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America's First Political Factions - Federalists and Anti-Federalists

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

As we approach the November 2020 Presidential election, US voters find themselves sharply divided between the two candidates in a way I have not seen in my lifetime. In the past few weeks, I have heard political pundits as well as regular citizens remark that the American public has never been as divided as it is now. However, those of us who study history know better.

The 1800 Presidential election ushered in a new type of American politics, a two-party republic and spiteful campaigning both behind the scenes and through the press. That campaign was bitter and characterized by slander and personal attacks on both sides. The Federalists spread rumors that the Democratic-Republicans were radicals, allied with the violence of the French Revolution, who would ruin the country. The Democratic-Republicans, on the other hand, accused Federalists of subverting republican principles through various laws intended to repress immigrants and make it more difficult to become citizens, since the immigrants generally supported the Democratic-Republicans in elections. They also accused the Federalists of supporting laws and alliances that promoted aristocratic, anti-democratic values.

That was not, however, the beginning of political division in this country. That beginning (ignoring the Rebel/Loyalist division of the Revolution) dates to the debates around the adoption of the US Constitution after many people came to see the Articles of Confederation as a failure.

Articles of Confederation

In the late 1780’s, one of the most important debates in America’s history took place. This debate, which started in 1787, pitted the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists. In a tumultuous time, with the newly independent states riddled with debt, rebellion, and uncertainty, fifty-five men gathered to create the United States Constitution. This constitution would replace the failed Articles of Confederation, thus creating a new federal government.

2nd Continental Congress Discussing the Articles of Confederation
Continental Congress Debate the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was an agreement among the 13 original states of the United States of America that served as its first constitution. The Articles of Confederation was given to the states for ratification in late November 1777. Maryland, the last holdout, finally ratified the Articles on February 2, 1781. In the interim, Congress followed the Articles as its de facto frame of government. Congress learning of Maryland's assent on March 1, officially proclaimed the Articles of Confederation to be the law of the land on that date.

A guiding principle of the Articles was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states. The weak central government set up by the Articles received only those powers which the former colonies had recognized as belonging to king and parliament. However, as the Confederation Congress tried to govern the continually growing American states, delegates discovered that the limitations placed upon the central government made it ineffective at doing so.

The Articles envisioned a permanent confederation but granted to the Congress—the only federal institution—little power to finance itself or to ensure enforcement of its laws and regulations. There was no president, no executive agencies, no judiciary, and no tax base. The absence of a tax base meant that there was no way to pay off state and national debts from the war years or make good on soldier’s pensions. Since the Congress had no powers of taxation, it could only request money from the states. The states often did not meet these requests in full, leaving both Congress and the Continental Army chronically short of money.

John Jay
John Jay

As Congress printed more money, the continental dollar depreciated. In 1779, George Washington wrote to John Jay, who was serving as the president of the Continental Congress, "that a wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions." Mr. Jay and the Congress responded in May by requesting $45 million from the States. In an appeal to the States to comply, Jay wrote that the taxes were "the price of liberty, the peace, and the safety of yourselves and posterity." The States did not respond with any of the money requested from them.

The inherent weaknesses in the Confederation's frame of government also frustrated the ability of the government to conduct foreign policy. Negotiators for the government knew full well that the States were under no obligation to abide by any Treaties or Alliances that they negotiated. They knew that if that happened, it would undermine the trust of foreign governments and the promises of the United States seen as worthless.

Congress also had no power to regulate either foreign trade or interstate commerce and, as a result, the individual States kept control over their own, often conflicting, trade policies. Because of a lack of central government oversight and coordination, it was unclear, in the case of litigation between two entities in different states, or in a foreign country, whether state courts could decide the issue, whether they could enforce their decisions on foreign entities, and , in the case of interstate commerce, which state’s courts had jurisdiction.

Mann's Tavern in Annapolis
Mann's Tavern in Annapolis

As the government's weaknesses became clear, especially after Shays' Rebellion, some prominent political thinkers in the fledgling union began asking for changes to the Articles. On January 21, 1786, the Virginia Legislature, following James Madison's recommendation, invited all the states to send delegates to Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss ways to reduce interstate conflict. At what came to be known as the Annapolis Convention, the few state delegates in attendance endorsed a motion that called for all states to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to discuss ways to improve the Articles of Confederation in a "Grand Convention." Although the states' representatives to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia authorization was only to amend the Articles, the representatives held secret, closed-door sessions and wrote a new constitution.

And in This Corner…..The US Constitution Ratification Debates

Once the Philadelphia convention finished writing the Constitution of the United States in 1787, the next step was ratification. This is the formal process, outlined in Article VII, which required that nine of the thirteen states had to agree to adopt the Constitution before it could go into effect. The new Constitution gave much more power to the central government, and it was from this that the first two political factions (parties?) in the United States sprang – the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Although written and signed, the ratification of the Constitution by the people was far from certain. In many states, the document met with increasing skepticism: Had the Convention exceeded its mandate to revise the Articles? Why was the Convention conducted in secret? The delegates understood that they would have to convince their fellow Americans that the Constitution presented the best way forward for the new nation.

Who were the Federalists?

The Federalists were for the implementation of the U.S. Constitution as written at the Constitutional Convention. Although the Constitution as originally written created a strong central government, Federalists argued that the counterbalanced branches of government, the separation of powers, would protect the people from government tyranny and protect their individual rights. Federalists were mostly wealthy merchants, big property owners in the North, and conservative small farmers and businessmen. Geographically, they lived in New England, with a strong element in the Middle Atlantic states.

Some of the Authors of the Federalist Papers
Some of the Authors of the Federalist Papers

Although George Washington disdained factions, based upon his policies and inclination, many historians view him as a Federalist, and thus that faction’s greatest figure. Other influential public leaders who argued the Federalist position included John Adams (MA), Alexander Hamilton (NY), John Jay (NY), Rufus King (MA), John Marshall (VA), Timothy Pickering (MA) and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (SC).

Who were the Anti-Federalists?

The Anti-Federalists were composed of diverse elements, including those opposed to the Constitution because they thought that a stronger government threatened the sovereignty and prestige of the states, localities, or individuals; those that saw in the proposed government a new centralized, disguised "monarchic" power that would only replace the cast-off despotism of Great Britain; and those who simply feared that the new government threatened their personal liberties. The Anti-Federalists were strong in the key states of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. In North Carolina and Rhode Island, they prevented ratification of the Constitution until after the new government had been set up.

Some of the Authors of the Anti-Federalist Papers
Some of the Authors of the Anti-Federalist Papers

Ranging from political elites like James Winthrop in Massachusetts to Melancton Smith of New York. Other Notable Anti-Federalists included: Patrick Henry (VA), Thomas Jefferson (VA), Samuel Adams (MA), George Mason (VA), Richard Henry Lee (VA), Robert Yates (NY), James Monroe(VA), and Amos Singletary(MA). Many ordinary Americans joined these Anti-federalist leaders, particularly yeomen farmers who predominated in rural America.

The Debate Over Ratification

Many of the debates about the proper scope of government power that had gone on inside Independence Hall continued in the states and spilled out into the public press. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay together wrote a collection of 85 essays, published in newspapers, arguing for the ratification of the Constitution. These essays became known as The Federalist Papers.

At the same time, the Anti-Federalists brought up several objections to the Constitution as written. These included: the national government’s power to tax and its supremacy over state laws. Another objection was the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution which gave Congress the power:

“to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or any Department or Officer thereof".

The Anti-Federalists worried that Congressmen would see this clause as a grant of power, rather than a means to carry out the enumerated powers in Article I. Starting on 25 September 1787 (8 days after the final draft of the US Constitution) and running through the early 1790s, they also took their arguments to the people, via the newspapers, in a series of essays written under pseudonyms such as Cato, Brutus, Centinel, and Federal Farmer.

Home of William West in Scituate Rhode Island
Home of William West in Scituate Rhode Island

Although Delaware, Georgia, and New Jersey ratified the Constitution quickly and with little controversy, in many states the opposition to the Constitution was strong. Two states—North Carolina and Rhode Island—delayed ratification until the establishment of the new government effectively forced agreement. In Rhode Island, resistance against the Constitution was so strong that civil war almost broke out on July 4, 1788, when anti-federalist members of the Country Party led by Judge William West marched into Providence with over 1,000 armed protesters.

While various issues were drivers for individual opposition to the Constitution, those in opposition commonly accepted the necessity, or at least the desirability, of a bill of rights. The Anti-Federalists played upon these feelings in the ratification convention in Massachusetts. After a long debate, the delegated reached a compromise (known as the "Massachusetts compromise"). Massachusetts would ratify the Constitution with recommended provisions in the ratifying instrument that Congress amend the Constitution with a bill of rights. Four of the next five states to ratify, including New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York, included similar language in their ratification instruments.

Bill of Rights


As a result of this opposition, once the states ratified the Constitution, and it became operative in 1789, Congress sent a set of twelve amendments to the states. Ten of these amendments were immediately ratified and became known as the Bill of Rights, one of the other two became the 27th Amendment, requiring any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next set of terms of office, almost 200 years later. Thus, while the Anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in their quest to prevent the adoption of the Constitution, their efforts were not totally in vain. For this reason, the Anti-Federalists are recognized as an influential group among the Founding Fathers of the United States.

What Happened to the Factions?

The Federalists went on to form the first political party in the United States, the Federalist Party. Under Alexander Hamilton, it dominated the national government from 1789 to 1801. After 1801 the Federalists continued for several years to be a major political party in New England and the Northeast, but never regained control of the presidency or the Congress. With the death of Washington and Hamilton and the retirement of Adams, the Federalists had no strong leader as Chief Justice John Marshall stayed out of politics. However, a few younger leaders did appear, notably Daniel Webster.

Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster

Federalist policies favored factories, banking and trade over agriculture and therefore became unpopular in the growing Western states. Increasingly seen in the South as aristocratic and unsympathetic to democracy, the party had lingering support in Maryland, but crippled elsewhere by 1800 and faded away by 1808.

The Federalists restored some of their strength by leading the anti-war opposition to Jefferson and Madison between 1807 and 1814. The nation was at war during the 1812 presidential election and war was the burning issue. Opposition to the war was strong in traditional Federalist strongholds in New England and New York, where the party made a comeback in the elections of 1812 and 1814.

Rufus King
Rufus King

The Federalists fielded their last presidential candidate (Rufus King) in 1816. With the party's passing, partisan hatreds and newspaper feuds declined and the nation entered the "Era of Good Feelings". After the dissolution of the final Federalist congressional caucus in 1825, the last traces of Federalist activity came in Delaware and Massachusetts local politics in the late 1820s. The party controlled the Delaware state legislature in 1827. The party controlled the Massachusetts Senate and Harrison Gray Otis, elected Mayor of Boston in 1829, became the last major Federalist office holder.

With the passage of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Anti-Federalist movement was exhausted. After supporting the first administration of President George Washington, some activists joined the Anti-Administration Party that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were forming about 1790–91 to oppose the policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. The Anti-Federalists in 1791 became the nucleus of the Jeffersonian Republican Party (subsequently the Democratic-Republican Party, and finally the Democratic Party) as strict constructionists of the new Constitution and in opposition to a strong national fiscal policy.

When Jefferson took office as the third president in 1801, he replaced Federalist appointees with Democratic-Republicans and sought to focus on issues that allowed the states to make more of their own decisions in matters. He also repealed the whiskey excise and other federal taxes, shut down some federal offices and broadly looked to change the fiscal system that Hamilton had created.

James Madison
James Madison

Madison succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809 and led the country during the War of 1812 with Britain. After the war, Madison and his congressional allies established the Second Bank of the United States and implemented protective tariffs, marking a move away from the party's earlier emphasis on states' rights and a strict interpretation of the United States Constitution.

In the 1816 presidential election, the Federalists offered little opposition and Democratic-Republican candidate James Monroe won in a landslide. During Monroe’s Administration, the Democratic-Republicans moved further away from their focus on limiting Federal government and allowing the states to make their own decisions. Monroe favored infrastructure projects to promote economic development and, despite some constitutional concerns, signed bills supplying federal funding for the National Road and other projects. Partly due to mismanagement by national bank president William Jones, the country experienced a prolonged economic recession known as the Panic of 1819. The panic engendered a widespread resentment of the national bank and a distrust of paper money that would influence national politics for years to come. Despite this, the Federalists did not field a serious challenger to Monroe in the 1820 presidential election, and once again Monroe won

With the Federalists out of the picture, the 1824 presidential election was a competition between members of the Democratic-Republican Party. Ignoring the party's congressional nominating caucus, state legislatures nominated their own candidates. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, former Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, and General Andrew Jackson became the major candidates in the election.

Henry Clay
Henry Clay

Since no candidate won a clear majority of the electoral vote in the 1824 election, the House of Representatives held a contingent election to decide the president. As a result, the regional strength of each candidate played a key role in this election. Adams was popular in New England, Clay and Jackson were strong in the West, and Jackson and Crawford competed for the South. John Quincy Adams won the election after Henry Clay threw his support behind Adams because he viewed Jackson as a potential tyrant and wanted to assure a non-Jackson win.

After the 1824 presidential election the Democratic-Republican Party split into two factions; one faction supported President John Quincy Adams, while the other faction backed General Andrew Jackson. Jackson's faction eventually coalesced into the Democratic Party, while supporters of Adams became known as the National Republican Party, which itself later merged into the Whig Party.

I hope you found this article on the rivalry between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in early America interesting, well-timed, informative, and thought provoking. If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you post comments to let me know your thoughts on our articles, suggest new subjects for future articles, and allow us to inform you when we post new articles. Please be assured that the Norfolk Towne Assembly never shares our community members information with outside entities except as required by law. I also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.

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Amar, Akhil Reed. "Anti-Federalists, The Federalist Papers, and the Big Argument for Union." Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 16 (1993): 111-118.

—. "The Bill of Rights as a Constitution." The Yale Law Journal 100.5 (1991): 1131-1210.

Finkelman, Paul. "Complete Anti-Federalist." Cornell Law Review 70.1 (1984): 182-207.

Hamilton, Alexander, et al. The Federalist and Other Contemporary Papers on the Constitution of the United States. Ed. E. H. Scott. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1894.

Independence Hall Association. Antifederalists. 2019. Independence Hall Association. 02 October 2020. <>.

—. Federalists. 2019. Independence Hall Association. 02 October 2020. <>.

Rhode Island Historical Society. Rhode Island Historical Society Collections. Vol. 5. Providence: Knowles and Vose, 1843.

Storing, Herbert J. "3. Federalists and Anti-Federalists: The Ratification Debate." ca. 1960. American Enterprise Institute. 6 October 2020. <>.

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Democratic-Republican Party." 14 Mat 2020. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 02 October 2020. <>.

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Anti-Federalists. 19 March 2020. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 02 October 2020. <>.

Various. "The Antifederalist Papers." n.d. 03 October 2020. <>.

1 Comment

Kathryn Gray Melhuish
Kathryn Gray Melhuish
Oct 09, 2020

Well-timed and most informative! May we look forward to another "Era of Good Feelings" following the current period of divisiveness.

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