Image Courtesy of the National Constitution Center – Find more information at

The formation of a constitutional government in the United States did not smoothly transition from a foreign entity into a seamless governmental structure. Whether through the viewpoint of state legislatures or a stronger national unifying government, the government developed the design of the United States Constitution with an added Bill of Rights. The debate surrounding the development of these American legal principles was discordantly gaping and contentious—the initial salvo into American jurisprudence laid in the Articles of Confederation. With an overwhelming belief in state sovereignty, the Articles of Confederation stated, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power.”  With the Articles of Confederation’s significant weaknesses to regulate trade, raising funds through taxation to help pay for the American Revolution, or conducting foreign policy, it became apparent that changes or a new form of government would be needed. The Articles of Confederation only allowed for thirteen independent states, not united in one central government. What ensued during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia and subsequent ratifying conventions would drive the debate of American legal philosophy. Both philosophical differences saw the protection of rights as key to the early republic. These statesmen were divided on what this new Constitution would look like and how the United States would proceed forward.

The Federalists’ argument was a conceptual call for unity under the new Constitution passed in Philadelphia in 1787. Unity under this unique document would take coercion in convincing delegates to ratify in their states, and Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison penned the argument of the Federalists under the Federalist Papers. The growing fear of foreign enemies and external attacks called for a robust central government due to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. After Shays’ Rebellion’s events, the uprising was a precipitating moment that required more government control that could not be feasible under the Articles of Confederation. The Federalists saw the complexities established in the United States Constitution as safeguarding the rights established within the document. While all inherent rights were not enumerated, they felt as though there were significant protections afforded to the individual. The Federalists believed that the national government did not have the right to assume powers that it did not explicitly have within the Constitution. Therefore the arguments of the Anti-Federalists of a despotic, overbearing, and tyrannical government getting established was misstating the established government. The United States Constitution proposed establishing a constitutional government that could care for insurrections and foreign enemies.

Federalists did not believe in humans, and distrusted individuals as corruption would become the nature of constitutionalism in the American framework. In the Federalists’ eyes, the Constitution was created because humans could not be trusted. They believed the people possessed enough virtue for self-government where government abuses would come with power, and sovereignty within the people was required. Their influences on ancient history and political philosophy showed them that human nature could not be trusted, and corruption would ensue. There was also a fear of the future of the country, especially in western lands. Federalists, especially Hamilton, felt as though there needed to be an arbitrator or it could devolve into conflict. The central government could help be the decision-maker between state disputes such as land. 

The Anti-Federalists presented the opposition to the ratification. This group was not as united as the Federalist group but considered themselves the Federalists due to their conceptions to keep the ideals of republicanism intact. Some wanted to make changes to the Articles of Confederation, while others wanted to keep state sovereignty in a new document, but the Constitution did not hold to that belief of the power to the states. Ratification of the United States Constitution required nine of the thirteen states to approve by the state legislatures. In opposition to the document’s structure, individuals like George Mason called for significant structural changes to the Constitution. These structural changes would place more power on the state governments due to the ongoing fear of establishing too much power in the central government.

On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists believed that a republic with the size and scope of the United States could not work. The examples of past republics showed the demise of oversized and bloated governments. They feared that the government would turn into a despotic form of government. Trusting in someone like George Washington would undoubtedly happen due to Washington’s stature in society. Still, the Anti-Federalists did not want to have a large national government after the Washington administration. The Anti-Federalists felt that human nature would lead to corruption in government.

Both groups appealed to the public and believed in the ideas of the consent of the government. Sovereignty within the people was a crucial tenet among the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists felt as though the idea of this new Constitution was a problem, as with a vast amount of land, representatives could not know the complete will of their constituents. The consent of the people, therefore, could not take place due to the concept of sovereignty. True sovereignty could not take place in the proposed system. Both groups were focused on the notion of political society and nation-building. The perceptions of what would be best and the best structures within the government framework established intense debate at the Constitutional Convention.

The dissension among the two groups would delay the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Anti-Federalists refused to ratify the United States Constitution due to the lack of rights they perceived were not in the original document. They were in favor of ensuring these individual rights that were lacking. Federalists were touting the complexity of the document and the government established as keeping individual rights safe and secure. While the call for these individuals’ rights, state constitutions had declarations of rights familiar to what would eventually become the Bill of Rights. The Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights from 1776 states, “That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent.” This clause is similar to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in granting individuals the right to exercise their religious beliefs freely. The Massachusetts state constitution from 1780 states, “And every subject shall have a right to produce all proofs, that may be favorable to him; to meet the witnesses against him face to face, and to be fully heard in his defence by himself, or his council, at his election.” This clause is similar to the protections stated within the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding the accused’s right after arrest and criminal trial protections.

Federalists believed that various bills of rights were dangerous to the sanctity of the United States Constitution and would be dangerous and unnecessary. In Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton is clear about the inherent dangers of having changes to the Constitution at such a juncture of the early republic. The feeling among most Federalists was that changing or adding to the Constitution could open the door to significant structural changes. Hamilton also states that there are already individual rights protected such as habeas corpus, no title of nobility, ex post facto laws, and others that the Constitution provides. The Federalists were clear that adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution would be nothing more than a “parchment barrier” in federal law. 

Due to political problems in his district and challenges, James Madison proposed a federal Bill of Rights that would provide for small changes adding twelve, then changed to ten, amendments to the United States Constitution. The language provided in the Bill of Rights was made non-controversial and provided protections that would ease the minds of staunch advocates of individual and state government protections. The political society of the early republic was divisive as factions; eventually, political parties were beginning to form.

In Washington’s Farewell Address, he states, “The Unity of Government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.” Washington’s call for the unity of government and appealing to the peace and tranquility of the nation was prevalent after the contentious debate on the ratifying of the United States Constitution. The dissension would lead to the formation of political parties and set the course of American political history for over two hundred and thirty years. The Federalists served as the builders of this new Constitution, while the Anti-Federalists were the inspectors ensuring that the foundation was secure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s