Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates

Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates

by Patrick Henry, John DeWitt, Ralph Ketcham (Editor)
Publisher: Dover Publications
Mass market paperback, 406 pages
Price: $6.00

The Bill of Rights is the most enduring monument to the anti-federalists. Afraid the Constitution's lack of defense of individual human rights would lead quickly to tyranny, they argued for a more libertarian approach that would allow men to make their own behavioral choices. Or did they?

It's hard these days to find someone who's even heard of the federalist/anti-federalist debate, let alone is able to articulate either position with any degree of accuracy (might be a fun segment for Jay Leno). Essentially the difference was this: The federalists argued that the Constitution should only deal with federal or national government issues, with states and individuals responsible for everything else. The anti-federalists, wanting above all to preserve their individual rights and freedoms, argued that the Constitution must explicitly defend them or they'd soon be lost.

Ironically, the format of both documents reflects the authors' positions. The Federalist was published serially and presented a complex yet highly organized argument; the Anti-Federalist Papers never really existed in such a way as their name implies, instead being a disjointed series of articles, speeches and letters by opponents of the Constitution only collated and named much later by historians.

Libertarians often point to the anti-federalists as their forebears, and like to demonstrate how all the dire predictions have come true. The federal government has overgrown the bounds originally intended for it; individual rights are submerged in centralized bureaucracy; states are secondary to the power of Washington.

All true—but who really are the libertarians? and who really won the debate ultimately? Consider that the federalists argued individual rights be excluded from the Constitution because the federal government should have limited power and not regulate individuals, a job reserved for the states. And now, laws passed by the federal government are aimed directly at individual rights based on the precedent supplied by the Bill of Rights, responsible for the countless amendments to the Constitution, few of which are pertinent to the original intended concerns of the central government.

As with anything else, it's hard to draw hard lines in the federalist/anti-federalist debates, especially two hundred years after the fact. The Anti-Federalist Papers certainly shed some often-neglected light on the subject, but before you go and assume they're right just because they've been marginalized in some quarters, read them for yourself (preferably with a strong chaser of The Federalist Papers for good measure).

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