How did the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the period immediately following it deal with the issue of the debate between those who supported a strong central government and those who wanted more power given to the states?

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was held to create a document that would be strong enough to hold thirteen states together as a Union as well as give each state certain individual powers. Anti-Federalists at the Convention feared a strong central government that would abuse their powers and lead to a corrupt and unjust American society. They did not want the work of the Revolution to be destroyed and felt a need for increased states' rights. Federalists on the other hand, wanted a strong central government that would maintain order in America and which they concluded would guarantee prosperity. This argument between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists split the country and led to varied interpretations resulting in decades of debate. To a large extent this "Critical Period" swung the pendulum toward the conservatism of the federalists and created a strong Union that has survived centuries of turmoil. The triumph of this period can be seen in the ability of the Founding Fathers to compromise on critical issues. The foresight of the conservative majority to incorporate some liberal Anti-Federalists ideas into their platform solidified the Union and eliminated the possibility of a Reign of Terror.

There is clear evidence to show that the Federalists dominated the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the period that followed (known as the "Federalist Age"). The Constitution gave Congress certain enumerated powers such as the laying and collecting of taxes, the regulation of foreign and interstate trade, and the right to coin money. However, this piece of legislation only set prohibitions on states and did not specify any rights the states possessed. Section 8 Article 18 of the Constitution states that "Congress may enact laws necessary to enforce the Constitution". This critical statement opens the possibility of extended power with the elastic clause and foreshadows a loose interpretation of the Constitution (E). This article was used by Alexander Hamilton in his argument to create a National Bank which he concluded would lead to national prosperity (A). The Anti-Federalists argued that Hamilton's program only benefited the wealthy at the expense of indebted farmers and artisans. However, Anti-Federalist efforts to nullify this were eventually defeated by the creation of the National Bank. Those who favored a centralized economy were mostly northern merchants who benefited directly from high tariffs and a stabile currency. The Virginia Plan was also a victory for the Federalists who resided in the larger states and were predominantly wealthy. Their plan recognized representation by population and thus allowed the larger commercial states to receive more legislative influence.

Furthermore, the Virginia Plan extended Federalist power over the purse by making the House of Representatives the sole originator of revenue bills. The Constitution also gave the Federalists an economic victory by means of the excise tax which preserved fiscal integrity. The excise tax and tariff enabled the Federalists to fund the debt at par, thus boosting American commercial interests at the expense of the Anti-Federalist agrarian faction. The pendulum did not swing completely to the right. The spirit of compromise, that would become a trademark of the American political system took shape during this period. The Federalists had the foresight to incorporate opposing ideology into their political and economic framework. To a smaller extent the Anti-Federalist ideas became a part of the fledging nation. The Jersey Plan, which wanted to give equal representation to states regardless of their population, favored the smaller Anti-Federalist states, and was compromised as part of a bi-cameral legislature. The Anti-Federalist view of individual rights being overpowered by a strong central government is clearly shown in the writings of Elbridge Gerry (C). The need for individual security is expressed distinctly in his letter to the Representatives of Massachusetts, "...that the system is without the security of a bill of rights". The Anti-Federalists felt a need for protection against the autocracy that existed under British rule and were promised this when they agreed to ratify the Constitution. Thus, the Federalists cohered to their promise to secure individual rights and in 1791 the Bill of Rights was adopted into the Constitution(F). This guarantee prevented the possible abuses of power by the central government and was a ideal compromise during a time of great disagreement. Another example of the way the Federalists compromised is shown in a letter to the people of New York State (H). It shows a need for cooperation on both the part of the state and federal sides, "...which will control and balance each other, and produce the requisite impartiality". The Commercial Compromise allowed Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce yet prohibited any tariffs on exported goods. This agreement incorporated the needs of both the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists to some degree.

In 1800, a change from Federal control to Democratic-Republican control took place in a nonviolent manner, sometimes known as the "Peaceful Revolution". This passing of power showed how Americans progressed in their ability to compromise and work towards a more prosperous nation. Although during the Constitutional Convention and the brief period that followed it, control was mainly in the hands of the Federalists, Anti-Federalist ideas were often incorporated into making our nation what it is today.


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