The problem which now existed and needed to be overcome was whether the loosely organized states would, indeed could, put aside their provinciality and become subservient to the new federal structure. The revolutionary spirit which toppled the tyranny of Great Britain over the colonies was one of the major obstacles to ratification of the new federal government. Through heated debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists each attempted to muster forces into their ranks. Would the new frame of government endanger America and Her principles, or would it strengthen them? This had to be the question on the minds of every citizen who lived during this period.
Those in favor of ratification of the Constitution were called Federalists. They were in support of the new plan of government. The Federalists had a distinct advantage over the Anti-Federalists for a number of reasons: they drew their numbers, generally, from the wealthy, propertied class, although there were some laborers and skilled craftsmen who favored the new Constitution (shipbuilders, dockworkers, and related fields). Others, on the edge of the frontiers, favored the Constitution for protection against the Indians; the Federalists had a tangible plan; their leaders had super images (Madison, Washington, Franklin, etc.); and they seemed to be better organized in reaching the people. THE FEDERALIST, a classic collection of political essays, is a notable illustration of this.
The Anti-Federalists found most of their support among the poor and small farmers, in general. However, some wealthy people joined the fight against ratification. States’ rights, the denial of individual liberty and increased taxes were the main arguments of the Anti-Federalists. Further, they touted the new powers of the Congress as subject to great abuse, as well as the powers of the new executive and judiciary branches.
Much has been written about those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Their reasons for opposing the Constitution were as diverse as they, and their views were quite eloquently spoken and written. If charisma exists in gradations, then many of these men were only slightly charismatic than the personages of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and Jay. Further, these men differed in the length of time that each continued their opposition. Some remained opposed to the Constitution to the last.
Edmund Randolph, George Mason and Elbridge Gerry are three men who opposed the Constitution, whose arguments and thoughts have been particularly interesting to me. Each based his objections upon firm principles and raised numerous questions for fellow delegates and citizens alike to think about: the potential for abuse of power by any of the three branches of government, the absence of the rights of individuals, and a host of others. There are several communications by these men in John D. Lewis’ book, ANTI-FEDERALIST VS. FEDERALISTS. These documents, and others included in this book, should prove to be valuable in the classroom as common readings for discussion. The language in them is quite difficult for middle school students. I would recommend that they be read in class, leaving ample time for discussion of salient points. The letters of Edmund Randolph and others do much to reveal the intelligence of these men and the struggles within them concerning the final document. Edmund Randolph’s letters do much to illustrate the particular personal struggle within him, being an originator of the Virginia Plan, favoring the restructuring of the national government, then opposing the final result of his labors because it didn’t go far enough. Reluctantly, because the old system was surely a failure, Randolph supported the ratification of the Constitution.
THE FEDERALIST and Lewis’, ANTI-FEDERALIST VS. FEDERALIST, will provide the teacher with ample material for class use. The teacher and students will find equally strong and convincing arguments on both sides of the ratification question.