The Arguments of the Anti-Constitutionalists

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

George Mason was not alone in his criticism of the new US Constitution in 1787. The critics used the print media to express their objection about the new system of governance. What was it that made people criticize the new Constitution so much? Let us see how the drafters of the Constitution reacted to this criticism.

A bottle of ink, quill, and sheets of paper kept on a wooden table.
The anti-Constitutionalists used pseudonyms to write scathing essays for the newspapers. (Image: jcwait/Shutterstock)

George Clinton’s Reservations

George Clinton had stymied the Confederation’s attempt to levy the impost of 1785 because it threatened to dry up New York’s fat state tariff revenues and who had no more reason on that score to love the Constitution’s reservation of the tariff-imposing power to the new Congress. The first volley from the Clinton faction in New York appeared in the New York Journal only a week after the printing of the Constitution by Dunlap and Claypoole, from someone writing under the classical pseudonym Cato.

Pseudonyms were common in printed political debate, not so much because the authors feared retaliation but because the conventional wisdom was that influential authors ought to cloak themselves in anonymity so that readers would not be overawed by their reputations and be able to analyze arguments dispassionately.

Cato was followed on October 5 in Philadelphia by Centinel in the Independent Gazetteer, probably the work of George Bryan, a former president of Pennsylvania under its 1776 constitution, or his son Samuel Bryan, who ratcheted up dissent to the level of outright attack on the Constitution and its drafters. The Constitution, argued Centinel, was the work of “the wealthy and ambitious, who in every community think they have a right to lord it over their fellow creatures.”

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Increased Volley of Attacks

A portrait of George Clinton.
George Clinton influenced people to write against the Constitution. (Image: Ezra Ames/Public domain)

Like George Mason, Centinel was convinced that the congressional districts were too large “to communicate the requisite information of the wants, local circumstances and sentiments of so extensive an empire, or to prevent corruption and undue influence.” And like Mason again, Centinel objected that the Constitution made “no provision for the liberty of the press, that grand palladium of freedom, and scourge of tyrants and it is worthy of remark that there is no declaration of personal rights.”

The damning chorus of Cato and Centinel was joined on October 8 by the Federal Farmer and on October 18 by Brutus, both of them probably New Yorkers, writing at George Clinton’s direction. The Federal Farmer saw a “strong tendency to aristocracy now discernible in every part of the plan calculated ultimately to make the states one consolidated government.” Of course, it would be protested that the Constitution actually divided sovereignty between the national government and the states; but this was only to sucker the gullible.

One government and general legislature alone can never extend equal benefits to all parts of the United States because the United States was simply too big to be governed by any single instrument except a bludgeon. Brutus, likewise, was outraged by the implications of the necessary-and-proper clause, which awarded “absolute and uncontrollable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends.”

Learn more about Roger Sherman’s compromise.

Six Principal Objections to the New Constitution

For the next six months, the newspapers would teem with a mounting crescendo of denunciation. Two months later, pro- and anti-Constitution rioters were fighting in the streets of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

These calumniations against the Constitution would coalesce around six principal objections. First, the Constitution had not created a reformed federal government to replace the Articles of Confederation, but an entirely new monstrosity of a single, consolidated government. Second, the size of the United States would force this new consolidated government to rule with a heavy hand because its vast oversight responsibilities would require so much more power.

Third, the powers awarded to this new consolidated government were put in such vague terms—and here the commerce clause and necessary-and-proper clause were singled out as the chief villains—that no one could find ground on which to stand against them. Fourth, the president and the senate had too much power and were the seeds of a monarchy. Fifth, the new Congress would not be given the power to maintain a national professional army. And sixth, there was no bill of rights.

James Wilson’s Defense

The first free-standing counter-attack on the anti-Constitutionalists came in Philadelphia on October 6, when James Wilson addressed “a very great concourse of people” outside the State House where the Constitution had been signed three weeks before. He didn’t actually spend much time explaining or elucidating, but moved right away to punch back at the anti-Constitutionalists’ arguments.

Was there no bill of rights in the Constitution? No, said Wilson, nor should there be. The Constitution gave the national government only limited  and enumerated powers, and restrictions of basic rights—especially ones already secured by the state constitutions—were not among those powers.

Learn more about James Wilson’s executive.

Multiple Questions about the New Constitution

Does the Constitution call into being a standing army? What nation in the world “has not found it necessary and useful to maintain the appearance of strength in a season of the most profound tranquility?” Will the Constitution “reduce the state governments to mere corporations and eventually annihilate them?” How can that happen when the Senate is elected by the state legislatures, and the president has to be chosen by an electoral college whose members are “nominated in such manner as the legislature of each state may direct?”

Wilson’s speech was met with “loud and unanimous testimonies of approbation,” and printed three days later in the Pennsylvania Herald and General Advertiser. But Wilson was at once drowned-out by a cascade of refutations, including one from Centinel. Something more thorough and analytic than a speech was going to have to be mustered in support of the Constitution before the ratifying conventions began to meet.

Common Questions about the Arguments of the Anti-Constitutionalists

Q: Who attacked the anti-Constitutionalists for the first time in Philadelphia?

On October 6, 1787, James Wilson addressed a large group of people outside the State House, Philadelphia. This was the first counter-attack on the anti-Constitutionalists.

Q: When did the first round of criticism against the new Constitution appear in the newspapers?

The first round of criticism against the new Constitution appeared in New York in the New York Journal only a week after the printing of the Constitution by Dunlap and Claypoole.

Q: What was the reaction to James Wilson’s speech in defense of the Constitution?

James Wilson‘s speech was met with “loud and unanimous testimonies of approbation,” and printed three days later in the Pennsylvania Herald and General Advertiser.

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