The New Constitution: For and Against

The 1787 convention in Philadelphia created a document (the Constitution) which would radically reshape the United States. Establishing a “federal” system in which the central government held a great deal more authority than under the Articles of Confederation. Divided into executive (embodied in the President), legislative (Congress), and judicial (the federal courts), the new system gave what its authors asserted were clearly defined and limited powers to the federal government.

Before the new Constitution could become the law of the land, however, it had to be ratified–or approved–by nine states. These ratification debates were contentious and ratification of the Constitution wasn’t a sure thing.

Some of the arguments, for and against the Constitution are linked below.

Letter from a Federal Farmer to the Republican (October 9, 1787)
[The "Federal Farmer" was likely either Virginia's Richard Henry Lee or New York's Melancton Smith. The "Republicican" to whom these letters were addressed was likely New York Governor George Clinton]

James Wilson’s pro-Constitution speech the Pennsylvania legislature (delivered October 6, published in the Pennsylvania Packet October 10, 1787)

An Anonymous anti-Constitution Letter (published in the Massachusetts Gazette, January, 1788)

Questions to consider:

  1. One concern of anti-Federalists (those opposed to ratification of the new Constitution) was that there was no “Bill of Rights”–a listing of rights and liberties that Americans were guaranteed. How does James Wilson argue that such a thing is not needed?
  2. Discuss three specific ways in which the writer of the Massachusetts letter believes the new Constitution to be “aristocratickal.”
  3. How does the ‘Federal Farmer” argue that the geography of the United States makes a strong central government less effective?
  4. Summarize, from your reading of these documents, two general arguments of the pro-Constitution faction and two general arguments of the anti-Constitution faction.