Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Anti-Federal was the name given to the men and the movement opposing the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Ironically, Anti-Federals wanted a more federal—that is, more dispersed-—government than the Federals. But the supporters of the Constitution had a political strategy to present those who opposed the Constitution as opponents of limited government. 

Although there were many Anti-Federals, who at times seemed provincial and lacking a concerted political effort, Anti-Federalism consisted of five major themes. One, Anti-Federals wanted a bill of rights. Two, they thought the Constitution centralized government and chipped away at state’s rights.Three, Anti-Federals feared the document favored aristocratic interests. Four, they feared the Congressional power to tax.  Five, opponents of the Constitution feared the possibility of a standing army.

Anti-Federals consisted of three main groups: backcountry farmers and artisans, the middling sort (there was no definitive middle class then), and the elite. Three famous elites were Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts, George Mason of Virginia, and Luther Martin of Maryland. Elites feared political corruption and strongly believed that a small, republican government was the best way to eliminate it. The middling sort wanted mostly to limit government intervention in their private lives, and in a small republic, they could control state legislatures and the level of government intervention. The backcountry Anti-Federals believed the will of the people could be ascertained only through community rule. Unlike the previous two groups, backcountry Anti-Federals preferred to give up individual rights rather than community rule.

North Carolina’s Anti-Federals expressed similar concerns. Tar Heels wanted to ensure that the states, not the national government, named the place, time, and manner of elections. They also protested congressional regulation of interstate and international trade.  Many of their objections stemmed from a worry over personal finances.  Anti-Federal Tar Heels feared excessive taxation and the eradication of paper money (They wondered how they would pay Revolutionary War debts once a gold-based monetary system limited the money supply).

At the ratification debates in North Carolina, the number of Anti-Federals nearly doubled that of the Federals. Most judges were Anti-Federalist, and most lawyers were Federalist. When compared to the Federals, generally speaking, the Anti-Federals were less educated and attended charismatic church services; Episcopalians generally supported the Constitution, and Presbyterians and Baptists did not.  The Baptists, in particular, vigorously opposed the ratification of the Constitution.  Some of the more prominent North Carolina Anti-Federals were Willie Jones, Samuel Spencer, Timothy Bloodworth, and Joseph McDowell.

North Carolina Anti-Federals played a great part in ensuring that a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. Led by Willie Jones (pronounced Wiley), Anti-Federals pledged to ratify the Constitution and enter the Union only after certain individual rights were guaranteed. In 1788 North Carolina passed a resolution (184 to 84) not to approve or reject the Constitution and proposed a set of amendments called the Declaration of Rights–the wording of which is strikingly close to that of the Bill of Rights. For a year North Carolina was out of the union.  But when the U.S. Congress passed a Bill of Rights, North Carolina voted for the Constitution (195 to 77) in 1789.

Anti-Federal thought influences American politics today. Its intellectual descendants are a suspicion of centralized authority, the production of a libertarian and communitarian localism, and a tradition of political dissent. In North Carolina, Anti-Federal thought was exhibited in the public lives of Nathaniel Macon, Thomas Hall, Weldon Edwards, Zebulon Vance, Claude Kitchin, Josiah Bailey, and Jesse Helms.