The Deftness of the Federalists

Patrick Henry. By: Currier & Ives.

As the Constitution was being drafted and ratified, opinions ranged on the prospects for it effectively governing America. Some in the Philadelphia Convention believed it was “nothing more than a combination of the peculiarities of two of the State Governments which separately had been found insufficient.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 519 quoting Madison, in Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention, II, 291. Even some Federalists, who favored a strong national government, concluded that there was “a preposterous combination of powers in the President and Senate, which may be used improperly.” Edward Carrington to Jefferson, Oct. 23, 1787, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XII, 255.

From the Antifederalist perspective, the Constitution was problematic. The Antifederalists had taken up many of the same views as the Eighteenth Century Whigs, particularly the mistrust of government. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 520. Antifederalists believed that “power, that ‘predominant thirst of domination which has invariably and uniformly prompted rulers to abuse their powers,’ was on the march again, for there was really nothing new or unprecedented in this latest attempt at usurpation.” Id. at 520-21 quoting Patrick Henry (Va.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, III, 436, 314. Patrick Henry declared that “[t]he tyranny of Philadelphia may be like the tyranny of George III.” Id.

One top concern about the Constitution was the level of power vested in the executive, or the “supreme magistrate.” See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 521. Notably, there was no executive council who would perhaps serve as a regulator for an executive to take unilateral action. See id.

Some Antifederalists began to complain that there were not nearly enough checks on preventing or destroying tyranny. Joseph Taylor, of North Carolina, asked who would impeach a tyrant, observing that the government was too disjointed from the people to effectively police itself. See id. at 522.

Despite these complaints, in a prescient tactical move, the Federalists had effectively taken pieces of the ideals and principles propounded during the Revolution and weaved them into the proposed government in the Constitution. While Antifederalists could identify potential problems with the government, those problems seemed to be at the fringes for many Americans. The Federalists had effectively marginalized their adversaries by anticipating their objections and addressing them sufficiently in the Constitution so as to create a broad consensus.

This deftness allowed the Constitution, despite its flaws, to take precedence. While Americans heard the Antifederalists’ complaints about the proposed government, the document had captured many of the same sentiments that defined the Revolution. In many ways, the Federalists ensured that perfect would not be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes.

The Federalists realized that crafting a perfect document, given the numerous varying views as to the proper structure of government, was a fool’s errand. Instead, the United States needed a document that would effectively govern the people, and its flaws could be sorted out through subsequent amendment.

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