LeaderPatrick Henry
Founded1787; 237 years ago (1787)
Dissolved1789; 235 years ago (1789)
Split fromPatriots
Succeeded byAnti-Administration party

Anti-Federalism was a late-18th-century political movement that opposed the creation of a stronger U.S. federal government and which later opposed the ratification of the 1787 Constitution. The previous constitution, called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, gave state governments more authority. Led by Patrick Henry of Virginia, Anti-Federalists worried, among other things, that the position of president, then a novelty, might evolve into a monarchy. Though the Constitution was ratified and supplanted the Articles of Confederation, Anti-Federalist influence helped lead to the passage of the Bill of Rights.


The name "Anti-Federalists" is a misnomer.[1] It was imposed upon the movement by their opponents, the Federalists, and was supposed to mark them as men who "stood against the very political ideas they embraced".[1] According to historian Carol Berkin:

Perhaps the nationalists' most brilliant tactic in the battle of ideas ahead of them, however, was their decision to call themselves "Federalists" and their cause, "Federalism." The men behind the Constitution were not, of course, federalists at all. They were advocates of a strong national government whose authority diminished the independence of the states. [...] By co-opting the name "Federalists," the pro-Constitution forces deprived their opponents of the ability to signal clearly and immediately what they stood for.[1]

Main beliefs

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During the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, the term federal was applied to any person who supported the colonial union and the government formed under the Articles of Confederation. After the war, the group that felt the national government under the Articles was too weak appropriated the name Federalist for themselves. Historian Jackson Turner Main wrote, "to them, the man of 'federal principles' approved of 'federal measures,' which meant those that increased the weight and authority or extended the influence of the Confederation Congress."[4]

As the Federalists moved to amend the Articles, eventually leading to the Constitutional Convention, they applied the term anti-federalist to their opposition. The term implied, correctly or not, both opposition to Congress and unpatriotic motives. The Anti-Federalists rejected the term, arguing that they were the true Federalists. In both their correspondence and their local groups, they tried to capture the term. For example, an unknown anti-federalist signed his public correspondence as "A Federal Farmer" and the New York committee opposing the Constitution was called the "Federal Republican Committee." However the Federalists carried the day and the name Anti-Federalist forever stuck.[4]

The Anti-Federalists were composed of diverse elements, including those opposed to the Constitution because they thought that a stronger government threatened the sovereignty and prestige of the states, localities, or individuals; those that saw in the proposed government a new centralized, disguised "monarchic" power that would only replace the cast-off despotism of Great Britain;[5] and those who simply feared that the new government threatened their personal liberties. Some of the opposition believed that the central government under the Articles of Confederation was sufficient. Still others believed that while the national government under the Articles was too weak, the national government under the Constitution would be too strong. Another complaint of the Anti-Federalists was that the Constitution provided for a centralized rather than federal government (and in The Federalist Papers, James Madison admitted that the new Constitution had the characteristics of both a centralized and federal form of government) and that a truly federal form of government was a leaguing of states as under the Articles of Confederation.

During the period of debate over the ratification of the Constitution, numerous independent local speeches and articles were published all across the country. Initially, many of the articles in opposition were written under pseudonyms, such as "Brutus" (likely Melancton Smith),[6] "Centinel" (likely Samuel Bryan), and "Federal Farmer." Eventually, famous revolutionary figures such as Patrick Henry came out publicly against the Constitution. They argued that the strong national government proposed by the Federalists was a threat to the rights of individuals and that the president would become a king. They objected to the federal court system created by the proposed constitution. Minority groups also contributed, such as Mercy Otis Warren who disguised herself as "A Colombian Patriot," thought to be Elbridge Gerry.[7] Warren's most notable pamphlet discussed the treatment of minorities and American natural rights; this pamphlet was titled "History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution".[8] This produced a body of political writing; the best and most influential of these articles and speeches were gathered by historians into a collection known as the Anti-Federalist Papers in allusion to the Federalist Papers. The authors of these works did not organize together as a group. Instead, they used the medium of print to spread their ideas individually.[9]

In many states the opposition to the Constitution was strong (although Delaware, Georgia, and New Jersey ratified quickly with little controversy), and in two states—North Carolina and Rhode Island—it prevented ratification until the definite establishment of the new government practically forced their adherence. Individualism was the strongest element of opposition; the necessity, or at least the desirability, of a bill of rights was almost universally felt.[5] In Rhode Island, resistance against the Constitution was so strong that civil war almost broke out on July 4, 1788, when anti-federalist members of the Country Party led by Judge William West marched into Providence with over 1,000 armed protesters.[10]

The Anti-Federalists played upon these feelings in the ratification convention in Massachusetts. By this point, five of the states had ratified the Constitution with relative ease, but the Massachusetts convention was far more disputed and contentious. After a long debate, a compromise (known as the "Massachusetts compromise") was reached. Massachusetts would ratify the Constitution with recommended provisions in the ratifying instrument that the Constitution be amended with a bill of rights. (The Federalists contended that a conditional ratification would be void, so the recommendation was the strongest support that the ratifying convention could give to a bill of rights short of rejecting the Constitution.)

Four of the next five states to ratify, including New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York, included similar language in their ratification instruments. As a result, shortly after the Constitution became operative in 1789, Congress sent a set of twelve amendments to the states. Ten of these amendments were immediately ratified and became known as the Bill of Rights, with one of the other two becoming the 27th Amendment—almost 200 years later. Thus, while the Anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in their quest to prevent the adoption of the Constitution, their efforts were not totally in vain. The Anti-Federalists thus became recognized as an influential group among the Founding Fathers of the United States.

With the passage of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Anti-Federalist movement was exhausted. Some activists joined the Anti-Administration Party that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were forming about 1790–91 to oppose the policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton; this group soon became the Democratic-Republican Party.[11] When Jefferson took office as the third president in 1801, he replaced Federalist appointees with Democratic-Republicans and sought to focus on issues that allowed the states to make more of their own decisions in matters. He also repealed the whiskey excise and other federal taxes, shut down some federal offices and broadly sought to change the fiscal system that Hamilton had created.[12]

Notable Anti-Federalists

See also


  1. ^ a b c Berkin, Carol (2003). A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-15-602872-1.
  2. ^ Cornell, Saul (1999). The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. University of North Carolina Press. p. 28. doi:10.5149/9780807839218_cornell.7?searchtext=&searchuri=&ab_segments=&searchkey=&refreqid=fastly-default:b9a7839cf8534a64d5df77b3f54451ab&seq=12. ISBN 978-0-8078-4786-2.
  3. ^ "Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists". HIS2011- Federalists verse Anit- Federalists. Suffern High School.
  4. ^ a b Main, Jackson Turner (1961). The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-5544-8.
  5. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Anti-Federalists". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 124.
  6. ^ Zuckert and Webb. The Anti-Federalist Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle pp. 418–419
  7. ^ Amar, Akhil (1995-01-01). "Women and the Constitution". Faculty Scholarship Series.
  8. ^ "Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814)". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  9. ^ Cornell, Saul (1999). The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 22–24. ISBN 0807847860.
  10. ^ Columbian Centinel, July 5, 12, 16, 23, 1788; Pennsylvania Packet, July 30, 1788. (reference to West's anti-Constitution 4th of July rally)
  11. ^ Kenneth F.Warren (2008). Encyclopedia of U.S. Campaigns, Elections, and Electoral Behavior. SAGE Publications. p. 176. ISBN 9781412954891.
  12. ^ "What Were Some Examples of Thomas Jefferson's Anti-Federalist Views?". Reference. Archived from the original on 2019-04-21.
  13. ^ a b c d "16b. Antifederalists". Archived from the original on 8 October 2016. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  14. ^ LeRoy, Marcel (5 July 2002). "Sam Adams – Father of the American Revolution". The Voice news. Archived from the original on 27 April 2014. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  15. ^ Wakelyn, Jon L. (2004). Birth of the Bill of Rights: Biographies. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-313-33194-7.
  16. ^ "Letter to John Lamb from Joshua Atherton. Part of the John Lamb papers" (PDF).
  17. ^ "Lesson 1: Anti-federalist Arguments Against "A Complete Consolidation"". The National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  18. ^ a b c Willick, Jason (July 3, 2019). "The Founders Who Opposed the Constitution: The Anti-Federalists gave us the Bill of Rights. Judge Andrew Oldham says they can also give us insight on the modern administrative state". Wall Street Journal. In 1789, when Rep. Madison introduced the first 10 amendments in the First Congress, he was making a concession to the Anti-Federalists. Those writers and politicians—including Robert Yates, Mercy Otis Warren and Richard Henry Lee—opposed the original Constitution.
  19. ^ Ketcham, Ralph (1971). "James Madison: A Biography". American Political Biography Press. p. 259.
  20. ^ O'Connor, Thomas H.; Rogers, Alan (1987). This Momentous Affair: Massachusetts and the Ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston. p. 19. ISBN 9780890730799 – via Internet Archive.
  21. ^ Ketcham, Ralph (1971). "James Madison: A Biography". American Political Biography Press. p. 234.
  22. ^ Amar, Akhil Reed (1995). "Women and the Constitution". Faculty Scholarship Series. Yale Law School. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  23. ^ "The Anti-Federalist Papers". The Federalist Papers. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
  24. ^ Levine, David (25 June 2014). "Best Clinton Ever? Why New York's First Governor, George Clinton, Totally Rocks". Hudson Valley. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
  25. ^ Kauffman, Bill (2008). "Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin". ISI Books. p. 225. ISBN 9781933859736.
  26. ^ Siemers, David J. (October 1, 1998). ""It is Natural to Care for the Crazy Machine": The Antifederalists' Post-Ratification Acquiescence"". Studies in American Political Development. 12 (2): 383–410. doi:10.1017/S0898588X98001576. S2CID 145259078. Retrieved 22 February 2021.

Further reading