Lesson 1: Anti-federalist Arguments Against "A Complete Consolidation"

profile painting of lee, wearing a white wig, white high-collared shirt and blue coat
Photo caption

Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), was the leading anti-federalist who is thought to have been the individual who wrote as the "Federalist Farmer."

Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Throughout 1787-88, as Americans continued to debate the proposed Constitution, one of the most contentious issues was whether the Union – tightened into one indissoluble nation under a federal government – could be maintained without doing away with both liberty and the state governments. Anti-federalist Brutus summarized the issue thus: “The first question that presents itself on the subject is…whether the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic…or whether they should continue thirteen confederated republics, under the direction and controul of a supreme federal head for certain defined national purposes only?” One of the chief objections of Anti-federalists was that the new national government would likely not be able to efficiently govern an extent of territory as vast as the United States. “[I]n a republic of such vast extent as the United-States,” wrote Brutus, “the legislature cannot attend to the various concerns and wants of its different parts.” Other Anti-federalists objected that such a system would only work if the national government gradually usurped all powers from the states, resulting in what they called a “consolidated” government. With the United States thus “melted down into one empire,” Anti-federalists argued that the national government would likely resort to force to maintain the Union and ensure compliance to national laws. As Centinel wrote, “It would not be difficult to prove, that any thing short of despotism, could not bind so great a country under one government.” The result, Anti-federalists believed, would be a powerful tyranny, in which the national government exercised its virtually unlimited powers to oppress the people and deprive them of their liberty. “A free republic,” Brutus concluded, “cannot long subsist over a country of the great extent of these states.”

This lesson will focus on the chief objections of the Anti-federalists, especially The Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), Centinel, and Brutus, regarding the extended republic. Students will become familiar with the larger issues surrounding this debate, including the nature of the American Union, the difficulties of uniting such a vast territory with a diverse multitude of regional interests, and the challenges of maintaining a free republic as the American people moved toward becoming a nation rather than a mere confederation of individual states.

Guiding Questions

What are the merits of the Anti-federalist argument that an extended republic will lead to the destruction of liberty and self-government?

Learning Objectives

Understand what Anti-federalists meant by the terms “extended republic” or “consolidated republic.”

Articulate the problems the Anti-federalists believed would arise from extending the republic over a vast territory.

Better understand the nature and purpose of representation, and why, according to Anti-federalists, it would not be successful in a large nation.

Explain why Anti-federalists believed that eventually the extended republic would result in rebellion or tyranny.

Articulate how the problem of representation in a large republic would lead to abuse of power by those in national office or the use of force to execute the laws.

Explain why a great diversity of interests in a large republic was an obstacle, according to Anti-federalists, to uniting Americans together as one nation.