Anti-Federalist Literature Review Part I

July 15, 2009

The writings of the Anti-Federalists serve as a Rorschach test for scholars of American politics.  Ostensibly, the standards of political science require us to understand the Anti-Federalists as they understood themselves, but this undertaking is necessarily related to our understanding of the Federalists, the Constitution, and over two hundred years of American government.  Thus there is as little agreement about the fundamental divisions in the ratification debate as there is concerning the nature of the constitution and the nation it established.

What did the opponents of the constitution think the purpose of American government was or should be, and how did this understanding affect their opposition to the Constitution?  A review of the various ways scholars have answered this question reveals the heart of many of the major debates of contemporary political science.  Although there are a limited number of scholars working directly on Anti-Federalist thought, almost every political scientist writing about American government has expressed an opinion concerning the Anti-Federalists.

Some argue there was an underlying liberal consensus between the two sides of the ratification debate that assumed the end of government is to protect individual rights and property, while others hold that the Anti-Federalists were fundamentally opposed to the kind of government the Federalists sought to establish.  This review focuses on how these two positions have both modified their position in the midst of the rise and fall of the classical republican thesis.  The polar opposition among scholars today on the basic nature of Anti-Federalist thought is striking.  While one argues that the Anti-Federalists were “more, not less” Lockean liberals than the Federalists, another concludes that the Anti-Federalists were classical republicans seeking “…to preserve public happiness.”[1]

[1] The first quotation is from Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke, (Chicago, 1988), 33-34;  the second from Christopher M. Duncan, The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought, (Dekalb, 1995).


One Response to “Anti-Federalist Literature Review Part I”

  1. Robert C. Cheeks Says:

    Excellent stuff!

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