james_madison_by_gilbert_stuart
James Madison. By: Gilbert Stuart.

The debate surrounding the adoption of the Bill of Rights revealed to many Americans the stark differences between Federalists and Antifederalists. Edmund Pendleton, in the Virginia Convention, stated that opposition to the Constitution “rested on ‘mistaken apprehensions of danger, drawn from observations on government which do not apply to us.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 543 quoting Pendleton (Va.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, III, 36-37. Pendleton pointed out that many governments in the world were ruled by dictators. Id. Those governments had “bred hostility between ‘the interest and ambition of a despot’ and ‘the good of the people,’ thus creating ‘a continual war between the governors and the governed.'” Id. Pendleton believed that these beliefs led Antifederalists to demand a bill of rights and to have other unfounded fears about the Constitution. Id.

Perhaps part of the reason for the outrage was that Federalists were rethinking how sovereignty was to be defined. The people themselves were being empowered to be the holders of all power, which explained the doctrine of federalism. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 545. Both “the state and federal legislatures were equally representatives of the people at the same time, ‘both possessed of our equal confidence—both chosen in the same manner, and equally responsible to us.'” Id. at 545-46 quoting Pendleton (Va.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, III, 301.

James Madison, in The Federalist, wrote that: “The federal and state governments are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers, and designed for different purposes.” The Federalist, No. 46. The days of the people being represented in the lower house of their state legislature were gone.

The Federalists were turning political power on its head. The “historic distinction between rulers and people, governors and representatives, was dissolved, and all parts of the government became rulers and representatives of the people at the same time.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 546.

John Dickinson remarked that “the whole people of the United States are to be trebly represented in it in three different modes of representation.” Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 173, 178. Alexander Hamilton, focusing on the executive office, observed that “the President of the United States will be himself the representative of the people . . . [and] [w]hatever of dignity or authority he possesses is a delegated part of their Majesty and their political omnipotence, transciently vested in him by the people themselves for their own happiness.” Hamilton (N.Y.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, II, 253.

This clever bit of posturing by the Federalists allowed for them to claim the title of “true republicans,” and purport to be no “less attached to liberty than those who oppose it.” See H. Lee (Va.), in Elliot, ed., Debates, III, 177. The Federalists, for the short time being, had outmaneuvered their opponents, getting to the heart of Americans’ concerns about government.

In doing so, and in debating with the Antifederalists, Americans as a whole were the true beneficiaries. By having an adversarial nature in constructing the government, the Federalists and Antifederalists were forced to posture themselves in a way where they appeared to be the side most concerned about the welfare of the people, the prevention of tyranny, and the wisest form of government. In that sense, Americans have continued to benefit from that debate, as the structure of government has largely remained unchanged. Should a day come where the structure of American government is undergoing consideration to be changed, these early debates should be remembered.

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