By Quentin Taylor, Resident Scholar Liberty Fund, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana
The Antifederalists were critics of the Constitution drafted by the Framers and submitted to the states for ratification in 1787. Some Antifederalists were unconditionally opposed to adopting the Constitution, while others demanded amendments or pressed for a second convention to correct the "errors" of the first. They were not (as the name "Antifederalist" suggests) opposed to a federal system of government – indeed, they claimed to be the "true Federalists" – but they believed the proposed Constitution gave too much power to the national authority and left too little to the states. Ultimately, they feared a "consolidated" government that would "swallow up" the states and subvert the liberties of the people.
Because the Antifederalists lost the ratification contest and their direst predications seemed extreme, they were largely ignored or dismissed in early accounts of the American Founding. The subsequent growth, expansion, and eminence of the United States under the Constitution served to place its original critics even further in the historical shade. As America reached its apogee as a global power following World War II, the Antifederalists – those "false prophets" – had fallen into near total obscurity.
The current revival of interest in the Antifederalists is typically linked to an article by historian Cecelia Kenyon that appeared in William and Mary Quarterly in 1955. While characterizing them as "men of little faith" who failed to provide a positive alternative to the Constitution, Kenyon did underscore the Antifederalists role as one-side in the greatest public debate over the principles of government in American history. In the decade that followed, two prominent historians, Jackson Turner Main (1961) and Forrest McDonald (1963), contributed to the recovery of the Antifederalist legacy, while editions of Antifederalist writings were made available for the first time (Borden, 1965; Kenyon; 1966).
The appearance of Gordon Wood's landmark The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969) gave further impetus to exploring Antifederalist political thought in its own right, and not simply as a foil to the Constitution's proponents. Studies of individual thinkers (Diamond, 1976) as well a second book-length study (Boyd, 1979) were but indicators of a broader interest in the Antifederalist's role in America's constitutional and political development. James Hutson (1981) capped this first phase of the revival with a survey of the past quarter-century of historical scholarship on the Antifederalists.
A second phase was inaugurated by Herbert Storing's The Complete Anti-Federalist, a seven volume collection of representative Antifederalist writings. A companion monograph, What the Antifederalists Were For, helped overturn the longstanding view that the critics of the Constitution were merely "nay-sayers" who lacked a positive vision of government and society. In addition to contrasting this vision with that of the Federalists, Story highlighted the Antifederalist's principal contribution to the Constitution – their demand for a Bill of Rights.
While Storing's collection of Antifederalist writings was far from "complete" and included some notable omissions, it was (along with his monograph) widely hailed as a milestone in the recovery of an unduly neglected chapter in the American Founding (Kaminski, 1983; Nicgorski, 1984). After two centuries on the margins of history, the opponents of the Constitution were again on center stage, as historians, political scientists and academic lawyers explored various threads of Antifederalist thought (Nedlesky, 1982; Finckelman, 1984) and reexamined the ratification contest from a more balanced perspective (Rutland, 1983). In some cases, reappraisal led to revisionism, either in the form of a "defense" of Antifederalist thought (Lienesch, 1983) or in the suggestion that they may actually have been "right" (McDowell, 1982).
The revived fortunes of the Antifederalists received an additional stimulus from the bicentennial of the Constitution. Chapters in bicentennial collections (McDowell, 1987; Ellis, 1987; Dry, 1987, 1989) as well as journal articles (Massey, 1988; Howe, 1989, McWilliams, 1989) expanded on the first phase of scholarship and integrated the Antifederalists into standard accounts of the origins, framing, and ratification of the Constitution. This second phase was rounded off by Saul Cornell's (1989) retrospective look at "the changing historical fortunes of the Antifederalists."
Widespread interest in the Antifederalists continued unabated through the 1990s. This third phase witnessed the appearance of both specialized accounts of Antifederalist thought (Cooper, 1993; Crowley, 1992; Shlomo, 1992) and its broader applications (Massey, 1990; Amar, 1993), as well as full-length studies of Antifederalism (Duncan, 1995; Cornell, 1999). Others traced the continuing influence of Antifederalist politics in the aftermath of ratification and beyond (Frisch, 1992; Aldrich and Grant, 1993). Building on his previous work on Antifederalist ideology (1990) and historiography (1994), Saul Cornell (1999) produced an award-winning volume that traced the "dissenting tradition" of Antifederalism into the Age of Jackson. Far from merely the losers in the ratification battle, the Antifederalists and their progeny were lauded as "the other founders," who, with the rise of Jeffersonian democracy, vindicated the original vision of a decentralized union of sovereign states.
With the turn of the century, the Antifederalist revival entered its consolidationist phase. New editions of Antifederalist writings appeared (Frohnen, 2001; Wakelyn, 2004) or were reissued (Allan and Lloyd, 2002; Ketchem, 2003), while a reference volume containing biographical sketches of 140 Antifederalists (Wakelyn, 2004) gave permanence to the public lives of men who (with few exceptions) had been long consigned to the political graveyard. The publication of two monographs by David Siemers (2003, 2004) on Antifederalism and the ratification contest crowned a half-century of scholarship. Far from "men of little faith," the Antifederalists were "men of great faith and forbearance," justly wary of the powers of government, but loyal in opposition. While they failed to articulate a tangible alternative to the Constitution, they did possess a vision of republican society and government that outlived the triumph of the Federalists. The strength and persistence of Antifederalism in the antebellum era underscores its enduring legacy in American political development.
[The bibliography below is limited to works in which "Antifederalism" or "Antifederalist(s)" are listed in the title. There are hundreds of other studies which explore Antifederalist thought and politics in varying degrees of detail. Readers interested in this vast literature should check the notes in the works below for relevant sources.]
Allen, W. B., and Lloyd, Gordon, eds., The Essential Antifederalist, 2nd ed. (Lanham, Md., 2002).
Borden, Morton, ed., The Antifederalist Papers (Ann Arbor, 1965).
Frohnen, Bruce, ed., The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches (Washington, D.C., 2001).
Kenyon, Cecelia, ed., The Antifederalists (Indianapolis, 1966).
Ketchem, Ralph, ed., The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates (New York, 2003).
Storing, Herbert, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, 7 vols. (Chicago, 1981).
Wakelyn, Jon L., Birth of the Bill of Rights: Encyclopedia of the Antifederalists, Vol. 1: Biographies (Westport, Conn., 2004).
__________, ed., Birth of the Bill of Rights: Encyclopedia of the Antifederalists, Vol. 2: Major Writings (Westport, Conn., 2004).
Boyd, Steven R., The Politics of Opposition: Antifederalists and the Acceptance of the Constitution (Millwood, N.Y., 1979).
Cornell, Saul, The Other Founders: Antifederalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill, 1999).
Duncan, Christopher M., The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought (Dekalb, Ill., 1995).
Main, Jackson T., The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788 (Chapel Hill, 1961).
Rutland, Robert A., The Ordeal of the Constitution: The Antifederalists and the Ratification Struggle, 1787-1788 (Norman, Okla., 1983).
Siemers, David, The Antifederalists: Men of Great Faith and Forbearance (Lanham, Md., 2003).
__________, Ratifying the Republic: Antifederalists and Federalist in Constitutional Time (Stanford, 2004).
Storing, Herbert, What the Antifederalists Were For (Chicago, 1981).
Aldrich, John A., and Grant, Ruth W., "The Anti-Federalists, the First Congress, and the First Parties," Journal of Politics, 55 (193), 295-326.
Amar, Akil R., "Anti-Federalists, 'The Federalist' Papers, and the Big Argument," Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 16 (1993), 111-118.
Cooper, Charles J. "Independent of Heaven Itself: Different Federalist and Anti-Federalist Perspectives on the Centralizing Tendency of the Federal Judiciary," Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 16 (1993), 119-128.
Cornel, Saul A., "The Changing Historical Fortunes of the Anti-Federalists," Northwestern University Law Review, 70 (1989), 39-74.
__________,"Aristocracy Assailed: Back-Country Opposition to the Constitution and the Problem of Antifederalist Ideology," Journal of American History, 76 (1990), 1148-1172.
__________, "Moving Beyond the Canon of Traditional Constitutional History: Anti-Federalists, the Bill of Rights, and the Promise of Post-Modern Historiography," Law and History Review, 12 (1994), 1-28.
Crowley, John E., "Commerce and the Philadelphia Constitution: Neo-Mercantilism in Federalist and Anti-Federalist Political Economy," History of Political Thought, 13 (1992), 73-97.
Diamond, Ann S., "The Anti-Federalist Brutus," Political Science Reviewer, 6 (1976), 249-281.
Dry, Murray, "The Case against Ratification: Anti-Federalist Constitutional Thought," in Leonard W. Levy and Dennis J. Mahoney, eds., The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution (New York, 1987), 271-291.
__________, "The Anti-Federalists and the Constitution," in Robert L. Utley, Jr., ed., Principles of the Constitutional Order: The Ratification Debates (Lanham, Md., 1989), 63-88.
Ellis, Richard E., "The Persistence of Antifederalism after 1789," in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, ed., Richard Beeman, et al. (Chapel Hill, 1987), 295-314.
Finckelman, Paul, "Antifederalists: The Loyal Opposition and the American Constitution," Cornell Law Review, 70 (1984), 182-207.
Frisch, Morton J., "The Persistence of Anti-Federalism between the Ratification of the Constitution and the Nullification Crisis, in Josephine F. Pacheco, ed., Antifederalism: The Legacy of George Mason (Fairfax, Va., 1992), 79-90.
Howe, Daniel, "Anti-Federalist/Federalist Dialogue and It Implications for Constitutional Understanding," Northwestern University Law Review, 84 (1989), 1-11.
Hutson, James H., "Country, Court, and Constitution: Antifederalism and the Historians," William and Mary Quarterly, 38 (1981), 337-368.
Kaminski, John, "Antifederalism and the Perils of Homogenized History: A Review Essay," Rhode Island History, 42 (1983), 30-37.
Kenyon, Cecelia M., "Men of Little Faith: The Anti-Federalists on the Nature of Representative Government," William and Mary Quarterly, 12 (1955), 3-43.
Lienesch, Michael, "In Defense of the Antifederalists," History of Political Thought, 4 (1983), 65-87.
Massey, Calvin R., "Antifederalism and the Ninth Amendment," Chicago-Kent Law Review, 64 (1988), 9870-1000.
__________, "The Anti-Federalist Ninth Amendment and Its Implications for State Constitutional Law," Wisconsin Law Review (1990), 1229-1266.
McDonald, Forrest, "The Anti-Federalists, 1781-1789," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 46 (1963), 206-214.
McDowell, Gary L., "Were the Anti-Federalists Right?: Judicial Activism and the Problem of Consolidated Government," Publius, 12 (1982), 99-108.
__________, "Federalism and Civic Virtue: The Antifederalists and the Constitution," in Robert A. Goldwin and William A Schambra, eds., How Federal is the Constitution? (Washington, D.C., 1987), 122-144.
McWilliams, Wilson C., "The Anti-Federalists, Representation, and Party," Northwestern University Law Review, 84 (1989), 12-38.
Nedlesky, Jennifer, "Continuing Democratic Politics: Anti-Federalists, Federalists, and the Constitution," Harvard Law Review, 96 (1982), 340-360.
Nicgorski, Walter, "The Anti-Federalists: Collected and Interpreted," Review of Politics, 46 (1984), 113-125.
Slonim, Shlomo, "Liberalism and Political Allegiance in Anti-Federalist Thought," Publius, 22 (1992), 122-139.
Last modified April 13, 2016