The debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists brought up ideas that can now be traced back to our Constitution. Their disputes and differences in ideology underlie and continue to shape our system of government today. Despite their very different routes, they both shared the common goal to develop freedom, equality, liberty, and justice for all. However, their different modes of thought are still not settled and continue to be argued about today. For example, what is the proper division of power between state governments and the federal government?
This concept of federalism and its significance on our state of affairs continues to be a point of contention between liberals and conservatives. Federalist and Anti-Federalist disagreement over the differing ideals of political community and potential threats to liberty led to competing conceptions about many theories, two of the most prominent being liberty and representation. A prominent issue still dealt with today is whether the Constitution has created a system of government that preserves liberties. In 1779, when the Framers were working towards ratifying the constitution, liberty was still a big issue. While some believed that the Constitution was a wonderful way to protect individual liberties, others insisted that it threatened independence. The Anti-Federalists, or "enemies of the Constitution", who believed that power should be vested in the states, unified themselves under the notion that true liberty is only possible in a small republic, ensuing that those who held power could be closely checked and all citizens could feel physically close to their rulers (Dilulio 167).
This idea of the ruled feeling physically close to their rulers was of utmost importance to the Anti-Federalists, who felt that the biggest threat to their liberties was people unknowing who their representatives are. This is one reason the colonists rebelled against England; they had no liberty or representation. Furthermore, they felt that a strong national government would reduce the powers of the states and acquiesce public will. This ideology can be seen in "Brutus" Essay IV: " [The people must be] possessed of the power of making the laws by which they are governed, [and any] representation, [must be] capable of understanding that true interest of the society for which it acts" (325). This idea plays a significant role in campaigns, where candidates typically try to appeal to a wide range of voters by using the appeal that they will always be near them to represent their interests and know exactly what they want. The Federalists held quite different views on how our liberties should be respected.
Madison held the opposite perspective of Anti-Federalist ideals by asserting in Federalist Paper No. 10 that liberty is safest in large or "extended" republics. In a large republic, it is more difficult for a dictator to take hold due to the variety of opinions and interests that are being expressed, which is why the source of liberty should be vested in individual rights. In Federalist No. 51, Madison argues that "a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good" (350). In other words, interests formed in larger republics create assorted interests and opinions, thus disabling any one group from obtaining too much power where it can potentially carry more influence than any other group in making legislation. The national government should be distant from the people, due to the fact that liberty could be threatened not only by a strong government but also by factions or interest groups who seek to gain too much power for the good of all society. As a result of the varying, conflicting interests of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the Constitution sought to find a compromise.
The Constitution guarantees individual liberties, as favored by the Anti-Federalists, who later achieved the goal of implementing a Bill of Rights due to the fact that the "state bills of rights" turned out to be insufficient. In favor of the Federalists, the Constitution of 1779 explicitly stated that the government "could do only what the Constitution gave it power to do, and nowhere in that document was there permission to infringe" on any freedoms (Dilulio 38). In addition to liberty, another competing conception of politics that still continues to progress throughout our history is representation. The Anti-Federalists firmly held the belief that the knowledge needed to represent citizens is beyond that of being so well-educated.
Ordinary citizens will know more about the common concerns of the people than wealthy citizens, who are more likely to distance themselves from the true interests of the people. This idea explains why the Anti-Federalists want actual representation, where the citizens are directly involved through participation in our government. Also, a large legislature is better than a small one because that way more interests can be expressed rather than the interests of just one faction. The Federalists held opposite ideas about what believed to be the best theory of representation for the new nation. Virtual representation, where we democratically elected delegates to represent us as the best way to keep the citizens in contact with the doings of their government.
The issue of the quality of the representatives, was clearly asserted by Madison: representation should be in the hands of "gentlemen of fortune and abilities", not in those of the "middling politician" (The Founder's Constitution). This is important because it illustrates the biases of the Federalists, who were wealthy, well-educated, white, Protestant men, who wanted only the 'best and brightest' to represent them. Just like the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists were also acting out of self-interest because they wanted someone who was like them to represent them; someone who could understand their interests. In The Federalist No. 45, Hamilton rejects the Anti-Federalist on ideology of representation, by stating that "the nonagricultural working class knows that "their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments" (The Founder's Constitution). In addition, the Federalists held the belief that the size of the legislature should be small because only the most educated and elite have the real knowledge to know what decisions are best to make about our own personal lives.
The theories of representation adopted by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists sought to compromise "contending powers" rather than achieve a good balance (Zinn 101). The Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise sought to reconcile this issue by allowing small states to dominate in the Senate and large states to predominate in the House. In addition, each state was allotted two representatives in the Senate, regardless of the size or population of their state. However, in the House, the number of Representatives was based on population. Throughout our country's history, the constitution has been amended twenty-seven times.
Each time, different groups have made their voices heard and changed legislation as a result. Nevertheless, the ideas of our Founders and the differences of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists still influence our society today. While the Federalists and Anti-Federalists held different ideologies for how our country should operate, both shared the common goals of "developing in our prosperity a deeper awareness of our government and "progressing the understanding of American government", and thus American history (The Liberty Bill Project). While some argue that the Federalists won the debate over the Constitution, others argue that the Anti-Federalist perspectives on our form of government still resonate in 21st century America. Even so, each age waves in a new time of progression where we can not only add another chapter to our history, but also proceed with a new understanding of liberty, equality, democracy, and justice from past history.
Dilulio, John J. Jr. and James Q. Wilson. American Government. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. 1812.
Story, Joseph. The Founder's Constitution. Volume 1, Chapter 13, Introduction. 1987.
The University of Chicago Press. 23 Sept. 2003.
The Liberty Bill Project. 24 Sept. 2003.
web Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.