Founding Documents: The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers

Ten days after the Constitution was signed at the Old Philadelphia State House, an anonymous op-ed appeared in the New York Journal. Signed by "Cato," it cautioned readers of the new Constitution to take it with a grain of salt. Even the wisest of men, it warned, can make mistakes. This launched a public debate that would last months, pitting pro-Constitution "Federalists" against Constitution-wary "Anti-Federalists." It was a battle for ratification, and it resulted in a glimpse into the minds of our Framers -- and a concession that would come to define American identity. 

Our guides through the minds of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists are Claire Griffin and Cheryl Cook-Kallio.

Episode Clips

More Resources

If you want to just devour every moment of the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debate, head on over to for the whole collection. You can track the battle and learn what James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay may have told you if you challenged them to explain the Constitution.

Fun Fact! Thomas Jefferson, the very man who authored the Declaration of Independence, was serving as U.S. minister during the Constitutional Convention so he wasn’t around to offer his thoughts in Philadelphia. But he still managed to play a major role in designing the new government by way of letters to his fellow framers. And, even though he would come to call the Federalist Papers the “best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written,” he leaned more states rights, fear-of-tyranny than his peers. He also lobbied hard for a Bill of Rights. You can get a gander at some of his writing from the time through the Library of Congress.

Have a civics question you want answered? Let us know in the form below and we'll try to answer it!


This script was created using a combination of machine and human transcription. There may be discrepancies or typos.

CPB by Adia Samba-Quee: [00:00:00] Civics 101 is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Hey.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:04] Nick did you ever have to write one of those what I did over my summer vacation essays in grade school.

Nick Capodice: [00:00:10] All the time.

[00:00:12] In fact my finest summer vacation was playing Sam Gamgee in an eight hour production Lord of the Rings.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:18] Ok I wasn't expecting that. That is that's really that's ambitious. But still your thing is not as ambitious as designing a new system of government.

Nick Capodice: [00:00:29] Yeah nowhere near as ambitious as that.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:00:31] No right. Because that's totally insane you can't pull that off in four months. And yet that is how we got our current system of government a bunch of guys in the stifling heat in Philadelphia in this airless room with the windows nailed shut in the middle of the summer wrote our Constitution in four months and then they stepped outside and showed the world there. You know what I did on my Summer Vacation essay.

Nick Capodice: [00:00:58] By essay you mean the Constitution.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:00] I do.

[00:01:05] The delegates to the convention publish their constitution and newspapers throughout the 13 states and they were probably hoping for a pretty positive response but that is not what they got a mere ten days after the constitution is signed. I mean the ink is barely dry on this thing. Some guy named Cato writes this op ed basically saying I know that it's really exciting that this new constitution was signed by people like George Washington. But just be careful about it. It might not be all it's cracked up to be what someone's.

Nick Capodice: [00:01:38] Already constitution bashin' what does this Cato guy know who is Cato anyways?

[00:01:44] Has even read the Constitution.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:45] Well he has. But before we get into that introductions I am Hannah McCarthy.

Nick Capodice: [00:01:52] And I'm Nick Capodice.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:01:52] And this is Civics 101 and today we are diving into one of the most high stakes eloquent intense public battles in the history of the United States.

[00:02:03] The battle that pitted the pro Constitution federalists against the anti constitution anti federalists. And it sounds like the whole thing started with this guy named Cato. It did indeed the op ed that launched a thousand ships as far as who Cato is and what he actually knows. We're not totally sure about that. It's most likely George Clinton the governor of New York but it could also be this New York politician John Williams whoever it is.

[00:02:32] He almost certainly did not attend the Constitutional Convention.

Nick Capodice: [00:02:37] Right so Cato is a pseudonym.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:38] Correct. It's referring to a politician in ancient Rome who killed himself because he didn't want to live in Julius Caesar's new government. Cato was all about defending the Roman Republic.

Nick Capodice: [00:02:51] That is a little on the nose. Cato saying he'd rather die than live under this new constitution.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:02:56] Bingo. At the time most educated men would have picked up on the symbolism of this. The name Cato had actually been used to critique the British government in the past.

Nick Capodice: [00:03:06] Okay so the framers were a bunch of classics nerds. I can appreciate that. I think it's kind of endearing but why New York. This essay gets published in New York. It's written by a New York politician. New York, what's your damage?

Hannah McCarthy: [00:03:19] Well New York is not super happy with the new Constitution of the three delegates they send to the Constitutional Convention to walk out. Only Alexander Hamilton stayed behind but he's pretty thrilled with the Constitution. A lot of new York congressmen do not feel the same way. They do not want to see the states consolidated under this one powerful central government and they really don't believe that the Constitution can guarantee equal and permanent liberty like its proponents claim.

Nick Capodice: [00:03:53] So who's Cato writing the op ed for exactly.

[00:03:57] The whole Cato Roman Republic metaphor seems like pretty inside baseball like your average farmer probably doesn't know what's being referenced here.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:04] You know the average farmer is not who Cato is speaking to. Right now the Constitution is only a piece of paper with a bunch of ideas. It doesn't carry any real power and Cato wants to stop that power from happening altogether. All right.

Nick Capodice: [00:04:19] So he's talking to the guys in charge.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:21] Yeah politicians delegates.

Claire Griffin: [00:04:23] White literate men. Of course those are the ones who were at the Constitutional Convention. Those were the ones who were going to be the ratifying conventions.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:04:32] This is Claire Griffin. She's a former government and history teacher and a consultant in civic education. Like she said the Cato letter is addressed to the people who will be voting on whether or not to ratify the constitution. 9 out of 13 states have to ratify in order for the Constitution to go into effect and the Cato letter is the first of many many op eds criticizing the Constitution.

Claire Griffin: [00:04:55] Well they were a series of about 150 articles written by quite literally dozens of opponents to the Constitution. These were published not just in New York but in New York Pennsylvania Connecticut Maryland again kind of the same time frame September of 1787 through December of 1788 and their purpose was to dissuade the delegates to the ratifying conventions from supporting the constitution.

Nick Capodice: [00:05:27] Also it wasn't just Cato.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:28] No they had a Brutus a Centinel.

[00:05:31] They had an old Whig then that's Whig with an "h" -- collectively these writers were known as the anti federalists and these were really smart men with really well informed ideas.

Nick Capodice: [00:05:44] All right so being an anti federalist doesn't make you unreasonable or opposed to a government of any kind necessarily.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:05:52] Not at all.

Claire Griffin: [00:05:52] Before we go on I should almost apologize for calling them anti federalist because nobody wants to be called anti anything and that name anti specialist actually came from the federalist to describe their opponents. And because history is often written by the victors the name anti federalists has stopped and will use that in our conversation. They would have called themselves pro Republicans Republican with a small R.

Nick Capodice: [00:06:25] What does she mean by that small are Republicans.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:06:28] Oh what she means is as opposed to the big R or Republican Party small r Republicans are just in favor of a republic which most basically is a government where power rests with the people. They're anti federalists because they're not thrilled with strict federalism which is basically a centralized federal government that works with smaller state and local governments. The anti federalists would prefer a government closer to the Articles of Confederation with its really weak central government and plenty of state power.

Nick Capodice: [00:07:02] But the guys who are writing what we call the anti federalist papers they wouldn't have actually called themselves into federalist right.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:09] No no way. Their opponents gave them that label which is actually a pretty strong PR move. Calling a group anti anything it just makes them seem negative and in this case the other group of guys calls themselves the federalists the anti federalists probably would have called them the anti little are Republicans.

Nick Capodice: [00:07:30] So when do the federalists actually enter the fight. So far we've just got this op ed by Cato.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:07:35] Yeah it's actually quite a while before the anti federalists make their move. The little r Republicans have published 21 statements by the time we hear from the pro Constitution guys which I found pretty surprising because when I learned about this time period in school I learned about the federalists the federalists were this big deal these guys who explained the Constitution and I'm almost certain that I didn't read a single anti federalist paper back then. And yet they were the ones who kicked everything off. We might not have the Federalist Papers as we know them today without the anti federalists.

Nick Capodice: [00:08:17] I'm guessing the pro Constitution framers get to a point where they're like all right enough. We can't let this go anymore. These guys are killing us with bad press.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:08:26] Exactly. And they're not just in New York anymore. Cato inspired critics in other states as well. But the soon to be capital F federalists aren't just sitting there twiddling their thumbs while all of this is going on. They're making plans and then October 27th it happens. The first federalist essay hits the presses of a new york paper.

Claire Griffin: [00:08:51] Number one the very first one written by Alexander Hamilton in which he's laying out the case for a new constitution something to replace the Articles of Confederation.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:04] Federalist 1 otherwise known as Publius one.

Nick Capodice: [00:09:09] Publius?

Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:10] Yes it's a silly sounding name Pubilius was a guy in ancient Rome who helped to overthrow the monarchy and create the Republic of the people.

Nick Capodice: [00:09:19] That is a clever move by Hamilton Right. Because Cato kicked things off in the name that's in defense of the Republic and then Hamilton comes back at him like No way man. You got this all wrong. I'm the guy who establishes a representative government. I'm the guy that gives power to the people. You must be the other guy.

Claire Griffin: [00:09:37] What I love about Federalist number one is that Hamilton refers to the fact that the American people now have a chance to make decisions to create a government based on reflection and choice not accident and force.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:09:57] Meanwhile an anti federalist calling himself John DeWitt publishes in Massachusetts. He reads the times and what he sees is this permanent document that will never change. He basically says don't let them fool you. That amendment clause is useless. Congress is never going to achieve that three fourths majority they're talking about because that would require too many people to agree. He calls it an absolute impossibility.

Nick Capodice: [00:10:26] It's interesting because we know that the Constitution does end up getting amended. But back then there must have been so much anxiety about this new system of government. How could they possibly know it was going to work out the anti federalists are just saying hey we can't take this gigantic radical leap into a brand new system especially one that throws us into a stronger government. We just escaped a stronger government.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:10:50] Right. And the federalists were saying look we have got to beef up the federal government because the way that it is now is a disaster. We got it wrong we went too far toward a government of the people. It is too divided. So the first anti federalist drops in late September Pew one arrives about a month later and it says OK so we've heard some concerns.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:11:17] We are going to write a series of essays that are going to answer all your questions about the new constitution.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:11:25] This is Cheryl Cook. Kallio she's a former teacher and former council member in Pleasanton, California.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:11:31] And then he and John Jay and Madison methodically went through every single thing that was concerning and tried to answer those questions in 85 essays 85.

Nick Capodice: [00:11:45] How are we going to get through eighty five essays in one episode.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:11:48] Actually it's probably more than 85 because when you lump in the anti federalists and a few other things written at the time you're really looking at closer two hundred and forty plus articles. But don't despair. The point of this episode is to get a sense of what this fight actually looked like. What were the arguments for and against this nation changing document and how did the federalists approach to these op eds help their game.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:12:15] They were put in a collection and they started to disseminate that collection throughout the colonies. Again in contrast to the anti federalists that were very much individual essays that were now written in defense of their position.

Nick Capodice: [00:12:33] So the federalists are working together and guys like Cato and Brutus and the old Whig are just coming at it from their own individual perspectives.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:12:41] The anti federalists were certainly sharing their opinions with one another but it wasn't a unified front. The way that it was with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and John Jay Jay by the way wasn't at the Constitutional Convention but he was a powerful New Yorker and Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation. So while the anti federalists comprised over a dozen different authors and pseudonyms those three federalists published only as publics. There were certainly other pro Constitution people writing op eds. But it was Publius who shone the brightest.

Nick Capodice: [00:13:17] Do you think that's part of the reason why the federalist ended up being successful you know in my opinion yes and I base this on.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:13:24] On a couple of things. One is that Hamilton and Madison in particular were planners. They had written out their justifications for particular things even before they would get into the constitutional convention. They would have the ammunition they needed to support something. Also I think Madison James Madison in particular is a pragmatist. He knew that there needed to be a different type of government. He knew that under the Articles of Confederation the government was way too weak to survive and he was prepared to do what he needed to do to get a different structure in place.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:06] Here is another agreed upon favorite that sheds some real light.

[00:14:09] This one is by James Madison and actually a lot of the favorites are by James Madison.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:14:15] I do like Federalist 10. I think that Madison was right when he said that factions are bad but they're inevitable and that the only way to mitigate these factions is to balance them out.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:30] Madison published Federalist 10 on November 22nd. This is after anti federalists like Cato expressed concerns about this centralized Congress with so many different special interests. Basically he was saying how is the government going to get anything done with this system. It will be a house divided. It'll be useless just a bunch of factions. Madison has to prove that the new system of government is actually the best way to deal with factions. But what did Madison actually mean by factions like political parties. Well back in the day theU.S. didn't really have the party system the way that it looks today. So it'd be less party factions and more like opposed special interest groups and Maddison's biggest concern was over the special interest groups who would fight against what was best for everybody. A good example back then would have been slave owners versus abolitionists. Here's Claire again.

Claire Griffin: [00:15:25] He's writing about the advantages of a large Republican republic with a small r where individuals choose their elected representatives. Political philosophers before Manison were pretty certain that the republic would only work in a small geographically small area with a fairly homogeneous population and Madison says just the opposite he said. The public works best when the territory is large and expand it and when there are so many different interests and crude he used the word faction that all the different interest groups offset each other. No minority is persecuted against no majority ever has complete sway.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:15] Madison also focuses on the economy in Federalist 10 and at this point in history theU.S. economy is really not doing so hot. He describes an equal property distribution with some people having everything and some people having nothing. And this he says can create factions to the wealthy versus the poor. His large republic where you've got a Congress representing the many scattered views of the common people will work to balance this out.

Nick Capodice: [00:16:42] It seems like Madison and the other federalists are going to have an answer for every concern the anti federalist put their way. Yeah he pretty much do.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:16:52] And a big part of defending the Constitution is explaining the Constitution. Lequan anti federalist Brutus argues that the Supreme Court would be quote exalted above all other power in the government and subject to no control. And Hamilton is like OK let me break it down for you.

Claire Griffin: [00:17:12] Number seventy eight. Alexander Hamilton again is writing about the importance of the independent judiciary and I'm not sure whether or not he really believed it but he said that the three branches the judiciary would be the weakest he said. They have neither the force of the sword nor the pen. The idea being they have no way to enforce what their judgment is. And he also emphasized that they were called upon to exercise judgment about laws but not will. As in they are not the law makers. So when you hear discussions about activist judges or judicial overreach or even questions about judicial review today Hamilton are raising those questions back in 1788.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:05] And then there's the president the anti federalists looked at Article 2 and they were not happy with what they saw.

Nick Capodice: [00:18:11] I would imagine that anti federalists are looking at the role of the president in thinking this looks mighty familiar.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:18:18] Yep but the federalists believe that there is a very good reason for this executive power.

Claire Griffin: [00:18:24] Number 70 written by Alexander Hamilton. This is where he writes about the importance of energy in the executive branch. The right of the Constitution. We're looking at the immediate past history when we were governed under the Articles of Confederation. One of the major weaknesses of the government under the articles there was no chief executive. And so Hamilton whom some have called a monarchist which I think is unfair. Hamilton was arguing for a strong executive individual and a strong executive branch.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:19:03] And the executive branch that's laid out in the Constitution doesn't say all that much about putting a check on this new executive.

[00:19:10] The anti federalists feared that between veto power and pardon power you'd end up with a president who could bend the nation to his will.

Claire Griffin: [00:19:24] Well if you look you know throughout American history we've had a series of very strong executive. And usually it's in times of crisis. But it is a strong executive. The best for our nation and the epicenter of us would say you know no that's not such a good idea. You know the federalists were arguing generally in favor of a large government or at least a government larger than that which had existed prior and certainly big government can do great and wonderful things but the anti felt but more say not so fast. Maybe we don't want a huge government bureaucracy so it's kind of interesting you could say that the Federalist more success. You know they got their desired outcome.

[00:20:16] The Constitution was ratified and the Federalist Papers have become integral to our understanding of our founding. However if you look at the anti federalists given some of the questions and concerns that that they raised then they're still with us today. We may decide that after all they ended up having the last laugh.

Nick Capodice: [00:20:40] That is a really interesting point. The federalists won. So that's the history that counts right. And we look to the Federalist Papers to better understand the Constitution. And that makes them an amazing resource. But it does seem like the anti federalists are raising valid points.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:20:59] Absolutely. And remember the anti federalists are posing a real threat. First of all these essays are public. So if you can read and you don't like what you're reading about this proposed constitution you might just give your representative an earful down at the tavern or out on the street or after church. And then there's the fact that some of these anti federalists are going to be voting on whether or not to adopt the constitution. So they have a very real say in the future of the country. And on top of all that the Constitution only needs the support of nine states to be ratified. Right. But that means that as many as four states could choose not to ratify and potentially even sever ties with the new nation. So no more union union over and the country ends up being the very failure that so many framers were anxious to prevent.

Nick Capodice: [00:21:53] So the federalists do have to listen to the anti federalists.

[00:21:56] To an extent and not just to calm their fears or do damage control with anti fed op eds.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:22:02] Right the Constitution is up for a vote in ratifying conventions across the country and some states like Delaware Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They're quick to ratify. They do it in December of 1787 but the OP eds don't stop the Federalists and anti federalists are still battling it out into the spring and then into the summer of 1788 because there are a lot of very loud dissenters arguing that the Constitution is illegal under the Articles of Confederation that it's a document written by wealthy upper class people to benefit their own interests that it deprives states of their individual rights in favor of this big central government.

Nick Capodice: [00:22:42] Yeah how do the federalists reconcile that issue. It sounds like anti federalists are all about states having sovereignty and looking out for their own and making their own choices. So how can the federalists make this big government remotely appealing to them.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:22:56] Well Madison does dig into that by explaining how in broad terms this government is going to work. Here's Cheryl again.

[00:23:03] When he's trying to explain it one of the things he says and this is a quote from federalist 39 in its foundation it is federal not national in the sources from which the ordinary powers of government are drawn. It is partly federal and partly national in the operation of these powers. It is national not federal in the extent of them again it is federal not national. And finally in the authoritative mode of introducing amendments it is neither wholly federal or wholly national. Now that's enough to make anybody's eyes cross two or three times. It sounds like double speak.

Nick Capodice: [00:23:45] Yeah I really don't understand why Madison is talking about is he canceling out his own argument. And what does he mean by federal versus national aren't that the same thing when you deconstruct the paragraph.

Cheryl Cook-Kallio: [00:23:56] It really does illustrate the nature of federalism. Sometimes the states are in charge sometimes the national governments in charge and sometimes the federal government which is the combination of the two is in charge and these things change depending on the circumstance. He would then go on to say that this is really a check this idea that you have state power that doesn't belong the federal government an example of this is police powers. That's a state power. There's a number of things like that and sometimes the lines are blurred and sometimes are not.

Nick Capodice: [00:24:33] All right. So in other words Madison is saying look this strong federal government is not designed to deprive states of all power. Sometimes the states get to decide and sometimes the federal government gets to decide. Sometimes they decide together.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:24:50] Right. He's saying this document is not as extreme as these anti federalists are making it out to be.

[00:24:56] Don't worry you'll retain some states rights.

[00:25:03] Of course that doesn't address the little problem of the federal government being at the top of the food chain and the anti federalists are like we're afraid of tyranny. Remember this constitution doesn't say anything about protecting the little guy. You can't just kind of vaguely say don't worry individual citizens you'll be fine. The anti federalists want this in writing.

[00:25:27] OK. I've been waiting for this. This is the big ole glaring omission in the Constitution of 1787 and we're talking about the Bill of Rights. Where's that Bill of Rights.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:25:38] That is exactly what the Anti-federalists are saying. Where is the Bill of Rights? It might seem like a no brainer for us but at the time the federalists were like No no no we don't need to add anything to the Constitution. It's overkill it's redundant.

Claire Griffin: [00:25:53] The last Federalist Paper which is probably significant for what it argues against not for what it argues in favor of is number 84 in which Hamilton argues against a bill with a right.

[00:26:08] Now today for us in the 21st century a Bill of Rights is sacrosanct. It's right up there with the declaration and the Constitution. It is one of the founding document. It's hard for us to understand how could we not have a Bill of Rights.

[00:26:23] But if you look at Hamilton's arguments they could be pretty persuasive.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:26:28] Hamilton's main argument was that there's protection kind of built into the Constitution already. The federal government only has the powers that are laid out in the Constitution. And this idea of making a list of what the government is not allowed to do to individuals or to states. Well Hamilton says if you start listing them at all you've got to list all of them. And by the way you're bound to forget something and if it doesn't end up on the list well the government might have the power to impose it.

Nick Capodice: [00:26:57] All right. So I know you've been saying the anti federalists lost the war but.

[00:27:02] They did win this battle.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:27:04] Big time at the end of the Federalist anti federalist saga. We are going to have a constitution. But first the anti federalists need a little something. Actually they need 10 little somethings 10 somethings that will change the course of history and come to mean everything to the American people. In a last ditch effort to save the Union. Our civil liberties will be born. But how does it happen. How in Sam Hill does it happen, Nick?

Nick Capodice: [00:27:35] Find out next time on civics 101.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:27:43] Thanks for joining us for another installment of our foundational document series here on civics 101. This episode was produced by me. Hannah McCarthy with Nick Capodice.

Nick Capodice: [00:27:52] Our staff includes Jackie Helbert, Daniela Vidal Allee and Ben Henry. Erica Janik is our executive producer.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:27:58] Maureen McMurry is that other glaring omission from the U.S. Constitution.

Nick Capodice: [00:28:02] We could only cover so many federalist and anti federalist thoughts in this episode but we've got links to plenty more on our Web site civics 101 podcast.

[00:28:11] Dot org.

Hannah McCarthy: [00:28:11] Music in this episode by Quincas Moreira,

[00:28:14] Blue dot sessions and Jahzzar.

Nick Capodice: [00:28:16] Civics 101 is a production of NHPR. New Hampshire Public Radio.




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