Government Power and Individual Rights

Explain how Federalist and Anti-Federalist views on central government and democracy are reflected in U.S. foundational documents.

Madison’s arguments in Federalist No. 10 focused on:

  • the superiority of a large republic in controlling the “mischiefs of faction,”

  • delegating authority to elected representatives

  • and dispersing power between the states and national government

Anti-Federalist writings, including Brutus No. 1, adhered to popular democratic theory that emphasized the benefits of a small, decentralized republic while warning of the dangers to personal liberty from a large, centralized government

During the ratification debates, the proponents of the Constitution took on the name Federalists and their opponents became known as Anti-Federalists. A few years later, Federalists also became the name of one of the two major political parties . The Federalist (also called The Federalist Papers) is also the name of the lengthiest and most comprehensive defense of the Constitution written during the ratification struggle. This was a series of 85 essays published in New York City newspapers between October 1787 and May 1788 under the pseudonym “Publius” (a reference to “one of the founders and saviors of republican Rome”).40 “Publius” was actually three different people—Alexander Hamilton, who wrote about three-fifths of the essays; James Madison, who wrote most of the rest (including many of the best-known essays); and John Jay, a prominent political figure from New York, who wrote only five because of illness. In the years after ratification of the Constitution, The Federalist quickly became accepted as virtually a definitive interpretation of the meaning of the Constitution. Jefferson, called it “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.''

Federalist 10 was written by James Madison and is probably the most famous of the eighty-five papers written in support of ratification of the Constitution that are collectively known as the Federalist Papers.

The Anti-Federalists, led by the newly emerging middle class, had George Mason and Richard Henry Lee as their chief spokesmen. In a rival publication to the Federalist publications, Pennsylvania Packet and Letters from the Federal Farmer, and through individual essays penned under the name of Brutus, they argued that the principles of the Declaration of Independence would be eroded by the new Constitution. They believed the Constitution would firmly establish an economic elite and create the potential for an abusive federal government, especially in the area of protecting individual rights.

The Anti-Federalists insisted that a bill of rights had to be part of the new Constitution—otherwise, a powerful president supported by the Congress could easily abuse the civil liberties of the individual. Additionally, the sovereignty of the states became a concern, even with the guarantees provided. Nowhere was this argument more heated than in New York. The Anti-Federalists prevented the approval of the Constitution until Madison and Hamilton guaranteed that the first Congress would approve a bill of rights. Typically, the Anti-Federalists represented the farmers and the so-called common people. They rejected the elitist base represented by the Federalists.

In looking at the Federalist Papers, you can see how the U.S. political system was characterized and created from established groups that had differing attitudes toward how best to form a new government. In Federalist No. 10, Madison pointed out that factions could ultimately paralyze effective government. One of the first examples of why Madison was convinced factions could be potentially dangerous was Shays’ Rebellion soon after the Revolutionary War. Former patriot soldier Daniel Shays organized a group of angry Massachusetts farmers attempting to forestall foreclosure of their lands. Frustrated in their attempts to get government support, they took up arms against the local authorities. Shays was arrested, and the revolt failed.

The Anti-Federalist position found in Brutus No. 1 argued against the ratification of the Constitution, stating, “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.” Even the overall fight over the ratification of the proposed constitution was waged on “party lines.” Federalists supported ratification. Anti-Federalists opposed ratification. In this case, the policy agenda was the adoption of a new constitution.

Once the Constitution was ratified, two leading parties evolved. The Federalist Party, headed by Alexander Hamilton and made up of the country’s upper class, supported a strong national government and set a policy agenda that would solve the nation’s economic problems. In doing so, the party appealed to business interests such as manufacturing and trade. It believed in a loose construction, or a liberal interpretation, of the Constitution. The opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson after his return from France, where he had been the United States ambassador, was characterized as the party of the “common man.” It believed in a more limited role of the central government and was considered strict constructionist, which is characterized by a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. Its constituency was farmers, merchants, and the middle class of U.S. society.

In the 2010 midterm elections a unique special-interest group, the “Tea Party” emerged and played a significant role in determining the outcome of the election. The Tea Party’s name is derived from the Boston patriots who organized the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The modern-day Tea Party consists of Republicans who served in the House of Representatives and a grassroots movement of people who believe in less government, lower taxes, and lower government spending, and has as one of their battle cries, “taking the government back.”