Why did Americans switch from Anti-Federalist to Federalist so quickly?
In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.
The Federal Constitution (1787) created a form of national governance that Americans chose not to create during the Revolution. During their struggle against Britain, Americans chose to form a loose confederation of independent and sovereign states under an emasculated and dependent central government, as spelled out in America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (1781). Why, then, did they so quickly reject this model of government (one that can anachronistically be called Anti-Federalist) and adopt a Federalist constitution in its stead?
During the Revolutionary Era, American settlers clashed with Parliament because they upheld the right of each colony to govern itself. They reaffirmed this belief in 1776, and an examination of the 1776–1781 period makes it evidently clear that Americans did not expect or want the US Government to govern them. The Revolutionists had envisioned 13 sovereign states, not a nation-state, and they did not want a common national government to govern them; they left the governing to their local and state governments. By 1787, however, increasing numbers had elevated their expectations of what the “common government” should do for them.
Shays’s Rebellion (1786) illustrates this development. This Massachusetts rebellion strengthened Federalists in Massachusetts, but not because it demonstrated to local people that their state needed a stronger central government to suppress local insurrections. After all, Massachusetts suppressed the rebellion decisively on its own, without any help from the Confederation government. The citizens (and authorities) of Massachusetts asked the US Government for assistance not because their state was impotent and incapable of confronting Shays's rebels, but because after the US Government had worked with and helped out local populations throughout the long war years, locals had come to expect such assistance from the national government. Thus, when a military or diplomatic problem materialized – Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts, Indian violence on the Western frontiers, Spain hindering American commerce on the Mississippi – local populations and local governments in these locales expected a more helpful central government than they had in 1776 (or in 1754, when Americans rejected the Albany Plan). This issue shines a light on a debate among historians over when it was that Americans developed a sense of nationhood – a common identity, a familial bond, and a mutual responsibility to support and come to the aid of fellow-Americans. One camp sees an American identity and national bond forming well before the Revolution and producing the Revolution. The other camp holds that Americans developed a sense of nationhood only during the war; that Americans’ sense of nationhood was a product of the harsh experiences of war, rather than a cause for the war. According to these historians, common suffering, common fighting, common dying, and common victory produced a national identity and a national bond that were not there in 1776.
One should not exaggerate, however, how quickly and how thoroughly this new national identity and national project crowded out the original states’-rights spirit of the 1776 Revolution. The new constitution faced stiff resistance among broad swaths of the population. The ratification contest was a very close affair; so much so that Federalists were forced to acquiesce to Anti-Federalist demands to amend the Constitution.