How the Federalists Stacked the Deck to Win Ratification

[This passage is excerpted from Murray N. Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.]

The Federalists shrewdly decided to strike hard and swift and drive the Constitution rapidly through the states. The Federalist leaders were a small and cohesive group concentrated in the cities of the eastern seaboard, knew each other, were often tied into the same merchant business interests, and had united with each other and hammered out their ideas over the months of the convention and the years before. Furthermore, their constituency was also largely concentrated in the seaboard and among the commercial towns, and consequently they would command the bulk of the educated, wealthy, intelligent, and mobile. In contrast, the Antifederalist forces, caught by surprise, were scattered, local, composed mainly of the subsistence farmer of the interior, geographically spread out, relatively poor and ignorant, uneducated, and extremely difficult to mobilize for the brief but intense upcoming struggle. This applies not to the Antifederalist leadership, who were often as wealthy and educated as their opponents, but to their mass base, the constituency whom they depended on for votes.

Another great problem for the Antifederalist cause was that their wealthy and eminent leaders were largely not nearly as vehemently or as radically opposed to nationalism as their committed followers. Hence, they often proved willing to betray their cause. Furthermore, to mobilize the masses rapidly requires passionate radicalism, and the moderateness of their leadership and their willingness to accept a modified Constitution greatly weakened their strength and the logical force their opposition arguments could have.

In such a titanic struggle, especially for the Antifederalists whose constituency was scattered, poor, and uneducated, rapid dissemination of information and agitation throughout the country was absolutely essential. This vulnerability was viciously exploited by the Federalists, who used their control of the expensive U.S. postal monopoly to delay greatly the mainly Antifederal newspapers as well as letters to and from leading Antifederalists. The postmasters were mainly Federalists: Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard was a Federalist, and the New York Postmaster Sebastian Bauman was a close friend of Hamilton. And the Federalist Pennsylvania Postmaster openly refused to mail an important address by the Antifederalists at the Pennsylvania convention. Thus, while letters between nationalists of Virginia and New York regularly took six to fourteen days to arrive, mail between Antifederalist leaders in the two states often took six to ten weeks to get through. The handful of Antifederalist papers often failed to arrive at all, particularly in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, and those that did come through had particular items cut out by the postal authorities.1 Even George Washington was outraged at the wholesale blocking of Antifederalist mail and was later to fire Ebenezer Hazard for taking the trouble to abandon stagecoaches in delivering the mail and returning to the far more inefficient method of post-riders during this period.

Even more important than postal control in the ratification struggle was the Federalist stranglehold on the nations’ press—the vital medium of information and propaganda. The press was overwhelmingly Federal; for one reason, the press was urban, and the urban force, from wealthy merchants to lowly artisans, was solidly nationalist. Furthermore, the remainder of the printers who were inclined to be Antifederalist or even to publish both sides of the coin were subjected to intense and ruthless economic pressure by subscribers and business advertisers. In Boston, the Antifederalist American Herald lost subscribers and was forced to move out of the city; in New York City, the Morning Post yielded to pressure and stopped printing Antifederalist articles; and The Pennsylvania Herald was forced to stop covering the Pennsylvania convention by a boycott of subscribers. Federalist press control meant not only the spreading of their own propaganda and the suppression of opposition articles, it also meant that the Federalists were free to dictate the news at will, a freedom which they proceeded to exploit to the hilt. All over the country, outright lies were spread freely, such as the claim that Patrick Henry or Governor George Clinton was for the Constitution or that almost all New Yorkers favored ratification. The press systematically denied that any opposition to the Constitution existed, and as a result many Antifederalists throughout the country were not only disheartened but felt themselves to be a minority and isolated from all other Americans. Throughout the country only five newspapers printed Antifederalist material: the (Boston) American Herald, the New York Journal, the (Philadelphia) Independent Gazette, the (Philadelphia) Freeman’s Journal, and the (Richmond) Va. Independent Chronicle.2 The New York Journal, an Antifederalist island in a sea of Federalist propaganda, had been the organ of the New York Sons of Liberty, and its fearlessly radical publisher Thomas Greenleaf was a veteran of the Revolutionary cause. He was to be one of the first newspaper editors to launch an attack on the Washington administration.

To the press, postal service, superior organization, and wealth, the Federalists added in the furiously intense propaganda battle their far greater prestige and leadership. The prominent and influential men favored the Constitution in virtually every state, and the gamut was run from social ridicule to social flattery of the Antifederalist leadership. This treatment was especially effective with the Antifederalist leadership because these wealthy and socially attuned were susceptible to the kind of pressure to conform to become one of America’s Great Men. The enormously prestigious George Washington, in particular, was used to sway opinion, and the inevitable occurrence that Washington was slated to be the first president carried a great deal of weight.

Against and despite all this, the Antifederalists had one crucial asset: the basic support of the probable majority of the American people. More specifically, the Antifederalists had overwhelming majorities in Rhode Island, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and lesser majorities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Virginia; in short, popular majorities in seven of the thirteen states. In contrast, the Federalists enjoyed enormous majorities in New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia, and lesser majorities in Connecticut, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. If justice had prevailed, the Constitution would have been ratified in only six states, four of them in the middle-states area.

But this would not be enough. It must be remembered that the people were not called upon to ratify the Constitution directly, or even in their broad town meetings. While the conventions had a superficially popular air, two grave elements of distrust of the popular will entered into the convention proceedings. Both stemmed from the fact that suffrage, as well as representation, was determined by the states to be the same as for the existing state legislatures. While property qualifications were low and suffrage broadly based, this still meant the disenfranchisement of the poorest strata of the population, which increased support for the Constitution. Only New York took the monumental step of permitting universal manhood suffrage in the vote for the Constitution. The other factor was the allocation of delegates; representation in the legislatures was often weighted in favor of the old seaboard and against the newer interior sectors, and hence, once again, in favor of the Constitution. A notable example was South Carolina, where the strongly Federalist eastern lowland had 143 seats in the lower house, while the west had only ninety-three. However, if population figures from 1790 are any guide, in reality the east should have only had fifty seats and the west 186!3

  • 1. E.W. Spaulding, New York in the Critical Period, 1783–1789 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), pp. 259–61. [Editor’s remarks] Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1956), pp. 181–82.
  • 2. Jackson T. Main, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788 (1961; repr., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 28, 250–52. [Editor’s remarks] White, The Federalists, p. 193.
  • 3. [Editor’s footnote] Shortly after Rothbard wrote this volume, Charles Roll analyzed the apportionment in state conventions during the ratification struggle. Roll found that malapportionment did aid the Federalists in several key states—notably South Carolina. His findings also confirm Rothbard’s analysis of individual state preferences for the Constitution. Charles W. Roll, “We, Some of the People: Apportionment in the Thirteen State Conventions Ratifying the Constitution,” The Journal of American History (June 1969): 21–40.

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