English Whig Thought & the Ratification of the Constitution


Benjamin Lewis Price, Ph. D.

Presented at the Twenty-Third Annual Mid-America Conference on History,

 Stillwater, Oklahoma, September 22, 2001

[In this paper, I have largely confined my observations to materials written or published prior to, and during the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention. There are two reasons for this. The first is brevity; there is simply not enough time to give adequate coverage to the material available in this short paper. Second: Anti-federalists’ complaints about the new Constitution change little over the course of the ratification process. The themes that Anti-federalists introduced between the publication of the Constitution and the earliest state conventions provided the basis for further discourse.]

In January of 1788, James Madison observed that the various critics of the new constitution could not agree as to its defects. Madison said, “let each come forward with his particular explanation and scarce any two are exactly alike.”1 It was not the first such criticism of Anti-federalists. A month earlier in the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention, James Wilson pronounced Anti-federalist criticism “inconsiderable and inconsistent.” Critics, he said, brought forward objections to the new constitution that were diametrically opposite; “like the iron race of Cadmus,” accused Wilson, “these opponents rise, only to destroy each other.”2 

In fact, the criticisms of Anti-federalists were quite consistent. They focused their opposition to the new constitution on two general areas. The first was the fear that the new system would create a consolidation of government that would eventually destroy the states altogether. Their second complaint was that the Constitution created an authoritarian government that threatened the liberty and property of the citizens of the United States. Anti-federalists’ first complaint was couched in the republic building traditions of the Revolutionary Era. Their second body of criticism is somewhat more problematic.3 To Anti-federalists, the government embraced by the new Constitution seemed to be a blueprint for an oligarchical system from which a few ambitious men might gain wealth, power and merit at the expense of the states and people of the nation. For Anti-federalists the devil was not in the details of the new system, but in the whole package — they believed that tyranny was woven into the entire fabric of the Constitution.

Although Federalists argued that the new government would share power and sovereignty with the states, it seemed to Anti-federal critics that the federal government had taxing, legislative and judicial powers that would eventually render the states superfluous. Though Federalists claimed that the new government was representative in its executive and legislative branches, it appeared to critics that the system’s only real representative institution, the House of Representatives, was inadequately constructed to represent the freeholders of the nation. One Anti-federalist described the idea that sixty-five men could represent some two million freeholders as “a mere burlesque.” He noted that “no free people on earth, who have elected persons to legislate for them, ever reposed... confidence on so small a number,... what security...can there be for a people, where their liberties and property are at the disposal of so few men?”4 The lion’s share of the power seemed to reside in that legislative body that sat for the longest term, and was not chosen directly by the people. Anti-federalists believed that the Senate was likely to be comprised of ambitious men who would serve their own interests rather than the interests of the freeholders who had no real part in selecting them, and would have such power and influence that they could easily sway and corrupt the other branches of government. The chief executive was not popularly elected, had no council to advise him, and had broad— almost monarchical— powers, but seemed so restricted by the Senate that some Anti-federalists feared the President would become a mere cipher to the whims of the aristocrats who sat there. The entire federal legislative body that made laws for a nation of great extent and some three million people seemed far too small to do so. The “Federal Farmer” observed that, “the power of making any law will be in the president, eight senators, and seventeen representatives.”5 Furthermore, the president and members of Congress were not limited to an annual term in office. Traditional Country Whig sentiment and republican political writers from Polybius to Montesquieu recommended frequent rotation in office for popular representatives and magistrates, else representatives would cease to listen to the voices of their constituents and find ways to make their tenure permanent. Anti-federalists claimed that, “experience concurs with reason in concluding that the first magistrate will always be re-elected if the constitution permits it,” so that magistrates and officials who have attained high office would have the influence to continue in power for life.6  Additionally, the system had no safeguards built into it that enshrined the basic liberties that Americans held so dear. The legislature, unrestrained by a bill of rights, had the power to make whatever laws it deemed “necessary and proper,” and was the sole arbiter of their necessity and propriety. The legislature had a virtually unlimited power to tax. It also had the power to control the time and places of elections at the state level, and could, thus, according to critics, “fix” federal elections by determining the times and places of state elections and who could vote in them. Finally, Anti-federalists noted with apprehension that the new federal government had the power to keep and maintain a standing army at all times, and might use it to support ventures abroad and to maintain a tyranny at home. Its critics maintained that the whole system of government created by the new Constitution would inevitably lead to a despotic oligarchy.  The details of Anti-federalists’ complaints were drawn primarily from the Country Whig opposition thought that American colonists used so extensively during the Revolutionary Era. 

The Federalists who attended the Constitutional Convention must have understood that the frame of government that the document created was the result of a practicality born of compromise between large and small states, various economic interests, and between a majority who viewed the states as sacrosanct and a very small minority who wished to see the dissolution of the states.7 Once the debate over ratification began, supporters of the new Constitution who had experienced the process of the Convention had to rationalize the resulting frame of government such that it fit within some acceptable existing science of politics. Most of them probably agreed with Benjamin Franklin that some new, more efficient and authoritative general government was necessary, and, for all its faults, the Constitution forged in Philadelphia was the only plan available.8

Various historians have attributed the philosophical sources of the of the Constitution to a wide range of political and economic philosophers from Machiavelli to Spinoza, from Mandeville to Montesquieu, and it is true that at least some of those thinkers were quoted to support one argument or another in the debates that followed the Constitutional Convention. But, the overall stream of discourse followed consistently by both supporters and detractors of the new Constitution was based on the political ideas that eighteenth century Americans knew best, and had used in political discourse since at least the 1720s. For some sixty years, American politicians had embraced the ideas and honed the language of English Whig political discourse with its ideological strains of Court and Country. They had employed it in local conflicts over Crown authority, over taxation, paper money infusions, and in religious controversies For instance, the popular party in Massachusetts accused Royal Governor Jonathan Belcher of corruption and arbitrary rule when he stood against a paper money infusion in the colony in the late 1730s. In that same colony, opponents of the new excise of 1754 copied the arguments against the taxes from Bolingbroke’s Craftsman series of the 1730s to condemn the policy of the provincial assembly.  In New York, the Presbyterian party leader, William Livingston, published The Independent Reflector to criticize the colonial government dominated by the Anglican party.  He modeled his arguments after the English opposition Independent Whig, authored by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.9  Country opposition rhetoric was by no means the sole possession of the colonial assembly or the popular parties in the colonies.  On more than one occasion, royal governors borrowed from “True Whig” writers like Bolingbroke, Bishop Hoadly or Thomas Gordon when they responded to attacks from their provincial assemblies.  Governors frequently employed Country opposition language to argue that annual salaries voted by the colonial assembly undermined the independence of the executive, unduly binding the office to the party that dominated the assembly, and thus unbalancing the colonial government.10

In fact, the colonial political ideology of the age of the Hanovers was not very different from that of England.  Political discourse in the American provinces was couched in Court and Country Whig terms as it was in the mother country, however, the difference was that in the American colonies there was no Court per se, and so the roles, and thus Court and Country discourse were not bound permanently to any set of government institutions or factions within any colony.  Individuals and factions chose the language that they could use most effectively against their opponents, and mixed the two to suit their needs.

The prominent feature of English government under the first two Hanoverian kings was its domination by Whigs.  By 1722, the Tories had ceased to exist as a competing ideology of governance in England, and both the government leadership and the opposition came from the same party. The first premise of Whig government—authority—was assured by the unification of all the branches of government under the influence of Crown and ministry.  Whigs were able to monopolize government for most of the eighteenth century primarily because they were able to convince the first two Hanover rulers that they were the only party that was trustworthy and completely loyal to the German House.  So long as the kings accepted and identified with the Whig interests and were themselves essentially Court Whigs, “single-party government and the existence of ‘a sense of common identity’ were mutually reinforcing and dependent.”11  The theoretically separate interests of the three branches of government lost their distinction when the king, his ministry, and majorities in both Lords and Commons all shared the same ideology and, to a great extent, the same aims and goals.

Although the origins of the Court Whig political ideology rested firmly in the traditions of government by popular consent and ideals of the Glorious Revolution and Bill of Rights, a succession of Whig governments held firmly that the best way to guarantee those ideals was by means of a benign authoritarian regime that had the power to protect the rights and property of Britons. The premises of government by popular compact and the right of popular revolution were all admirable when a change of government was desired.  John Locke’s theories on the subject were taken down from the shelf, dusted off, and displayed on those occasions when he could safely be employed to reflect the government’s zeal for liberty. The Whigs who governed the nation generally felt, however, that such notions were far too inflammatory to be allowed as the permanent basis for government. They faced the uncomfortable prospect that post-revolutionary rulers often experience: what can be created by one revolution can be destroyed by another.  Court Whigs believed that Lockean concepts like popular consent and the popular right to revolution were at odds with public order and with the effective, authoritative governance required to maintain it.  Instead, they argued that, once men had agreed to live together in civil society, they relinquished their sovereignty to their rulers, so that the power of government “should be absolute, and have the Sovereign Disposal of the Properties and Persons of all Individuals” who lived under it.12  But Court Whigs softened the threat of a government with so much power by arguing that its authority, though “as absolute as that of the Grand Turk,” could only be employed for the good of the nation because the governors themselves were constrained by the same laws as their subjects.13


Whig ideology was also dominated by party thinking.  Court Whigs asserted that there had been, at least since the Reign of Charles II, two parties in England, Whigs and Tories.  The Whig party had supported the accession of William of Orange and the ideals of the Glorious Revolution and were loyal to the Hanoverian succession. Court Whigs labeled their critics Tory, and equated them with Jacobitism, even after 1745, when so few actual Jacobites remained in England as to make them irrelevant to the politics of the nation.  By characterizing their opposition in this manner, Court Whigs implied that their critics threatened the liberty, property and religion of the English people.  They argued that they were the legitimate preservers and defenders of the constitution and the Hanoverian dynasty, and that the opponents of Whig government were at least the unwitting dupes of the Pretender and his minions, or, at worst, hypocrites who employed the language of country radicalism and even republicanism to conceal their real intentions of enslaving the English people by restoring the Papist Stuart Pretender. 


By the mid-1720s out-of-office Whigs organized an opposition to the Court that became a standard feature of eighteenth-century English politics thereafter. In general, the opposition agreed with the ministry on essentials, thus contention over particulars became difficult.  Over the years, however, a political language had evolved that was well suited to the criticism of the English system of government, and was thus coopted by the Whig opposition.  This “Country” language could be used by critics of government because it contained within it the spirit of the Glorious Revolution and the Declaration of Rights.  The political viewpoint, the “Country ideology” upon which the language rested, offered an analysis of power and of English political life that was critical of ministerial influence and the effects that it had both on the king above and the legislature below.  It encouraged parliamentary scrutiny of the ministry in order to weed out or restrain potentially corrupt or wicked advisors who might lead the king into error.  It recommended limitations on the patronage that the ministry used to enhance its power. Country critics argued that Crown appointments of Members of Parliament and their dependents to lucrative positions in government created a Court interest in Parliament that sapped the political independence of the legislature by alienating the people’s interest in favor of a corrupt and self- interested Court.14  In order to restrain the corrupting influence of the executive over the legislature, the opposition recommended frequent Parliaments and bills to preclude members of the legislature from appointive places in government. Country Whigs also opposed large standing armies in times of peace both because the army might be used against the people by a corrupt ministry and because large armies required large numbers of officers (more placemen) to lead them.  They feared that the traditional leaders of the nation, the landed gentry, might be superseded by a new breed of politician who derived his power and interest from his office rather than from the land, and who understood his duty and interest to lie with those from whom he had derived his power and position.15  Under such courtiers, government could only exist to serve the interests of those who governed and not the people of the nation.  In an age of consolidation and centralization of English government, country ideology offered both a traditional and an acceptable language of opposition.  It gave those who opposed the government a means of criticism that resonated in the political consciousness of the English listener wherever they lived under the English Crown.16

All Whigs believed that political power followed property. The Whig opposition stressed the importance of landed property, arguing that only a landed, essentially agrarian, polity had sufficient independence and virtue to vote for representatives in Parliament and lead the nation. Court Whigs, however, recognized that landed property was not the only measure of wealth in the nation, and claimed to speak for the merchants, manufacturers and financiers, as well as landholders. Increasingly, Court Whigs believed that Parliament represented, not individual subjects, but the various legitimate interests of the state — landed, merchant, financial, manufacturing, religious, military and naval interests, and so forth — and so government should balance and conciliate all of the various interests within the British State.17 Neither Court nor Country Whigs were democrats in the modern sense; both agreed that property and wealth was the first and most important qualification for active membership in the political nation.18

In essence, then two languages developed in the political climate of England between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the accession of George II.  Both were based on the Whig understanding of the English constitution.  Both assumed that the best government was a mixed monarchical republic and that the first order of governance could be summed up in the ancient adage “salus populi, suprema lex esto,” but Court and Country Whigs disagreed upon the meaning of the phrase. Court Whigs stressed the primacy of law and order, and, while acknowledging that government existed for the good of the people, they denied that the constitution was based entirely upon popular government, and insisted that government existed to implement the public good.  They emphasized that the people were best protected under a benign authoritarian regime that prevented domestic unrest, protected property, and promoted prosperity through a strong national defense.  Increasingly, Court Whigs promoted the notion that an absolute sovereignty rested in the legislature of the King in Parliament rather than in the people, and that the protections of the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights could be altered or even repealed by acts of Parliament. One Whig lawyer, Sir Robert Atkins, noted that the legislature of Great Britain in the Form of King, Lords and Commons was absolute, unlimited and irresistible, and could pass laws without any restraints upon its sovereignty.19  As the editor of a Court newspaper put it, “Power is ever naturally and rightfully founded” in Parliament, and once delegated there, “it becomes legally absolute, and the People are by this very Constitution oblig’d to a Passive Obedience.”20 In opposition to the Court view, the Country opposition stressed that the interests of the nation were best served when the people were consulted by their representatives so that government might implement the will of those governed. Country Whigs stressed that the sovereign authority of the nation rested in the freeholders who were represented by Parliament and whose basic rights were enshrined unalterably in Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and other traditions and statutes that comprised the Common Law.21

Increasingly, in the last few years before the American Revolution, American colonists’ conceptions of good and bad government matched Country Whig beliefs.22 In the wake of the Declaration of Independence, most of the states created governments that adhered fairly firmly to Country Whig principles flavored by the more purely republican anti-monarchical sentiments that followed both Thomas Paine’s and Jefferson’s condemnation of royalty. Except for Pennsylvania, all of the states created republics based on an executive and bicameral legislature. Country Whig political theory prescribed mixed government to prevent any one branch from acquiring too much power. A single legislature had a natural tendency to become tyrannical. Most states had bills of rights that implicitly protected the fundamental liberties of the citizens of the states. Constitutions limited the tenure of legislators and executives to, at most, annual terms. Most state constitutions stressed landed property over moneyed wealth for purposes of suffrage. State constitutions also often contained prohibitions against bribery and corrupt election practices and secret ballots to preserve the independence of voters. Several states (North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont) provided in their constitutions that constituents had the right to instruct their representatives. The states took every opportunity to create governments that limited power and corruption.23 Cognizant of a need to have some central institution to administer and coordinate the war effort and perform some basic interstate administrative functions, the states accepted the confederate authority of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. However, they were under no illusions that the Articles created a sovereign government. The states continued to assert that they were free and independent sovereign nations, even to the point of trespassing on the very few powers that they had actually granted to the Congress under the Articles of Confederation.24 To many Americans who had learned their political catechism in the turbulent Revolutionary years, the new Constitution being recommended in 1787, appeared too transcendent, too powerful, and wholly in violation of the Country Whig principles that were enshrined in the state constitutions.

Anti-federalists began their criticism in earnest just before the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention met in December, 1787. The first criticism leveled at the new Constitution in the press was one that would continue throughout the controversy. “Z” observed that the new Constitution lacked “an express reservation of certain inherent unalienable rights, which it would be equally sacrilegious for the people to give away, as for the government to invade.”25 He charged that this omission opened the door to tyranny as it admitted no checks that protected the rights of the people from their government. “Z” noted that in his last address to the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin expressed the hope that those elected to govern under the new system would be of an inclination to govern well, but “Z” doubted that this could ever be the case because “power, without a check, in any hands is tyranny; and such powers, in the hands of even good men, so infatuating is the nature of it, will probably be wantonly, if not tyrannically exercised.”26 This statement echoed years of Country opposition accusations that power unchecked might corrupt even the most virtuous leaders.27  Taking up the same complaints, David Redick stated that, “the day on which we adopt the present proposed plan of government, from that moment we may justly date the loss of American liberty.” Redick asked why there was no bill of rights, but expanded on what he believed to be the dangerous threats in the plan. Redick provided a list of complaints that would become, more or less, standardized over the course of Anti-federalist discourse. Why, he asked, was there no liberty of the press? Why did Congress have the power to alter the “plan or mode of chusing Representatives?” Why did Congress have the power to lay direct taxes, to maintain standing armies in time of peace, to make laws that contradicted the laws of the states?28 

In October, 1787, Richard Henry Lee, examining the powers placed in the President and the Senate, asked Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph, “will any sensible man say that great power without responsibility can be given to rulers with safety to liberty?” Lee pointed out that the chief executive and Senators were not popularly elected, and that the House of Representatives, the only popularly elected body, “may justly be called a mere shred or rag of representation.”29 Lee went on to argue that the various branches of the government lacked clearly defined separation. Lee stated that “in the new constitution, the president and senate have all the executive and two thirds of the legislative power;... they jointly appoint all officers, civil and military, and they (the senate) try all impeachments either of their own members or of the officers appointed by themselves.”30 In a letter Lee wrote to George Mason, he implied that the new government would create a vast patronage, and had thus won the support of men who hoped to gain lucrative places in it. He characterized supporters of the system as “a coalition of Monarchy Men, Military Men, Aristocrats, and Drones whose noise, impudence & zeal exceeds all belief.”31

By the end of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention in December of 1787, critics of the new Constitution believed that they had discovered a conspiracy plotted by “men of an aspiring and tyrannical disposition” to create a despotism in the United States.32 The new system of government seemed to possess all of the elements of tyranny that British and American Country Whigs had warned their readers about for nearly a century.33 First, the powers of the legislature extended to the “lives, the liberties and the property of every citizen,” and these “immense powers” were not constrained “by a bill or DECLARATION OF RIGHTS.”34 Congress possessed a very broad power to tax. The end results of this power were that, first, the states and federal government would “struggle for the spoils,” and the states would always lose out to the greater power of the national government; secondly, since no taxes were forbidden, and the expenses of the national government would be great, the government could, and undoubtedly would, impose a vast range of taxes — excises, poll taxes, land taxes, imposts — and “the doctrine then will be, that slaves ought to pay for wearing their heads.”35 All of these powers were in the hands of a system of government that had only a tenuous connection to the people of the nation.

The House of Representatives under-represented the national population, and the other two legislative branches of Government were not popularly elected. Thus, Anti-federalists contended, this government, isolated in a federal city ten-miles square— “an asylum for the base, idle, avaricious, and ambitious” holders of patronage— would become increasingly self- centered, insulated and unresponsive to the needs and interests of the people.36 The system, weighted as it was toward oligarchy would soon become “above the control of the people,” and the governors would “abuse their power to the purpose of aggrandizing themselves, and oppressing them.”37 The whole conspiracy was completed by the threat of “that grand instrument of oppression,” “that great support of tyrants,” a permanent standing army.38  “Brutus,” echoing Country Whig critics both in Britain and America, observed that standing armies, wherever maintained, “have always proved the destruction of liberty” and were “abhorrent to the spirit of a free republic.”39 Anti-federalist critics complained that the national government, increasingly insulated from those governed, would lose popular support and trust. Consequently, the people “will have no confidence in their legislature, suspect them of ambitious views, be jealous of every measure they adopt, and will not support the laws they pass... no way will be left to render it otherwise, but by establishing an armed force to execute the laws at the point of a bayonet — a government of all others the most to be dreaded.”40 Since no patriotic American freeholder could be enticed to serve in an army that was a vehicle for oppression, the standing army would most likely be composed of the “purgings of the European prisons, and [such] low ruffians born among ourselves who do not love to work — and who could suppose such vile characters as these, should be trusted to protect our country, our wives, our daughters, and our little ones?”41 The standing army presented critics of the new Constitution with final and conclusive proof that the framers conspired to set up a government that contained within it all of the seeds of tyranny. Their proof lay in reasoning derived from a Country Whig political science that Americans had learned and practiced during the Revolutionary Era.

Federalists who wrote in support of the new Constitution were unprepared to meet the barrage of criticism from their detractors. While a number of members of the Convention expressed misgivings about the new system, most believed that the Constitution created a republic that balanced republican democratic principles with the sovereignty of the states. Federalists argued that the new system was based on republican principles that preserved both representative government and the states. Perhaps the most eloquent advocate for the new system in the first months of the ratification controversy was James Wilson of Pennsylvania. Wilson, who had been a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, observed that the Framers had created a system in which the people were directly represented in one branch of the legislature, and the states were represented in the other, but all branches of the government were elected either by the people, or by their state representatives. Since the state legislature appointed Senators as well as electors for the executive, the Constitution continued to preserve the existence of the states. Wilson noted that national government was more democratic than the existing confederate government since the people elected members of the House of Representatives, while only the states were represented in the Continental Congress.42 

Wilson and other Federalists argued that there was no need for a bill of rights in the new Constitution because the power and authority of government was derived, not from a monarch, or legislature, but from the people of the nation.43 Wilson noted that the English people needed the protections of Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights to preserve their liberties from the Crown, but the assertion that the American people required the same to protect them from themselves rested on an absurdity.44  Since the powers of government were derived from the people, the taxing power of both the state and federal governments came from the same source, and there could be no real conflict of sovereignties. Likewise, the American people had nothing to fear from a standing army, because it was their standing army, raised and sustained by their representatives. Wilson, echoing Court Whig writers, argued that, “the principle insisted upon by the patriotic body of Great Britain [is that] in time of peace, a standing army ought not to be kept up without the consent of Parliament,” since it might “be dangerous were the army kept up without the concurrence of the representatives of the people.”45 Wilson further noted that a government that could not raise taxes and an army was no government at all.46

Wilson, like other Federalists, was not so convinced as his critics of the corrupting influence of power, and was more optimistic that the new Constitution had effected a safe balance of interests and political institutions. But the Framer from Pennsylvania, like other Federalists, was also convinced that a much more authoritarian government was necessary to save the nation from mob rule, anarchy, economic ruin, foreign enemies, and eventual dissolution. In fact, Federalist rhetoric is punctuated with a fear of social and political chaos in much the same vein that British Court rhetoric employed the Jacobite threat to rationalize such authoritarian measures as the Septennial Act, standing armies and increased taxes. Oliver Ellsworth observed that “a few disaffected persons” might be all that was required to foment revolution “unless government is vested with the most extensive powers.” He continued:

Had Shays, the malecontent of Massachusetts, been a man of genius, fortune or address, he might have conquered that state, and by the aid of a little sedition in the other states, and an army proud by victory, become the monarch and tyrant of America. Fortunately, he was checked, but should jealousy prevent vesting these powers, in the hands of men chosen by yourselves, and who are under every constitutional restraint, accident or design will in all probability raise up some future Shays to be the tyrant of your children. A people cannot long retain their freedom, whose government is incapable of protecting them.47


Federalists offered the Constitution as a political panacea. If the nation accepted the new system Americans would, at a stroke, disappoint their enemies, promote domestic tranquility, happiness and prosperity, and inculcate respect from foreign powers.48 Taking a cue from Court Whigs, federalists accused their critics of opposing good government with all of the good effects that it would inevitably engender. No Jacobite threat existed with which to tar Anti-federalists, but other threats loomed in the minds of Federalists that were just as potent.49 Some Federalists accused critics of encouraging domestic unrest, of propagating “groundless innuendos, with a view to impose on the generous incredulity of weak minds,” in order to “produce anarchy and confusion in the state.”50 More often, Federalists argued that their opponents held profitable positions under the state governments that they feared to lose under the federal system. James Wilson stated that such a person “who enjoys, or expects to enjoy, a place of profit under the present establishment, will object to the proposed innovation,... not, in truth because it is injurious to the liberties of his country, but because it affects his schemes of wealth and consequence.”51  Similarly, Alexander Hamilton claimed that the opposition was comprised of greedy state officials who would gladly sacrifice the peaceful acceptance of the new Constitution to their own interests.52 In short, Federalists viewed themselves as the saviors of the nation, and their political opponents as greedy local nabobs at best, and dangerous demagogues set on bringing the nation to ruin at worst.53

Although the creation of the Constitution involved the formulations of new ideas and unique solutions to create a new system of government that met the needs of the American nation, many Federalists fell back upon an older source of rhetoric, that of British Court Whigs, to rationalize and promote its ratification. For all they extolled the newness and “Americanness” of the new system, Federalists chose to employ a political language that they had used for a long time. Likewise, Anti-federalists viewed the new system with suspicions that were based on traditional English Country criticism of government that they believed to have a particular resonance in the face of the novel innovations of that “new order of the ages,” the United States Constitution. Perhaps the Anti-federalists, by employing Country criticism, essentially forced their opponents to use the rhetoric best suited, or at least most habitually used, to respond. At any rate, both sides in the debate over the Constitution, looked backward to their English political roots for fuel for the ongoing discourse.


1   Publius, “The Federalist XXXVIII,” Independent Journal (New York), January 12, 1788.

2   “Wilson Replies to Findley,” December 1, 1787, The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification, Part One (New York: Penguin Books, 1993),  828. Hereafter, Debate on the Constitution, Part One, will be cited as DC1.

3  Historian Jackson Turner Main partially ascribed Anti-federalists’ concerns about the constitutional blueprint to a democratic spirit among small farmers and mechanics who wanted a weak central government and a much more democratic system than the Constitution offered. (Jackson Turner Main, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for The Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, 1961), xiv-xv, passim). Main’s premises follow but expand considerably on those of Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York: MacMillan, 1913).  Main saw other conflicts in the Post-Revolutionary United States that caused deep divisions over the new Constitution. Main saw conflicts of interest between debtor farmers and creditors, soft-money advocates and hard-money advocates, agrarian interests and mercantile interests, Easterners and Westerners. Main, Antifederalists, 249-281, passim. Main stressed the class and interest based rhetoric of the discourse over the Constitution, but did less to explain the specific complaints that Anti-federalists had against the overall design of the Constitution. Actually, a central problem with both Main and his Progressive predecessor, Charles Beard, is that they were more interested in discovering who the Anti-federalists were than in what Anti-federalists were saying. Like his predecessors, Gordon Wood was less interested in the content of Anti-federalist rhetoric than in determining their socio-economic status. For Wood, the conflict between Federalists and Anti-federalists was “fundamentally one between aristocracy and democracy.” (Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 485). Wood’s evaluation, however, leaves something to be desired. Anti-federalists did not necessarily argue that the Constitution should create a more democratic system of government. Instead, they argued that the overall design of the system lacked the appropriate checks and balances necessary to impede corruption and to protect the liberty and property of the citizens of the nation.

4   “Brutus” III, New York Journal, November 15, 1787, DC1, 322. See also, “Reply to Mr. Wilson’s Speech by ‘An Officer of the Late Continental Army’ [William Findley?], Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), November 6, 1787, DC1, 99; “Letters from the ‘Federal Farmer,’” New York, November 8, 1787, DC1, 254; “George Mason, ‘Objections to the Constitution,” Virginia Journal (Alexandria), November 22, 1787,DC1, 346;  “Cato” V, New York Journal, November 22, 1787, DC1, 402-403; “Agrippa” [James Winthrop] III, Massachusetts Gazette (Boston), December 4, 1787, DC1, 450; Richard Henry Lee to Governor Edmund Randolph, Virginia Gazette (Petersburg), December 6, 1787, DC1, 467; Patrick Henry, Convention of Virginia, The Debates in the Several Steta Conventions on the Adopting of the Federal Constitution..., ed. Jonathan Elliot (in future refernces, Elliot’s Debates), Vol. III, 64.

5   “Letters from the ‘Federal Farmer’ to ‘The Republican,’” DC1, 265. 

6  Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, December 20, 1787, DC1, 211.

7  At least one person, Alexander Hamilton, fits into this category. He wrote:

If the government is adopted, it is probable general Washington will be the President of the United States – This will ensure a wise choice of men to administer the government and a good administration. A good administration will conciliate the confidence and affection of the people and perhaps enable the government to acquire more consistency than the proposed constitution seems to promise for so great a Country – It may then triumph altogether over the state governments and reduce them to an entire subordination, dividing the large states into smaller districts. The organs of the general government may also acquire additional strength. “Alexander Hamilton’s Conjectures About the New Constitution,” September, 1787, DC1, 11.

8  “Benjamin Franklin’s Speech at the Conclusion of the Constitutional Convention,” Philadelphia, September 17, 1787, DC1, 3-4.

9  Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967), 52-53.

10  For a discussion of the use of Court and Country arguments in colonial political conflicts, see Benjamin Lewis Price, Nursing Fathers: American Colonists’ Conception of English Protestant Kingship, 1688-1776 (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1999), 165-180, passim.

11  John Brewer, Party Ideology, 4-5.

12  SOLON, "General View of Civil Liberty, its Extent, and Restraints,” Daily Gazetteer (London), May 2, 1737.

13  Ibid.

14  See Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 181-184; Brewer, Party Ideology, 250-251, passim; Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 33-34, 77-78, passim. 

15  John Brewer, Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 116.

16  Several works that discuss “Country Ideology” and English politics include Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthsman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought From the Restoration of Charles II Until the War With the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959); Brewer, The Sinews of Power, and Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); H.T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1977).

17  John Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 149-151.

18  Ibid. 152.

19  Ibid., 82. British legalist, Sir David Lindsay Keir writes, “It was of course undeniable, in final analysis, that Parliament, in which legislative sovereignty resided, held the position of ultimate supremacy. Even here the idea of limitation was discernible. Theoretically, neither lawyers nor political theorists were quite prepared to accept the full implications of its legislative sovereignty, the first being inclined to regard the Common Law, the second, natural human rights, assumed as an element in the fashionable contractualist theory of government, as being in some way fundamental. These reservations, however, possessed little practical importance. No statute was ever challenged...” Sir David Lindsay Keir, The Constitutional History of Britain Since 1485, 9th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), 295.

20  St. James Journal (London), May 3, 1722. See also St. James Journal, August 23, 1722; F. Osborne, “Reflexions on the Rights of Parliament and People; and on the Present boasted Coalition of Parties,” London Journal, May 5, 1733. Osburne notes in that article:

Nor have the People any Authority against or over the Legislature; for while the Constitution is Preserved, the original Power of the People in their collective Body can’t exert itself, or indeed have a Being, because it is lost and swallowed up entirely in their Representatives, whom [the people] chose to judge and act for them; I say to judge and act; for tho’ the People may by Petition or modest Representation, lay before them what they think right, yet the Members are not obliged to follow their Opinions, but... to act by their own Judgements... [Legislators] are not the Attornies or Creatures of the People; but they are Gentlemen chosen by the People for their superior Understandings, Abilities and Integrity, to judge and act in their stead, and for their Benefit... To say that the People have a right to impose their Opinions of Judgements upon the Parliament, which the Members are implicitly to follow... is not only and Insult upon Common Sense, and the highest Affront to the Dignity of that Honorable House, but directly changes the very Nature of the Government by turning it into a Democracy or Popular State. 

See also, For more on this notion that Commons had no obligation actually to represent their constituents, see Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 157-158; Brewer, Party Ideology, 236-236.

21  See Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 187-191.

22  For a discussion of this process over time, see Price, Nursing Fathers, 187-206.

23  For these observations and a fairly complete discussion of the political philosophy of state government in the Revolutionary Period I have used Wood, Creation of the American Republic, chapters IV through VI, 127-255, passim. 

24  Ibid., 356-357.

25  “‘Z’ Replies to Franklin’s Speech,” DC1, 7.

26  Ibid., 6.

27  For a discussion of the relationship between power, corruption and tyranny, see Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 55-93. See also John Brewer, Party Ideology, 243-245; Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 103.

28  David Redick to William Irvine, Philadelphia, September 24, 1787, DC1, 15.

29  Richard Henry Lee to Edmund Randolph, New York, October 16, 1787, The Complete Anti-Federalist, Vol. 5, Herbert J. Storing, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 113-114.

30  Ibid. 113. For similar reaction to the relationship between the Senate and executive at a fairly early date, see Rev. James Madison to James Madison, c. October 1, 1787, DC1, 49; “Centinel II” [Samuel Bryan], Freeman’s Journal, October 24, 1787, DC1, 85 ; “An Officer of the Late Continental Army” [William Findley?], Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), November 6, 1787, DC1, 99.  For Whig notions on the importance of the separation of powers, see Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 144-145; Price, Nursing Fathers, 43, 45, 177-179. 

31  Richard Henry Lee to George Mason, New York, October 1, 1787, DC1, 45. Lee continued, “In this state, the Patriot voice is raised in vain for such changes and securities as Reason and Experience prove to be necessary against the encroachments of power upon the indispensable rights of human nature.” 

32  “Centinel II” [Samuel Bryan], Freeman’s Journal (Philadelphia), October 24, 1787, DC1, 77. 

33  This list of criticisms is taken from “Officer in the Late Continental Army,”DC1, 98-100. A similar list was made by Thomas M’Kean at the end of the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention, see Elliot’s Debates, Vol. 2, 530-532.

34  “Officer in the Late Continental Army,”DC1, 98. See also, “‘Z’ Replies to Franklin’s Speech,”DC1, 7; “A Democratic Federalist,” Pennsylvania Herald (Philadelphia), October 17, 1787, DC1, 70-71; “Centinel II,” Freeman’s Journal (Philadelphia), October 24, 1787, DC1, 88-89; “Cincinnatus I” [Arthur Lee], DC1, 93, 94, “An Old Whig I” [George Bryan, et al.], Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), October 12, 1787, DC1, 123-124; “Brutus I,” New York Journal, October 18, 1787, DC1, 166-167; “Elbridge Gerry to the Massachusetts General Court,” Massachusetts Centinel (Boston), November 3, 1787, DC1, 232; “Letters from the ‘Federal Farmer,’ II” New York, October 9, 1787, DC1, 256-257; “Federal Farmer III,” DC1, 266-268; George Mason, “Objections to the Constitution,” Virginia Journal, November 22, 1787, DC1, 348. Thomas Jefferson, while admiring the powers of the legislature, criticized  “the omission of a bill of rights.” (Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, December 20, 1787, DC1, 210). 

35  “Centinel II,” DC1, 88. See also, “Strictures on the Proposed Constitution,” Freeman’s Journal (Philadelphia), September 26, 1787, DC1, 18; “Centinel I,” DC1, 57;  “Cincinnatus V,” DC1, 114; “Brutus I,”DC1, 167-168; “John Humble,” Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), October 29, 1787, DC1, 225.  

36  “Cato V,” New York Journal, November 22, 1787, DC1, 399.  See also, “Centinel I,”DC1, 60-61; Centinel II, DC1, 85-87; “Officer in the Late Continental Army,”DC1, 99-100; “Cincinnatus V” [Arthur Lee], New York Journal, November 29, 1787, DC1, 114-116; “An old Whig I,” DC1, 123; “Elbridge Gerry to the Massachusetts General Court,” DC1, 231-232; “Federal Farmer II,” DC1,  254, 257; “Federal Farmer III,” DC1, 260, 262; “Brutus III,”New York Journal, November 15, 1787, DC1, 318-323; “George Mason’s Objections,” DC1, 346-347; “Cato V,” New York Journal, November 22, 1787, DC1, 401-402; “Brutus IV,” New York Journal,, November 29, 1787, DC1, 427; Richard Henry Lee to Edmund Randolph, Virginia Gazette (Petersburg), December 6, 1787, DC1, 466-467.

37  “Brutus I,”DC1, 174.

38  “Centinel I,” DC1, 57, “A Democratic Federalist,” Pennsylvania Herald (Philadelphia), October 17, 1787, DC1, 74. See also, “Centinel II,” DC1, 85; “Officer in the Late Continental Army,” DC1, 99; “Cincinnatus V,” DC1, 116-117; “John Humble,” DC1, 225; “Federal Farmer III,” DC1, 269; “Cato V,” DC1, 401; “Richard Henry Lee to Edmund Randolph,” DC1, 470; “Essay by a Georgian,” Gazette of the State of Georgia, November 15, 1787, The Complete Anti-Federalist, Vol. V, 133.

39  “Brutus I,” DC1, 173.

40  Ibid., 173. See also, “Cato III,” New York Journal, October 25, 1787, DC1, 216-217; “John Humble,” DC1, 225.

41  “Philadelphiensis IV” [Benjamin Workman], Freeman’s Journal (Philadelphia), December 12, 1787, DC1, 496.

42  James Wilson, “Speech at a Public Meeting,” Philadelphia, October 6, 1787, DC1, 67. Wilson’s explanation of the workings of the new system are amply set forth in the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention, see Elliot’s Debates, Vol. II, 418-529.

43  See Elliot’s Debates, 432-436, passim.

44  Ibid., 436-437.

45  Ibid., 520.

46  Ibid. 522.

47 A Landholder [Oliver Ellsworth], “A Further Reply to Elbridge Gerry,” Connecticut Courant (Hartford),December 3, 1787, DC1, 241. Shays’ Rebellion figured into a number of Federalist tracts as examples domestic sedition and violence. See, “Americanus I” [John Stevens], Daily Advertiser (New York), DC1, 229-230; Timothy Pickering to Charles Tillinghast, Philadelphia, December 24, 1787, DC1, 295-296; Publius [Alexander Hamilton], “The Federalist VI,” Independent Journal (New York), November 14, 1787, DC1, 313, 316; Publius [Alexander Hamilton], “The Federalist XXI,” Independent Journal (New York), December 12, 1787, DC1, 482. 

48  Paraphrased from an editorial in the Daily Advertiser (New York), September 24, 1787, DC1, 12-14. See also a very few more examples, A Citizen of Philadelphia [Pelatiah Webster], “The Weaknesses of Brutus Exposed,” DC1, 185-188; “A Political Dialogue,” Massachusetts Centinel (Boston), October 24, 1787, DC1, 189-191; A Landholder [Oliver Ellsworth], “Reply to Elbridge Gerry,” Connecticut Courant (Hartford), November 26, 1787, DC1, 234, 236-237; A Landholder [Oliver Ellsworth], “A Further Reply to Elbridge Gerry,” Connecticut Courant (Hartford),December 3, 1787, DC1, 240-241; Publius [Alexander Hamilton], “The Federalist VIII,” New York Packet, November 20, 1787, DC1, 333-338.

49  One Federalist did compare the Anti-federalists to American Loyalists, hoping that “the antifœderalists will end their career, as some of the tories, whom they resemble in so many particulars, have done, viz. — in poverty— in exile — or in that state of dependence which is inflicted upon treason in Pennsylvania.”“Southwark,” Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), October 3, 1787, DC1, 50-51.

50  Philanthrope, “To the Public,” American Mercury (Hartford), November 19, 1787, DC1, 325. The author continues, “Much pains is [sic] daily taken by artful misanthropists to evince that the adoption of the new constitution will deprive the people of all liberty, alledging that the grand legislature, or Congress, will then have the power to oppress the people at pleasure; an idea so absurd, could never originate in the breast of an honest man, not destitute of reason.”  Compare to the following from London Court newspapers:

“the misrepresentations of Papists, Jacobites, non-Jurors, and malcontent Whigs, meeting with the strong passions of tradesmen... have wrought the People into a Persuasion that Magna Charta will be destroyed; that the Government will soon be arbitrary and tyrannical,... that Slavery, Beggary, and Wooden Shoes of the French are preparing for them...” F. Osborne, “A Letter from Rochester: With Some Further Considerations Relating to the National Advantage of the [Excise] Scheme,” London Journal, March 17, 1732-3;


 “A few Ballad-Singers uncontroul’d, if their Ditties be but tolerably droll and malicious, are sufficient to cause Disaffection in a State, to raise Disaffection into a Ferment, and that Ferment into a Rebellion.” Solon, “A General View of Civil Liberty, its Extent, and Restraints,” Daily Gazetteer, May 2, 1737. 

51  Wilson, “Speech at a Public Meeting,” DC1, 68-69.

52  “Hamilton’s Conjectures about the New Constitution,” September 1787. See also “Marcus,” Daily Advertiser (New York), October 15, 1787; DC1, 128; A Landholder, “Reply to Elbridge Gerry,” Connecticut Courant (Hartford), November 26, 1787, DC1, 234.

53  For a good example of Federalists opinion of themselves, and especially of the “fathers and saviors of their country” who framed the Constitution, see “A Citizen of America” [Noah Webster], Philadelphia, October 17, 1787, DC1, 162-163.