The Antifederalist Papers

The Antifederalist Papers

The Antifederalist Papers

The Antifederalist Papers

Excerpt

American historians, by and large, have concentrated upon the Federalists of 1787, giving little consideration to the dissenting voices of that period. Since the American Constitution and democracy have survived a civil war, two world wars and periodic depressions, the gloomy forebodings of the Antifederalists sometimes appear to be unwarranted, frequently emotional and occasionally even ludicrous. The Antifederalists were wrong in their major premise--that the Constitution must inevitably fail, and that such failure must result either in anarchy or despotism. Since Americans have always tended to equate truth with success, one might conclude that the Federalists were indeed right. It does not follow, however, that the Antifederalists were wrong in either their political philosophy or their vision of the American future. In fact, it is entirely conceivable that an Antifederalist government, if possible, might have resulted in as much progress, prosperity and democracy as has been achieved under the Constitution.

The brilliance of The Federalist has also served to blind subsequent generations to any substantial appreciation of the views of the Antifederalists. Written in the main by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (John Jay contributed but five of the eighty-five selections) as explanatory essays in defense of the Constitution, The Federalist has quite properly come to be regarded as one of America's unique contributions to Western political theory. Initially the essays were published in the New York press in 1787-88 under the pseudonym "Publius." Scores of editions have appeared since then and translations into a dozen languages have carried its reasoning throughout the world.

In a curious sense, therefore, the success and influence of The Federalist have been pernicious in the study of American history. There has been too much reliance placed upon this single volume as the embodiment of Federalist philosophy. Inconsistent in itself--a fact not fully appreciated--if The Federalist were compared to the writings of James Wilson, Noah Webster and other Federalist publicists, further inconsistencies would emerge. A comparison of this type would also help explain why certain 1788 Federalists switched to the Democratic-Republican party in the next decade. Perhaps the Antifederalist position would then reveal itself to be fully as imaginative, perceptive and farsighted as that of the victors in the debate over the Constitution.

The Antifederalist attack on the Constitution and the Federalist defense of it were waged primarily in the newspapers. Although most papers were pro-Federalist, and although Antifederalists decried what they considered to be virtually a one-party press, both sides received a fair hearing. Antifederalist letters and essays were widely reprinted and many pro-Federalist newspapers carried some Antifederalist material. Indeed, if the newspaper . . .

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