In September of 1787, the delegates to the Convention in Philadelphia presented their work to the American public for ratification. The proposed Constitution marked a clear departure from the Articles of Confederation, which had essentially established a federal “league of friendship” between thirteen sovereign and largely independent states. Under the newly proposed plan of government, the union between the states would be strengthened under a national government that derived its authority—at least in part—directly from the American people rather than purely from the state legislatures. And under the new Constitution, the people would be represented equally in the House, regardless of the state in which they lived—unlike the Articles of Confederation, according to which the Continental Congress equally represented the states. In other words, the proposed Constitution would make the United States a nation of one people rather than a loose confederation of states.
The proposed Constitution, and the change it wrought in the nature of the American Union, spawned one of the greatest political debates of all time. In addition to the state ratifying conventions, the debates also took the form of a public conversation, mostly through newspaper editorials, with Anti-federalists on one side objecting to the Constitution, and Federalists on the other supporting it. Writers from both sides tried to persuade the public that precious liberty and self-government, hard-earned during the late Revolution, were at stake in the question.
Anti-federalists such as the Federal Farmer, Centinel, and Brutus argued that the new Constitution would eventually lead to the dissolution of the state governments, the consolidation of the Union into “one great republic” under an unchecked national government, and as a result the loss of free, self-government. Brutus especially believed that in such an extensive and diverse nation, nothing short of despotism “could bind so great a country under one government.” Federalists such as James Madison (writing as Publius) countered that it was precisely a large nation, in conjunction with a well-constructed system of government, which would help to counter the “mortal disease” of popular governments: the “dangerous vice” of majority faction. In an extended republic, interests would be multiplied, Madison argued, making it difficult for a majority animated by one interest to unite and oppress the minority. If such a faction did form, a frame of government that included “auxiliary precautions” such as separation of powers and legislative checks and balances would help to prevent the “factious spirit” from introducing “instability, injustice, and confusion … into the public councils.”
In this unit, students will examine the arguments of Anti-federalists against and Federalists for the extended republic that would result from the new Constitution. They will become familiar with some of the greatest thinkers on both sides of the argument and their reasons for opposing or supporting the Constitution. They will learn why Anti-federalists believed that a large nation could not long preserve liberty and self-government. They will also learn why Federalists such as James Madison believed that a large nation was vital to promote justice and the security of rights for all citizens, majority and minority alike. Finally, students will see the seriousness of the question as one that both sides believed would determine the happiness, liberty, and safety of future generations of Americans.
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
These Text Documents contain excerpted versions of the documents used in the activities, as well as questions for students to answer.
Analyzing primary sources:
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.