the Anti-Federalist Papers, published under several pseudonyms such as “Brutus” (Robert Yates), and “Federal Farmer” (Richard Henry Lee), opposed the Constitution.

At the height of the debate, famed revolutionary patriot Patrick Henry declared his opposition to the Constitution, thus becoming the figurehead of the Anti-Federalist faction.

The arguments of the Anti-Federalists had more impact in some states than in others.

While the states of Delaware, Georgia, and New Jersey voted to ratify the Constitution almost immediately, North Carolina and Rhode Island refused to go along until it became obvious that final ratification was inevitable. In Rhode Island, opposition to the Constitution almost reached the point of violence when more than 1,000 armed Anti-Federalists marched on Providence.

Concerned that a strong federal government might reduce the peoples’ individual freedoms, several states demanded the inclusion of a specific bill of rights in the Constitution. Massachusetts, for example, agreed to ratify the Constitution only on the condition that it would be amended with a bill of rights. 

The states of New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York also made their ratification conditional pending the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution.

As soon as the Constitution had been ratified in 1789, Congress submitted a list of 12 bill of rights amendments to the states for their ratification. The states quickly ratified 10 of the amendments; the ten known today as the Bill of Rights. One of the 2 amendments not ratified in 1789 eventually became the 27th Amendment ratified in 1992.

After final adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Some former Anti-Federalists went on to join the Anti-Administration Party formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposition to the banking and financial programs of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. The Anti-Administration Party would soon become the Democratic-Republican Party, with Jefferson and Madison going on to be elected the third and fourth Presidents of the United States.

Summary of Differences Between Federalists and Anti-Federalists

In general, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists disagreed on the scope of the powers granted to the central U.S. government by the proposed Constitution.

Federalists tended to be businessmen, merchants, or wealthy plantation owners. They favored a strong central government that would have more control over the people than the individual state governments.

Anti-Federalists worked mainly as farmers. They wanted a weaker central government that would mainly assist the state governments by providing basic functions like defense, international diplomacy, and setting foreign policy.  

There were other specific differences.

Federal Court System

Federalists wanted a strong federal court system with the U.S. Supreme Court having original jurisdiction over lawsuits between the states and suits between a state and a citizen of another state.

Anti-Federalists favored a more limited federal court system and believed that lawsuits involving state laws should be heard by the courts of the states involved, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court.

Taxation

Federalists wanted the central government to have the power to levy and collect taxes directly from the people.

They believed the power to tax was necessary to provide national defense and to repay debts to other nations.

Anti-Federalists opposed the power, fearing it could allow the central government to rule the people and the states by imposing unfair and repressive taxes, rather than through representative government.

Regulation of Commerce

Federalists wanted the central government to have sole power to create and implement U.S. commercial policy.

Anti-Federalists favored commercial policies and regulations designed based on the needs of the individual states. They worried that a strong central government might use unlimited power over commerce to unfairly benefit or punish individual states or to make one region of the nation subservient to another. Anti-Federalist George Mason argued that any commercial regulation laws passed by the U.S. Congress should require a three-fourth, supermajority vote in both the House and Senate. He subsequently refused to sign the Constitution, because it did not include the provision.

State Militias

Federalists wanted the central government to have the power to federalize the militias of the individual states when needed to protect the nation.

Anti-Federalists opposed the power, saying the states should have total control over their militias. 

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Longley, Robert. "Who Were the Anti-Federalists?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/anti-federalists-4129289. Longley, Robert. (2017, April 3). Who Were the Anti-Federalists? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/anti-federalists-4129289 Longley, Robert. "Who Were the Anti-Federalists?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/anti-federalists-4129289 (accessed September 26, 2017).