The Constitutional Convention

Start Free Trial

What were the main arguments in the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the 1780s?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

While many at the Constitutional Convention saw that a revision to the Articles of Confederation was necessary, a great debate arose between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over what type of system the country should have. The Federalists wanted to completely change the system and institute a new Constitution. The...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

While many at the Constitutional Convention saw that a revision to the Articles of Confederation was necessary, a great debate arose between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over what type of system the country should have. The Federalists wanted to completely change the system and institute a new Constitution. The Anti-Federalists were mostly happy with the Articles of Confederation and if anything felt that it should only be amended. As history has shown, the Federalists won out in the end, but the Anti-Federalists did win certain concessions to protect their interests.

Generally speaking, the Federalists wanted to rectify the weaknesses of the current system by instituting a strong and powerful central government that was more powerful than state governments. The Anti-Federalists feared that this type of system would be just a different form of tyranny and that strong state governments would better protect the rights and interests of the people. Overall, the Federalists wanted a national government that could tie the states together and create a more organized system.

The Anti-Federalists wanted a system that spelled out exactly what rights the people had and how they were to be protected. However, the Federalists opposed a Bill of Rights. They felt that such a document would end up limiting the rights of the people overall by creating what they called a "parchment barrier." Simply put, they were afraid that by enumerating the rights of the people, anything not so enumerated could be denied. In the end, the 9th and 10th Amendments solved this problem. The 9th Amendment states that the rights of the people shall extend beyond the ones listed. The 10th Amendment grants the states powers not explicitly given in the Constitution. This compromise seemed to quell the fears of both parties and allowed for the adoption of the Constitution along with the Bill of Rights.

In many ways, this was a debate between rural and urban America. The Anti-Federalists did not trust that big government could look out for the interests of the less populated states. The Federalists wanted to bypass much of the representation of the states and have a government with representation more tied to population size. In a compromise, a bicameral legislature was created. In it, the members of the House of Representatives are elected directly by the people and representation is based on population. This part pleased the Federalists. The Anti-Federalists were happy with the inclusion of the Senate in which each state gets equal representation. Furthermore, senators were not originally elected by the electorate but appointed by state legislatures, tying them even closer to the soverignty of individual states.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main argument between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was one of monumental importance, whether or not the Constitution of the United States was to be ratified. A large bone of contention here was whether or not the Bill of Rights would be included. The Federalists, believing that the Constitution only limited the powers of the government, thought this addition was superfluous.

The Anti-Federalists, however, feared a federal government with too much power. They believed that without the Bill of Rights, the government would soon infringe upon the sovereign power of the states. They argued that such a central government would carry all of the problems of the tyranny from which they had just fought to remove themselves. The Bill of Rights eventually allowed a compromise. Without it, the constitution may have never existed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main arguments in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were the size and power of the federal government. The Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton, wanted a strong federal government with the ability to raise money through taxes and the power to assume the national debt and issue bonds. The Anti-Federalists, who were supported by Patrick Henry and others and who later coalesced around Thomas Jefferson and became the Democratic-Republicans (or Republicans for short), wanted the states to have more power and the federal government to be less powerful. Because of these ideological differences, the Federalists supported the Constitution, while the Anti-Federalists did not and pressed for the addition of a Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution) to safeguard people's rights. 

In addition, the Federalists, mainly from the north and from southern trading centers, wanted the country to embark on a plan of industrialization and to protect their industries through high tariffs (which are taxes on imported goods). The Federalists were seen as the party of the elite. The Anti-Federalists embraced a vision of agrarianism and of the power of the yeoman, or self-supporting farmer, and of low tariffs so they could acquire manufactured goods for less money. The Federalists supported a large and powerful army and supported Great Britain in foreign affairs, while the Anti-Federalists did not favor the development of an army and supported France in foreign affairs. 

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main arguments in this debate centered on how much power the national government should have. 

The Antifederalists were generally happy with the Articles of Confederation.  They wanted a lot of democracy and a lot of power for the states.  They felt that democracy and states’ rights would protect the rights of the people.   Their main concern was that the federal government would take away the rights of the people in the same way the British government had.

By contrast, the Federalists wanted a strong national government.  They felt that the state governments had too much power and were too democratic.  They felt that such a system led to a situation in which the rights of the economic elites were trampled by the desires of the poorer masses of people.  They felt that this created a situation that was both unfair to the elites and bad for the economy of the country as a whole.  Therefore, they wanted a strong central government so that the country could be more stable and could have an economic climate that was more suited to the creation of businesses and economic growth.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team