great debates in american history
GREAT DEBATE (1787–1789): The Constitution: Should the United States adopt the new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation?
|For: The Federalists—led by Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Marshall; including most commercial, seacoast, urban, and upper-class groups.||Against: The Anti-Federalists—led by Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and George Clinton; including many noncommercial, western, agrarian, and state-oriented interests.|
ISSUE #1: Need for change. Does the government of the Articles need to be replaced?
|Yes: Federalist Alexander Hamilton: “The faith, the reputation, the peace of the whole Union are thus continually at the mercy, the prejudices, the passions, and the interests of every member of which it is composed. Is it possible that foreign nations can either respect or confide in such a government? Is it possible that the people of America will longer consent to trust their honor, their happiness, their safety, on so precarious a foundation?…The Confederation…is a system so radically vicious and unsound, as to admit not of amendment but by an entire change in its leading features and characters.”||No: Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry: “The honorable gentleman said that great danger would ensue if the Convention rose without adopting this system. I ask, where is that danger? I see none. Other gentlemen have told us, within these walls, that the union is gone, or that the union will be gone.…Till they tell us the grounds of their fears, I will consider them as imaginary.…Where is the danger? If, sir, there was any, I would recur to the American spirit which has enabled us to surmount the greatest difficulties.”|
ISSUE #2: Can a republic govern a large territory and a diverse population?
|Yes: Federalist James Madison: “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that the majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.…Hence, it clearly appears that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic.…”||No: Anti-Federalist James Winthrop of Massachusetts: “It is the opinion of the ablest writers on the subject, that no extensive empire can be governed on republican principles, and that such a government will degenerate to a despotism.…No instance can be found of any free government of any considerable extent.…Large and consolidated empires may indeed dazzle the eyes of a distant spectator with their splendour, but if examined more nearly are always found to be full of misery.”|
ISSUE #3: Will the new constitutional government create an aristocratic power in the presidency?
|No: Federalist Alexander Hamilton: “There is no comparison between the intended power of the President and the actual power of the British sovereign.…The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for four years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and hereditary prince.…What answer shall we give to those who would persuade us that things so unlike resemble each other? The same that ought to be given to those who tell us that a government, the whole power of which would be in the hands of the elective and periodical servants of the people, is an aristocracy, a monarchy and a despotism.”||Yes: Anti-Federalist George Clinton of New York: “Wherein does this president, invested with his powers and prerogatives, essentially differ from the king of Great Britain (save as to the name, the creation of nobility and some immaterial incidents…)? The safety of the people in a republic depends on the share or proportion they have in the government; but experience ought to teach you, that when a man is at the head of an elective government invested with great powers, and interested in his reelection…appointments will be made by which means an imperfect aristocracy bordering on monarchy may be established.”|
ISSUE #4: Does the proposed Constitution protect the people’s liberty?
|Yes: Federalist Alexander Hamilton: “Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.…Bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous.…Why declare that things not be done which there is no power to do?…the truth is…that the Constitution is itself, in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a BILL OF RIGHTS.”||No: Anti-Federalist George Mason of Virginia: “There is no declaration of rights: and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitutions of the several states, the declarations of rights, in the separate states, are no security. Nor are the people secured even in the enjoyment of the benefit of the common law, which stands here upon no other foundations than its having been adopted by the respective acts forming the constitutions of the several states.”|
references: Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969); Thorton Anderson, Creating the Constitution (1993).