Having thus far devoted quite a bit of ink to examining and commenting on some of the many essays that make up the Federalist Papers, it occurred to me that it would be only fitting and proper to also explore the other side of the 1787 ratification debate. By this I mean the Anti-Federalist Papers, a collection of essays written by opponents of the proposed Constitution who took their case to the public via newspapers in an attempt to counter the writings of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. Unlike the effort led by Hamilton, which was organized and cooperative, the Anti-Federalists did not work in concert or necessarily see themselves as representing a united front. To that end, some made use of pseudonyms (like Brutus, Plebian, Federal Farmer and Sydney) while others published under their own names (like Patrick Henry or Melancton Smith), and attempts at producing collections of their writings have varied significantly in size because there is no mutually agreed-upon list of who is actually considered an Anti-Federalist. Regardless, there are under the broad Anti-Federalist umbrella various series of essays that cover a wide range of topics to great effect. Those written under the name Brutus are among the best regarded, and compose together sixteen parts. That which will be examined here is the second in the series, and concerns itself with the necessity of a bill of rights.
As ever, I’d like to take a moment before diving into the text itself to establish a few points of context; in this case mainly having to do with the nature of Anti-Federalism and the identity of Brutus himself.
As already mentioned the Anti-Federalists were a diverse group, almost to the point that referring to them as a group would seem misleading. They couldn’t be easily defined geographically or economically; some were men of wealth and establishment while others were of decidedly middling status, and they came from states across the Union. The root of their opposition to the Constitution was similarly varied: some believed that the proposed federal government would inevitably threaten the liberties and prestige of the various states; some argued that the creation of a centralized executive branch would lead to a rebirth of the tyranny that the recent Revolution had attempted to cast off; some felt, as individuals, that their fundamental rights were at risk; and some believed that the Articles of Confederation were an adequate means of governance, or that the proposed constitution was simply too strong to be trusted. Within this rather broad spectrum there were moderates and extremists, from those that believed the Constitution was simply in need of amendment before it was ratified to those that believed it represented the greatest threat to American liberty since the passage of the Intolerable Acts in the 1770s. As the ratification debate got underway and as the Federalist Papers began their print run the Anti-Federalists made themselves heard in kind, and set about dissecting both the Constitution itself and the arguments presented Hamilton and his co-authors.
It would be difficult to say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how effective the efforts of the Anti-Federalists really were. Obviously the Constitution was ultimately ratified, thereby completely dashing the hopes of a decent portion of their number. More to the point, I should say, it was ratified without any alterations or amendments. This did not remain the case for very long, however, and therein lays perhaps the greatest legacy of the Anti-Federalist movement. Amendments to the Constitution were considered by many to be absolutely essential, even among those that generally favored its adoption. Where disagreement most often took root concerned how far the amendment process should go, and whether it should pre-date ratification or post-date it. Initially, most who favored the inclusion of some kind of bill of rights argued that its inclusion must come before ratification. This was perhaps in hope that the issue would not be swept under the rug once the Constitution was formally established, but rather be made an absolute pre-condition. Though this position was overcome by pro-ratification elements in some states, in Massachusetts it proved almost completely intractable. After protracted negotiation, and at least one instance of physical violence, an agreement was reached whereby approval of the Constitution came only with the provision that a bill of rights would be among the first amendments recommended to the newly minted Congress. The “amendment-before-ratification” supporters had become “amendment-after-ratification” advocates, likely out of fear of being left out of the new government if it was eventually adopted, and similar transformations followed suit in New Hampshire, Virginia and New York. Still, resistance proved so strong in Rhode Island and North Carolina that neither state endorsed ratification until after the Constitution was adopted, elections held, the President and Congress inaugurated and amendments approved (North Carolina joined the Union in 1789, Rhode Island in 1790).
While there has been a degree of speculation over the centuries as to the identity of Brutus, most authorities on the matter now agree that one Robert Yates was almost certainly the author of the sixteen essays published under the name. This is a conclusion to which I agree, and on that note I’d like to take a moment for a brief overview of Yates’ life and career up to the late 1780s. Born in Schenectady, New York in 1738, Yates was the son of a merchant who initially pursued a career in surveying before taking up the law in the 1750s. He did not appear to have attended any of the colleges then operating in the colonies (such as the College of New Jersey, Kings College in New York, or Virginia’s College of William & Mary), but studied law under future Governor of New Jersey William Livingston and was licensed in 1760. In subsequent years he supplemented his income by continuing to operate as a surveyor and cartographer, and in the 1770s was elected as an alderman for the city of Albany. Having been involved in the organized resistance to the Stamp Act in the 1760s, Yates also took an active part in Revolutionary politics as they emerged in New York after 1775. A member of the Albany Committee of Correspondence (a kind of alternate government to the royally approved colonial administration), and the Provincial Congress (the colonial/state legislature) he helped coordinate New York’s war effort, and in 1776/77 served in the convention that drafted the state’s first constitution. In 1777 he was appointed to the state Supreme Court, and during his tenure there became an ally of longstanding New York Governor George Clinton and his anti-federalist faction. In 1787 he was appointed, along with John Lansing Jr. and Alexander Hamilton, to represent New York at the Philadelphia Convention. It was his belief that the purpose of the convention was to amend the Articles of Confederation so as to make them more effective; when it became clear to him that the majority of delegate were in favor of tossing the Articles altogether and drafting an entirely new governing charter he chose, along with Lansing, to depart. When the finished Constitution was subsequently presented to the states for ratification Yates was selected to attend the resulting convention in Poughkeepsie as a supporter of the anti-federalist position.
As to the name “Anti-Federalist,” it was certainly not of their choosing. During the Revolution it had become common for a person who supported the union of the states under the Articles of the Confederation to refer to themselves and those of like mind as federalists. At the conclusion of hostilities in 1783, however, critics of the Articles and the ineffective government they created appropriated the term to signify those in favor of measures that would enhance the power and efficacy of the federal government. These measures included the drafting of an entirely new constitution, opponents of which were summarily dubbed “Anti-Federalists.” Meant to imply a lack of patriotism and/or opposition to Congress, the label was roundly rejected by many state and local groups who objected to the Constitution, and who attempted to recapture the federalist moniker for themselves. They were ultimately unsuccessful, despite the efforts of authors like “A Federal Farmer” and organizations like the Federal Republican Committee, and the terms Anti-Federalism and Anti-Federalist have since completely solidified as referring to the late 18th-century unorganized opposition to the United States Constitution.