Although the Articles of Confederation successfully steered fledgling America through the Revolutionary War, in peacetime society its flaws in unifying the country became increasingly clear. Largely thanks to the insistence of Alexander Hamilton, a delegation came together in May of 1787 to either revise the Articles or create a new government. With George Washington as president of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates drafted the Constitution by September, leaving the states with the responsibility of ratifying.
Although Virginia had been heavily influential in the formation of the Constitution, with delegates such as James Madison actually proposing a full plan for the new American government, many of Virginia’s prominent statesmen were deeply skeptical. Leaders such as George Mason and Patrick Henry rallied against the Constitution and, while many states ratified the Constitution almost immediately, Virginia waited until June of 1788. However, the historical fact remains that Virginia did accept the constitution, and during a time in which ratification was not a foregone conclusion.
The success of the Federalist movement in Virginia begs the question, were the writings and actions of the Anti-Federalists indelibly relevant to the course of American history? I argue that the answer is unquestionably yes, for while they did not successfully refute the Federalist cause, they created a space for the address of their own concerns in the push for the Bill of Rights. The intensity of Anti-Federalist fervor and complexity of its concerns made the issue of forming a bill of rights even more pressing for the founding fathers. Thus, in its formation, the Virginia Anti
Federalist movement achieved success in its own right. After the war ended in 1783, while statesmen across America saw a need for a new system of government, many prominent Virginians were content with the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation. These Articles had provided a framework to hold thirteen rebelling colonies together during the American Revolution. However, after the war, their many inadequacies became clear. In attempting to unite the new states without overbearing, they effectively rendered any form of central government powerless.
Among other detrimental effects effects, “local profits from agricultural exports were threatened and protection from foreign nations and sister states did not exist. ” States were competitors, not allies. Prominent leaders began to call for a new government, and Alexander Hamilton began coordinating a convention to create the new document. Virginia governor Edmund offered his full support to the Constitution, declaring in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, “I therefore conclude, that the Confederation is too defective to deserve correction.
Let us take farewell of it, with reverential respect, as an old benefactor. ” His colleagues were skeptical of this dismissal; delegate William Grayson declared, ‘We have been told of phantoms and ideal dangers to lead us into measures which will, in my opinion, be the ruin of our country. ” Instead, Grayson suggested, “I would recommend that the present Confederation should be amended… Infuse new strength and spirit into the state governments; for, when the component parts are strong, it will give energy to the government, although it be otherwise weak.
The Virginia Independent Chronicle published essays by the anonymous Impartial Examiner that summarized the opinion of many leading Virginians: “For what can be more truly great in any country than a number of different states in the full enjoyment of liberty-exercising distinct powers of government; yet associated by one general head? ” With so much opposition to the general idea of adopting a new government, future opposition to a specific Constitution followed naturally.
Entering the ratification era, Virginia was one of the most polarized states thanks to a thriving Federalist movement that had laid the groundwork for the US constitution. As Alexander Hamilton organized the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia delegates, arriving early in Philadelphia, formulated a full plan for the Constitution known as the Virginia Plan under the leadership of James Madison. Edmund Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan to the Convention on May 29th and, although it endured significant revision and alteration, it became the basis of the final Constitution.
The section of the plan that sparked the most controversy “called for a two-house legislature with voting in both houses proportional either to contributions to the national treasury or the number of free inhabitants. ” From this point, the debate concerned whether representation should be based on an equal state vote or proportional to each state’s population. The strengthening of the central government seemed inevitable. Indeed, James Madison spoke of the Constitution in Federalist 10 as “a Republican remedy for the diseases most incident to Republican Government.
Randolph provided his emphatic support for the Constitution, saying of the process, “if laws be made by the assent of the people, the Government may be deemed free. ” While men like Madison and Randolph do not speak for the entirety of their constituency, the fact that the document of the Constitution originated in Virginia made the fight of the Anti-Federalists against ratification even more difficult. In their multi-faceted opposition of the new Constitution, two issues that Virginia Anti-Federalists frequently presented as concerns were the strong executive branch and the power of Congress to tax.
The executive office posed two main problems: the strength of its connection to the senate and the lack of a term limit. George Mason noticed this lacking, remarking, “Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican Government, as a periodical rotation. Nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents. ” Essentially, competition and a foreseeable end to one’s power prevented despotism. Richard Henry Lee shared the same distaste, but for a different reason: he predicted a president without term limits trying to curry favor rather than lead a country.
As he explained, “Whenever [the president] shall have any prospect of continuing the office in himself and family, he will spare no artifice, no address, and no exertions, to increase the powers and importance of it. ” Just as Anti-Federalists concerned themselves with a president’s rise to power, they also bore great skepticism toward the possibility of a fall. The Constitution’s impeachment process gave the power to impeach to the Senate, whose members were chosen by state legislatures and not popular vote in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This process removed the process of impeachment even further from the general people. William Grayson protested against the relationship between the president and the Senate: “As this Government is organized, it would be dangerous to trust the President with such powers. How will you punish him if he abuse his power? Will you call him before the Senate? They are his counsellors and partners in crime. ” Even James Monroe, who supported the idea of a president to give the central government direction, deplored “the impropriety of the union of this branch with the senate.
Accustomed to a weak central government with no individuals bequeathed with executive power, Anti-Federalists spoke and wrote harshly against what they viewed as an over-empowered office. The Congressional right to tax presented another example of excessive power in the national government. In its original form, “The Virginia Plan authorized the new legislature to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states. ” Within that power, Congress could now levy taxes upon the states for federal projects.
Although Virginian Anti-Federalists responded in diverse ways to this departure from the Articles, they were all incredulous and unsupportive. Richard Henry Lee found the mere idea preposterous, writing, “It is not probable that any prudent congress will attempt to lay and collect internal taxes, especially direct taxes: but this only proves, that the power would be improperly lodged in congress. ” Patrick Henry saw it as extending dangerous power to “two sets of taxgatherers—the state and the federal sheriffs” in a way that would “produce such dreadful oppression as the people cannot possibly bear. George Mason viewed the congressional power to levy taxes as despotic and advocated for an “indispensable” amendment “that Congress shall not exercise the power of raising direct takes till the states shall have refused to comply with the requisitions of Congress. ”
It is evident that this overwhelming fear comes from a too-recent memory of taxation from a different absolute government. The Impartial Examiner asserts, “It is acknowledged that the establishment of excises has been one of the greatest grievances, under which the English nation has labored for almost a century and a half. The original protests of the 1760s and 1770s reacted to attempts by the British government to further tax the colonists. Although the new Constitution sought to ensure representation for average Americans, a national government with the ability to tax made it impossible to accept. Throughout both of these key concerns, along with other issues raised by the Anti-Federalist, there remains a clear aversion to a powerful central government that only a bill of rights would resolve.
Anonymous Virginian Cato Uticensis published an article in the Virginia Independent Chronicle contending that it was “more likely that the blaze of Liberty will be kept alive among us, when watched on thirteen separate Altars, than when reunited into one. ” Cato Uticensis is far from alone in this sentiment; in a speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, William Grayson declared, “There are certain modes of governing the people which will succeed. There are others which will not. The idea of consolidation is abhorrent to the people of this country. ” For reasons ranging from states’ ights and state discrepancies to fear of returning to a government like that of Britain, Anti-Federalists saw a centralized government as antithetical to the Revolution. Moreover, in some ways “the well known difficulty of governing large republics with harmony and ease” made it seem impossible. Meanwhile, the question of individual rights, so important to the ideology of the American Revolution, was still unresolved.
As Patrick Henry noted of European governments, “All nations have adopted this construction—that all rights not expressly and unequivocally reserved to the people, are impliedly and incidentally relinquished to rulers. Although America modeled much of its governing philosophy upon English common law, the English Bill of Rights written after the Glorious Revolution had not yet been emulated. With the unwieldy yet empowered government that the Constitution seemed to create, Richard Henry Lee argued that “by the proposed system… the people will have but the shadow of representation, and but the shadow of security for their rights and liberties. ” In the eyes of Virginia’s Anti-Federalists, the Constitution did not secure the rights American colonists had fought for but instead placed them in jeopardy.
It is therefore understandable that Patrick Henry would exclaim, “My mind will not be quieted till I see something substantial come forth in the shape of a Bill of Rights. ” The fight for a bill of rights set the Virginia Anti-Federalist movement apart, even as the state ratifying convention approved the Constitution. Virginia was not the only state whose leaders advocated for a bill of rights. For example, in Pennsylvania popular letters circulated through newspapers and gazettes encouraging the addition of a Bill of Rights.
One such letter was that of the anonymous “Old Whig,” who pronounced, “I do not think it impossible, that we may yet form a federal constitution much superior to any form of government… but, whenever this important work shall be accomplished, I venture… that it will not be done without a careful attention to the framing of a bill of rights. ” However, despite a prominent Anti-Federalist faction, Pennsylvania was the second state to ratify the constitution and did so with no mention of possible amendments.
In some states Federalists drowned out the concerns of Anti-Federalists; to many, like Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The constitution is itself in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a Bill of Rights. ” However, in Virginia the case for a bill of rights only gained momentum throughout the ratification debates. Richard Henry Lee’s letter to Edmund Randolph asserting that “the most express declarations and reservations are necessary to protect the just rights and liberty of mankind” was circulated across the states and reprinted in newspapers from New Hampshire to Virginia, and his was only one of many.
When Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 26, 1788, it did so with a comprehensive recommendation of amendments to be added in the form of a bill of rights. With increasing pressure from his state and other Anti-Federalist factions, James Madison drafted a bill of rights that included the exact items Virginians had lobbied for: “that the rights of conscience in matters of religion ought not to be violated—that the freedom of the press shall be secured—that trial by jury in criminal and civil cases… shall be held sacred.
The Bill of Rights familiar to modern-day Americans derived directly from the concerns, fears, and demands of Virginia’s Anti-Federalists. Therefore, although they may not have succeeded in their original cause, they won the true prize for which they had fought. Although Virginia did choose to ratify the Constitution, the essays and speeches of the Virginia Anti-Federalists point to the fact that their ultimate goal was not blocking the Constitution but rather constructing a government that best served its people and its states.
By this measure, Anti-Federalists such as William Grayson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and George Mason succeeded in that, before the end of the century, America had adopted a comprehensive bill of rights. The Bill of Rights addressed the specific individual liberties that AntiFederalists had demanded, such as freedom of religion and press, and it prevented the strengthened central government from taking too many rights from its constituents. As Virginians saw their fears answered and resolved in the Bill of Rights, it was clear that their fight against the Constitution had not been in vain.