Federalist and Anti-Federalist Contentions

    Contributing Editor: Nicholas D. Rombes

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students generally respond with more enthusiasm to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate once they realize that the issues raised by the debate were very real. It often helps, initially, to have students think of "current event" issues of contention today, such as the "pro-life"/"pro-choice" abortion debates. This helps students to see that debates over the Constitution were not merely abstract exercises in rhetorical showmanship, but real debates about issues that mattered.

    Students also seem to identify with one of the three "voices" of The Federalist Papers, as well. Some students, for instance, wish that Jay had contributed more essays, finding his voice more democratic and populist than Hamilton's or Madison's. This can lead to fruitful discussions about the rhetorical strategies employed by all three authors as well as the audience they were addressing.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Many students assume that once the Revolutionary War was over, the country was solidified and unified. Therefore, it is helpful to review certain key issues such as states' rights, fear of a standing army, and fear of factions. Anti-Federalists argued again and again that a national government was merely a prelude to the establishment of an aristocratic class. Indeed, many Anti-Federalists drew upon the rhetoric of the Revolution to argue against a strong national government.

    The Federalist conception of human nature as essentially selfish and depraved is also important to note, since Federalists relied on such conceptions to justify their call for a mildly interventionist national government. Students are often shocked to learn that the word "democracy" was not held in high regard as it is today, and are interested in the distinctions between democracy, monarchy, and republicanism.

    For years, many scholars have contended that the Federalists were basically conservative upper-class supporters of the status quo, and that the Anti-Federalists were more "populist." Scholars such as Herbert J. Storing have recently suggested, however, that, if anything, Anti-Federalists were more conservative than their Federalist counterparts, as evidenced in the fact that many Anti-Federalists feared the very idea of change and experimentation that would result from the new form of government proposed by the Federalists.

    It is also helpful to introduce students to some of the basic ideas of writers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, all of whose writings influenced the Constitution to varying degrees.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Students are interested in the different "voices" of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. Note also how the authors of The Federalist Papers allude to classical regimes and civilizations not only to help their arguments but also to show their learning. Finally, note how many of the letters begin with references to "objections" to the proposed Constitution--instructors may want to use this to show that these debates were very real.

    Original Audience

    The Federalist Papers originally appeared as a series of essays in New York newspapers between October and August 1787. Based on the language and tone of the essays, ask students to try to construct an audience for them: would this audience be literate? educated? What economic class might constitute the majority of the audience? What race? Gender?

    Questions for Reading and Discussion

    1. Ask students to perform a rhetorical analysis of The Federalist Papers, paying special attention to how the authors construct their arguments (logos), how they bolster their authority and credibility (ethos), and how they use the beliefs, fears, and assumptions of their audience (pathos) to help their arguments.

    2. Ask students to try to reconstruct the Federalist conception of the relationship between "the people" and government. From where does authority ultimately derive? If students have spent time studying the Puritans, ask them to consider the ultimate source of authority in Puritan writings as compared to Federalist and Anti-Federalist writings. Has the source of authority shifted from God to humans and civic institutions?

    3. Ask students to read carefully Federalist No. 54. How does Madison handle the topic of slavery? Have students summarize his arguments.


    Carey, George W. The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic, 1989.

    Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of The Federalist, 1984.

    Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers, 1984.

    Main, Jackson Turner. The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788, 1961.