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The Ratification Debate Part Three July 17, 2011

Posted by Dr. Robert Owens in Uncategorized.
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Concluding my three part series in celebration of our nation’s 235th Birthday, we will look at arguments advanced by both sides.  Last week we ended with the question, who were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists and why does it matter to us today?  This week we will learn the answers to the questions.  Who was debating?  What did they have to say?  Who won?  And, why does it matter to us today?

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers are a collection of eighty five essays published in New York newspapers.  They outline how the government, as proposed in the Constitution, would operate and why this highly centralized type of government was the best for the United States of America. All of the essays were signed by “PUBLIUS.” To this day there is some dispute as to who authored some of the articles.  However, after much study the consensus is generally believed that Alexander Hamilton wrote fifty two, James Madison wrote twenty eight, and John Jay wrote five.

Just as in every state, the debate over the ratification of the Constitution was intensely followed by the public in New York. Immediately after the conclusion of the Convention, the Constitution came under intense criticism in many New York newspapers. Echoing the sentiments of several of the prominent men who had been delegates to the Convention some contributors to the newspapers said the Constitution diluted the rights Americans had fought for and won in the recent Revolutionary War.

As one of the leading designers and loudest proponents of the Constitution Alexander Hamilton worried that the document might fail to be ratified in his home state of New York.   Therefore, Hamilton, a well trained and well spoken lawyer, decided to write a series of essays refuting the critics and pointing out how the new Constitution would in fact benefit Americans.  In the Convention Hamilton had been the only New York delegate to sign the Constitution after the other New Yorkers walked out of the Convention, because they felt the document being crafted was injurious to the rights of the people.

Hamilton was in favor of a strong central government having proposed to the Convention a president elected for life that had the power to appoint state governors. Although these autocratic ideas were thankfully left out of the finished document Hamilton knew that the Constitution, as written, was much closer to the kind of government he wanted than the one which then existed under the Articles of Confederation..

Hamilton’s first essay was published October 27, 1787 in the New York Independent Journal signed by “Publius.” At that time the use of pen names was a common practice. Hamilton then recruited James Madison and John Jay to contribute essays that also used the pen name “Publius.”

James Madison, as a delegate from Virginia, took an active role participating as one of the main actors in the debates during the Convention.  In addition he also kept the most detailed set of notes and personally drafted much of the Constitution.

John Jay of New York had not attended the Convention.  He was a well known judge and diplomat.  He was in fact a member of the government under the Articles currently serving as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

“Publius” wrote All eighty five essays that were written and published between October 1787 and August 1788, in newspapers of the state of New York.  But their popularity, readership, and impact were not limited to New York. They were in such great demand that they were soon published in a two volume set.

The Federalist essays, also known as the Federalist Papers, have served two distinct purposes in American history.  Primarily the essays helped persuade the delegates to the New York Ratification Convention to vote for the Constitution.  In later years, The Federalist Papers have helped scholars and other interested people understand what the writers and original supporters of the Constitution sought to establish when they initially drafted and campaigned for ratification.

Knowing that the Federalist Papers were written by such luminaries as Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury; James Madison, the fourth President of the United States; and John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the question asked is, who were these Anti-Federalists who dared speak against the founding of the greatest nation that has ever existed:  Some fringe people who didn’t want the blessing of truth, justice, and the American way?!

The Anti-Federalist Papers

The list of Anti-Federalist leaders included: George Mason, Edmund Randolph, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and even though he was not in the country at the time, Thomas Jefferson.

There is one major difference between the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers: the former are compact and relatively unified the latter are not really a single series of articles written by a united group with a single purpose as the Federalist Papers were. Instead there were many different authors and they were published all over the country in pamphlets and flyers as well as in newspapers.  Among the many the most important are: John DeWitt- Essays I-III, The Federal Farmer- Letters I and II, Brutus Essays I-XVI, Cato, Letters V and VII.

The first of the Anti-federalist essays was published on October 5, 1787 in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer.  This was followed by many more published throughout the country which charged that any new government formed under the auspices of the Constitution would:

  • Be injurious to the people because it lacked of a bill of rights.
  • Discriminate against the South with regard to navigation legislation.
  • Give the central government the power to levy direct taxation.
  • Lead to the loss of state sovereignty.
  • Represent aristocratic politicians bent on promoting the interests of their own class

The Federalists had the momentum from the beginning.  They were wise enough to appropriate the name Federalist, since federalism was a popular and well understood concept among the general public even though their position was the opposite of what the name implied.  They also had the support of most of the major newspapers and a majority of the leading men of wealth if not of all the original revolutionary patriots.  They also used a tactic of trying to rush the process as much as possible calling for conventions and votes with all dispatch.  And in the end these tactics combined with the great persuasion of the Federalist Letters and the prestige of General Washington carried the day. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788.

Although the anti-Federalists lost their struggle against the ratification of the Constitution their spirited defense of individual rights, personal liberty, and their deep-rooted suspicion of a central governmental power became and remain at the core American political values.  Their insistence upon the absolute necessity of the promise of enumerated rights as a prerequisite for ratification established the Bill of Rights as the lasting memorial to their work.

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College.  He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens drrobertowens@hotmail.com  Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.

 

Comments»

1. delusionaltrip - July 20, 2011

Dr. Owens,
I feel compelled to give my thanks for your efforts. These essays on American history have refreshed, if not informed my education on said topic which is of paramount import in this day and age. I’m beginning too realize that a government of the people requires the participation of the people. That such people be knowledgeable in the affairs and duties of governance obviously is a prerequisite that has been allowed to slip away over the course of many generations and is a fault with many roots. Efforts such as yours may indeed be a breath of fresh air and perhaps a new beginning for what was once a bright beacon of hope and freedom. I applaud your work, sir, and believe that persons such as yourself, diligently exercising their capacity for love and compassion will go a long ways towards helping restore our republic.
much thanks and appreciation,
Paul Niblock


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