The Social Debate

Melancton Smith. By: Granger.

The debate surrounding the Constitution was as much a political and governmental debate as it was a social debate. The individuals who debated the Constitution, both for and against the Constitution, focused on the social aspect, making the disagreement “fundamentally one between aristocracy and democracy.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 485.

At New York’s Ratifying Convention, Melancton Smith stated that “[i]t is true it is our singular felicity that we have no legal or hereditary distinctions . . . ; but still there are real differences . . . . Every society naturally divides itself into classes . . . . Birth, education, talents, and wealth, create distinctions among men as visible, and of as much influence, as titles, stars, and garters.” Smith (N.Y.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, II, 246.

The Antifederalists challenged “the conventional belief that only a gentlemanly few, even though now in America naturally and not artificially qualified, were best equipped through learning and experience to represent and to govern the society,” and Antifederalists were also “indirectly denying the assumption of organic social homogeneity on which republicanism rested.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 492. These actions by the Antifederalists were destroying the sense of unity amongst those in power, which had been a cornerstone of Eighteenth Century politics.

The strength of Antifederalism was remarkable in these years. As a result of the Antifederalist position, Americans were rejecting the structure of government that was “compossd of the first characters in the Continent,” including the Founding Fathers, and the most revered of them all: George Washington. Id. at 498 quoting Rutland, Ordeal of the Constitution, 39.

Americans were coming together, particularly those under the Antifederalist banner, to reform the most antiquated and undesirable structures in society. Rather than accepting the de facto aristocracy that existed at the time of the Revolution, Americans were charting their own course in how society would be represented in government.

Naturally, Americans knew that the divisions of individuals would not disappear, as societies will always have varying classes and groups. But rather than fortify those divisions, Americans insisted on having a system that encouraged a more equal distribution of opportunity.

In modern America, divisions of individuals into classes is as strong as ever, perhaps even stronger than before. But Americans should be inspired. At a time of tremendous uncertainty and tumult, the Antifederalists gathered and reformed American society to better shape government to reflect the wishes of the people. There is no reason that modern Americans cannot do the same.

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