The Federalist V.S Antifederalist Debate: James Wilson’s Speech to the Pennsylvania Convention Versus Letters to a Federal Farmer I

The national debates between the Federalist and Antifederalists occurred between September 17, 1787, and May 29, 1790 when Rhode Island became the thirteenth and final state to ratify the Constitution.

Federalist, James Wilson’s Speech to the Pennsylvania Convention on November 24, 1787 set the tone for the debates, not only for the remainder of the convention but for the entirety of the constitution’s ratification.  His speech includes the most important ideals set forth in the Federalist papers, focusing largely on the benefits of a union between the states, the illness with the current confederation and the effectiveness of a centralized federal government. By highlighting words like ‘government,’ ‘power,’ ‘people,’ ‘union,’ and ‘representation,’ the content of Wilson’s speech is clearly a persuasive case for the necessity of a federal government  that would strengthen and protect their budding nation. The federal government would seek to preserve order and regulation through peoples ‘representation.’ This would preserve order and secure the liberty of the larger republic.

Wilson also argued that the ‘people’ would ultimately decide the fate of the country because “supreme power…should be vested in the people…..It is a power paramount to every constitution, inalienable in its nature, and indefinite in its extent” (Beeman 381). The frequent appearance of the word ‘people’ accompanied by ‘government,’ ‘power,’ ‘united,’  ‘representation,’ and ‘liberty,’ appeals to the classic republican belief in popular sovereignty.  While ‘government’ appears the greatest number of times in his speech, Wilson cushions the federalist desire for a “comprehensive Federal  Republic” (Beeman 380), with the reassurance that sovereignty would remain intact in the form of the ‘people.’ Essentially Wilsons speech aptly summarizes the Federalists perspective as well as frames the remainder of the debate(Beeman 380).

The Antifederalist argument is best summarized by Melancton Smith of New York in his first Antifederalist paper under the name of the “Federal Farmer.” In this letter he acknowledges that there are many instabilities in the government, however, he believed the new government proposed in the Federalist constitution was not accessible to all types of men in the community. His first letter exemplified the Antifederalist sentiment that the constitution was elitist and largely excluded the common man. This belief stemmed from the secrecy of the constitutional convention which many believed was in direct violation of the Articles of Confederation in the means selected for ratification of the constitution.  Smith states “I have long apprehended that fraudulent debtors, and embarrassed men, on the one hand, and men, on the other, unfriendly to republican equality, would produce an uneasiness among the people, and prepare the way, not for cool and deliberate reforms in the governments, but for changes calculated to promote the interests of particular orders of men” ( Letters to a Federal Farmer I). In making their arguments, the Anti-Federalists often relied on the rhetoric of the Revolutionary War era, which stressed the virtues of local rule and associated centralized power with a monarch. Therefore, the Anti-Federalists frequently claimed that the Constitution represented a step away from the democratic goals of the American Revolution. In essence they believed that the elitist creators of the constitution sought only to further their own powers and goals. Many feared that this government would only succeed in creating a large socioeconomic gap between classes. While the central and most frequently used word in this document is once again ‘government,’ the words that surround it change the meaning and point directly toward the meaning of the Antifederalist debate.Words like ‘free,’ ‘governments,’ ‘states,’ ‘object,’ ‘community,’ ‘people,’ ‘power,’ and ‘men,’ show that the Antifederalist interests were not in a nation as a united front but in the interests if the community and the local state government and the people who controlled it.  The second largest word in the document is men. This shows that local men are of the second greatest importance to the government and that it is these ‘men’ who should be in control. Many Anti-Federalists believed in a type of government that has been described as agrarian republicanism, or a government is centered on a society of landowning farmers who participate in local politics. Lastly ‘Governments’ appears as the third largest word. The pluralization of this word once again reinforces the importance of state run governments to the Antifederalists.


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