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Federalists: Definition, Arguments & Views Video

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  • 0:00 Who Were the Federalists?
  • 0:24 Historical Background
  • 1:40 Arguments and Views
  • 5:24 The Outcome
  • 5:51 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.

Define the Federalists, learn about the historical background over the ratification of the Constitution, and understand the arguments and views of the Federalists in their support of the new Constitution.

Who Were the Federalists?

The Federalists were a group of individuals that formed to support the ratification (passage) of the new federal Constitution in 1787. Federalists were united in their belief that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate to serve the needs of the country and a new government needed to be established that had greater powers at the national level.

Historical Background

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 9 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 formed to debate each other on the merits of this new Constitution. The Federalists formed to support ratification, while the Anti-Federalists assembled to oppose the new Constitution.

The Federalists quickly organized and gained the advantage over their opponents. They focused initially on the states that favored the need for a new national Constitution. Delaware became the first state to ratify the document shortly followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Georgia. After these states, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina also ratified the Constitution. In these states, Federalists tended to be merchants, lawyers, small business owners, large landowners, and slave owners. Finally, after a heated debate with the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists gained victory in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York.

Arguments and Views

In every state, the Federalists skillfully argued their points and expressed their views in support of a strong national government. The Federalists were especially successful in using print media in both Massachusetts and New York to persuade voters on the need for a new Constitution. The arguments and views of the Federalists were best articulated in a series of letters that were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. These 85 letters, written under the pseudonym, 'Publius', were published in newspapers and eventually collected in one volume known as the Federalist Papers. Within these documents, the Federalists argued for a strong national government and the protection of the people's rights.

One of the strongest arguments expressed by the Federalists was that the Articles of Confederation could not protect the nation and provide for its defense in an emergency. John Jay expressed this view in Federalist Number 4 when he stated, 'Leave America divided into thirteen or, if you lease, into three or four independent governments - what armies could they raise and pay - what fleets could they ever hope to have?' Jay feared that the fragmented government under the Articles of Confederation, which had no federal army, left the nation extremely vulnerable to attack. 'If one was attacked,' Jay questioned, 'would the others fly to its succor, and spend their blood and money in its defense.'

In addition to foreign threats, the Federalists believed that the weak confederation government under the Articles also encouraged fighting between the states that seemed to be in constant competition with one other. In Federalist Number 6, Alexander Hamilton argued that, 'A man must be far gone in Utopian speculation who can seriously doubt that...the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would be frequent and violent contests with each other.'

For Hamilton, the solution was a strong national government that supported and promoted the economic prosperity of the country as a whole. Under the Articles, the states were often competing with one another economically. A strong national government could use the various resources of all the states combined. 'Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union,' argued Hamilton in Federalist Number 11, 'concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and be able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.'

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