The Constitutional Convention

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What compromises between Federalists and Antifederalists led to the ratification of the Constitution?

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The compromise between Federalists and Anti-Federalists involved what remains an intractable issue: the power of the federal government relative to those of the individual states. The product of the Second Continental Congress was the Articles of Confederation, which established a central government many believed was too weak to effectively govern, regulate a national economy, and hold the disparate colonies/states together. The later Constitutional Convention drafted and debated what would, with modifications and amendments, become the Constitution of the United States. The underlying document established the governmental structure that remains in effect today; power is balanced among three branches, the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. While establishing the framework of the federal government and delineating specific responsibilities accordingly among the legislative and executive branches, the Constitution as passed was not viewed by critics as ensuring the rights the absence of which motivated the independence movement in the first place. As a result, a series of amendments collectively labeled “The Bill of Rights” were passed in 1789 and ratified two years later.

The Bill of Rights is appropriately recognized as protecting freedom of speech, religion, and assembly as well as freedom from warrantless searches. The 10th Amendment, however, represented one of the more consequential compromises. The 10th Amendment states that “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” The significance of this language lies in its institutionalization of the continued power of the individual states—the main concern of the Anti-Federalists.

While the language of the 10th Amendment seemingly resolved the issue of states’ rights, it actually proved inadequate in practice by virtue of its inability to foresee the emergence of issues central to political debate today, such as abortion. Indeed, the ongoing debate over the meaning of the 2nd Amendment (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”] following instances of a gun-related crime serves as a constant reminder of the difficulty of applying an 18th century document to the 21st century world.

To conclude, the main compromise between Federalists and Anti-Federalists involved the attempt to clearly separate federal and state powers. That issue, as noted, remains subject to intense debate.

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After the Constitutional Convention created the new Constitution, it still had to be ratified.  Not everyone actually liked the new document.  The Antifederalists felt that it gave too much power to the federal government.  The Federalists, therefore, had to make some compromises to get the Antifederalists to agree to the Constitution.

One compromise that they made was to list the things that Congress could do.  Article I of the Constitution lists which things Congress can do, which means that the national government could not simply do whatever it wanted.  This meant that the states would have some powers reserved for them.

The main compromise, though, was to create the Bill of Rights.  The Antifederalists worried that a strong national government would abuse their rights in the same way that the British government had.  To allay their fears, the Federalists agreed to create the Bill of Rights.  These amendments to the Constitution spelled out what rights the people had that the national government could not interfere with.  For example, it said that the national government could not infringe on people’s rights to freedom of speech or religion.  The Bill of Rights also said that any rights not given to Congress or taken from the states belonged to the states. This helped ensure that the states would have some powers of their own.

The main compromises, then, were ones that made sure that the states would be guaranteed to have some powers and that the powers of the federal government would be limited.

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