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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

December 6, 2022: Constitutional Contexts: Anti-Federalists

[On December 7th, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. So for the 235th anniversary of that historic moment, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Constitutional contexts, leading up to a special weekend post on present issues and debates!]

On three equally significant ways to frame the Constitution’s opposition.

1)      Revolutionary Radicals: It’s no coincidence that two of the most prominent Anti-Federalists (a label which, to be fair, was imposed by the Constitution’s advocates and generally rejected by the group themselves, but which I’ll use in this post as a shorthand for the Constitution’s critics) were also two of the Revolution’s most famous firebrands, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The Revolution itself can be reductively but not inaccurately divided into more radical and more conservative camps, as exemplified by Samuel and his second cousin John Adams. Moreover, as illustrated by John’s critique of the Boston Massacre’s participants, the proto-federalists tended to be a bit more suspicious of populism, while radicals like Sam and the Sons of Liberty encouraged and amplified popular passions. Again, all those issues are more nuanced than these couple of sentences can allow, but they do help explain how men like Adams and Patrick Henry ended up in the Anti-Federalist camp.

2)      Advocates for Rights: Perhaps the single most important Anti-Federalist text was George Mason’s Objections to this Constitution of Government (1787). Mason’s objections were strong enough that he became one of three Constitutional Convention delegates not to sign the final document, but he ironically would eventually turn those objections into the impetus for drafting one of the Constitution’s most famous sections, the Bill of Rights (about which I’ll write more in Thursday’s post). An emphasis on individual rights had been part of the American Revolution since its origins, as illustrated by another document of Mason’s (and predecessor to the Bill of Rights), the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Thanks to Mason and other Anti-Federalists, those emphases were carried forward into not just the debates over the Constitution, but also its final, ratified form. (It’s also important to note, as I’ll discuss Thursday as well, that Mason, like many of these advocates for rights, was a slave-owner.)

3)      Future Democratic-Republicans: Despite the expressed desire on the part of many of the founding generation (George Washington in particular) to avoid the creation of political parties, the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate was certainly also an origin point for the development of such parties in the U.S. Declaration author Thomas Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention, but he was definitely in the Anti-Federalist camp, and would continue developing that perspective during his conflicts with Alexander Hamilton throughout Washington’s terms as President. That arc culminated in Jefferson’s creation of the Democratic-Republican Party, in the contested and crucial presidential election of 1800, and in the origins of a two-party system that (with many evolutions of course) has endured to this day. All of which, like so much else, can and should be linked to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates.

Next Constitutional context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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