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Anti-Federalists: Definition, Views & Leaders

Anti-Federalists: Definition, Views & Leaders
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  • 0:02 Views of Anti-Federalists
  • 2:55 Leaders
  • 5:03 Outcome
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

In this lesson, you'll learn the definition of the Anti-Federalists. You'll also learn about their views in opposition to the Constitution drafted in 1787 and about prominent leaders in the movement.

Definition and Views of Anti-Federalists

The Anti-Federalists was a group of diverse individuals that formed to oppose the ratification of the new federal Constitution in 1787. They were united by their fear of a powerful and potentially oppressive national government, a government dominated by wealthy aristocrats and the absence of a bill of rights in the new Constitution.

After a long and hot summer in 1787, the delegates who met at Philadelphia were ready to present their new Constitution to the people and to the states for ratification. While the delegates at Philadelphia labored tirelessly to produce a perfect form of government, the larger challenge was to get nine out of the 13 states to agree to abandon the old Articles of Confederation for a new national Constitution with a much stronger federal government. Quickly, two groups organized to debate each other on the merits of this new Constitution. The Federalists formed to support ratification of the new Constitution while the Anti-Federalists assembled to oppose the new Constitution.

The Anti-Federalists were the most fearful of the power of the new federal government. Anti-Federalists were afraid of the extensive powers granted to the new government. Many Anti-Federalists, like Patrick Henry and George Mason from the mighty state of Virginia, also worried that this new government would use its powers to gradually minimize the states until they had few responsibilities. The new Constitution provided for a president, a standing army and had the power to tax. For Anti-Federalists, this new government seemed to possess the same tyrannical powers as the British monarchy.

In addition to the new powers of the federal government, Anti-Federalists were also concerned that those elected to the government, including the president and members of Congress, would always come from the aristocratic levels of society. Since the government was so removed physically from the people - one capital within a large geographic nation - the elected members of the government would be out of touch with the concerns of average Americans and subject to the temptations of moneyed interests.

Finally, and most importantly for large states, like New York and Virginia, the new government did not contain a written bill of rights that would specifically list the rights of the people and the protections they had against an oppressive government. A bill of rights would also be essential to help the citizens become more knowledgeable of this new republic and the rights that they had to protect against tyranny. Anti-Federalists were concerned that undefined powers could be interpreted into many unintended purposes. Therefore, a bill of rights would not only protect the people but also educate them to become active citizens under this new government.

Leaders

The Anti-Federalists were a very diverse group that had strong support in parts of New England, Rhode Island, Eastern New York, Western Pennsylvania, Southern Virginia, North Carolina and parts of South Carolina. This geographic diversity was mirrored by the social and economic composition of Anti-Federalists, which included wealthy Southern planters, middle class artisans and backcountry farmers. To lead this assorted group, men of strong will and political skills, like Patrick Henry and George Mason, rose to the occasion.

Patrick Henry was a leading figure in Virginia politics who had also served as Virginia's governor. Henry had declined an invitation to be Virginia's delegate at the Philadelphia constitutional convention fearing that, 'he smelled a rat.'

Portrait of Patrick Henry
Patrick Henry

Henry recognized the problems that existed in the Articles of Confederation - the government in place before the Constitution - but wanted to work to make the Articles more effective rather than completely remove them for something new. Henry used his oratorical skills during Virginia's ratification convention to rally against the Constitution. Henry spoke most about Virginia's independence, won during the revolution against an oppressive monarchy, which to him seemed to be replicated under the new Constitution.

Another prominent Virginian, George Mason, also spoke out against the Constitution. Unlike Henry, Mason did believe that the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced, and he attended the convention in Philadelphia. Mason was only one of three members of that convention who voted against the proposed Constitution and refused to sign the completed document.

Portrait of George Mason
George Mason

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