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THE BILL OF RIGHTS: A GIFT FROM THE ANTIFEDERALISTS

THE BILL OF RIGHTS: A GIFT FROM THE ANTIFEDERALISTS

Fearing centralization of power in the national government, the Antifederalists set about a vigorous propaganda campaign, pointing to the absence of guarantees of freedoms in the body of the draft constitution. There were no guarantees for freedom of religion, or speech, or press. There was no right against searches and seizures done without judicial approval, nor was there any right to a trial by jury. Even though 80 percent of the newspapers of the day were pro-Federalist, the Antifederalist campaign kicked up a good deal of opposition. Because history is taught from the winning side, students and lawyers and judges rely on the writings by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the Federalist Papers, a series of 87 newspaper essays favoring the Constitution. The Antifederalists answered the articles titled “The Federalist” with scary essays of their own, about the rights-devouring monster that the Constitution seemed to them to be. Prominent among those essays were screeds signed by “Centinel,” the pen name of Pennsylvania
politicians Samuel or George Bryan.1

Fearful defeat, the Federalists promised a concession, a Bill of Rights to be added once the Constitution was ratified. Without that concession, the Constitution could not have been adopted in 1989. As noted constitutional historian Leonard W. Levy has written, a long civil war for independence was not the time for the birth or nurturing of civil liberties. Levy argued, “There is even reason to believe that the Bill of Rights was more the chance product of political expediency on all sides than of principled commitment to personal liberties.”2

For the most part, the Antifederalists are faintly remembered, if at all. But because of their compromise offered the Antifederalists in the form of a Bill of Rights, the Federalists in the nation’s first Congress under the Constitution in 1789 kept their promise, if with some reluctance. James Madison did the lion’s share of drafting the Constitution’s first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. Those statements of rights against federal government power resulted from political a political deal forced by the opponents of the Constitution, the Antifederalists. Americans who today revere the Bill of Rights owe a debt of gratitude to the Antifederalists, those zealous critics of the Federalists’ push for a kind of counter-revolution resulting in stronger centralized authority.

 

1 Jackson Turner Main, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), pp., 10, 173, 287.

2 Leonard W. Levy, Legacy of Suppression (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. vii-viii.