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Anti-Federalist Papers: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 The Anti-Federalist Papers
  • 0:38 Background
  • 2:08 The Anti-Federalists
  • 3:01 Anti-Federalist Complaints
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The U.S. Constitution is an important document, but one that almost wasn't approved. In this lesson, we'll talk about the Anti-Federalists and their essays arguing against the proposed Constitution in the years after the American Revolution.

The Anti-Federalist Papers

The United States Constitution is a pretty remarkable document. It was one of the first in the world to outline a democratic republic as a modern system of government, and expressed the idea that governments should be subject to the will of the people in an era when many kings still ruled with absolute power. However, not everyone at the time agreed with these principles. For various reasons, the Constitution had a number of detractors back in 1787. Their complaints against this document were outlined in a series of essays we call the Anti-Federalist Papers.

Background

To understand the anti-federalist papers, we first need some historical context. In 1783, the American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris. As Americans began putting their new nation together, some problems quickly became apparent. The government, which at that time was a single body called Congress, was organized under a loose constitution called the Articles of Confederation. This government was intentionally kept weak, since Americans were pretty paranoid about the concept of a strong central government after their revolution against one.

Unfortunately, when a disgruntled soldier named Daniel Shays broke into rebellion in 1786 and almost took the entire state of Massachusetts with him, the government had no power to intervene. After a private army funded by wealthy citizens eventually stopped Shays' Rebellion, the country realized it needed a stronger government. Delegates met to create a new constitution, and eventually drafted one in 1787. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed on it. The Federalists supported the new constitution, and encouraged the people to ratify it through a collection of 85 coordinated essays known as the Federalist Papers.

The Anti-Federalists opposed the new constitution, and argued that it needed to be fixed before being ratified. While they never organized a consistent program of essays, the Anti-Federalists did publish many letters and editorials expressing their viewpoints. It's this loose collection that historians have termed the Anti-Federalist Papers.

The Anti-Federalists

So the Anti-Federalists opposed the new constitution, but why? And who were they? Many Anti-Federalists were farmers or small-time artisans, and a large number lived in the South. Just as the Federalists published their essays under pseudonyms, the Anti-Federalists did as well, so we don't know exactly who these authors were. Popular names, however, include Brutus, Cato, and the Federal Farmer. You may notice that some of these names sound Roman. Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists used Roman names because the American republic was largely modeled on the Roman Republic. The name Brutus is especially interesting since one of the famous Federalist authors published his essays under the pseudonym Caesar, the Roman leader famously stabbed by Brutus in the first century BCE. Despite the use of these pseudonyms, we do know some of the authors, with one of the most famous being Patrick Henry.

Anti-Federalist Complaints

The Anti-Federalist Papers collectively give us an idea about why this group opposed the new constitution. These essays contain complaints about the process of electing the president, the amount of representation each state received in the legislature, and the organization of the court system. However, most of these complaints circle back to a few major issues. One of the most notable is that the central government would be too strong.

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