The first step in keeping the republic was to ratify the Constitution, which would require the consent of nine states acting through state conventions. As a practical matter, however, the agreement of all, or nearly all, the states was essential. In particular, if the large, centrally-located states of Virginia or New York failed to ratify the document, the young nation would be split in two. The ratification debates featured two groups—the Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and the so-called Anti-Federalists, who opposed it. The two sides battled over several aspects of the Constitution, including representation and the powers of Congress.
As a prelude to the state convention debates, the views of the Anti-Federalists were printed in various papers under pen names such as Centinel, Brutus, Cato, and the Federal Farmer. As noted at the outset of the module, the Federalists advanced their arguments in The Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay under the pen name Publius. The Federalist Papers were initially published primarily in New York newspapers, with the aim of influencing the ratification debates taking place in that important state. Bearing in mind that individuals within both groups had varying degrees of enthusiasm for their respective positions, the Federalists were generally better organized and made more cogent arguments.
The Anti-Federalists generally made the classical republican argument in terms of size. A republic should be small and consist of a homogenous population that would allow for the common interest to emerge from deliberation among well-acquainted colleagues. A large, diverse republic, envisioned by Madison, would lead to chaos and sacrifice of the public interest for narrow self interest. In Brutus No. I (1787):
The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogenous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.
The Anti-Federalists believed government should foster civic virtue, and they emphasized “public liberty,” the freedom to participate in public affairs. This would be impossible in a large republic, as the people would be too distant from the government to communicate with their representatives. Thus, the people would become lax and vicious and their representatives would be corrupt. Finally, representatives need to stand for election more regularly than two or six years; must be similar to them in interest and status; and must be close to the people in order to earn their confidence. A large republic would lead to a wealthy and elite governing class. Brutus No. I (1787) quoted Montesquieu on the virtues of a small over a large republic:
It is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist. In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too great to be placed in any single subject; he has interest of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy, great and glorious, by oppressing his fellow citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country. In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent, and of course are less protected.
Consequently, “History furnishes no example of a free republic, anything like the extent of the United States.” Some Anti-Federalists believed the federal form of the Articles of Confederation should be preserved rather than replaced by a consolidated national and partly federal system.
The Federalists favored a stronger national government including a Congress represented by a large, heterogeneous population. Accordingly, Madison believed a small republic was detrimental to liberty and the common good; factions are “sown in the nature of man,” and much like a pure democracy, a small republic “can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” Thus, Madison argued: “Extend the sphere and you will take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probably that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of others citizens….” The “greater variety of parties” provides security “against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest,” and creates “greater obstacles” to the formation of an “unjust and interested majority.” (Federalist, No. 10)
Regarding the proper role of government, the Federalists disagreed that a small republic was the only means of fostering civic virtue or advancing the public interest, and they also wanted government to protect and advance private liberty. The primary role of Congress, Madison said, was to mediate between the competing factions: “The regulation of these various and interfering interests, forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government.” (Federalist, No. 10) As for fostering virtue, Madison assumed that some devious and self-interested characters would seek office (regardless of the size of the republic), but the probability of finding “fit characters” would be higher in a larger republic than a smaller one and it would be harder for “unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried out.”(Federalist, No. 10)
In terms of representation, the Federalists did not think it was necessary for representatives to mirror the people, and it was probably better if representatives were not too closely tied to local interests or too responsive to every popular inclination. The goal of representation should be to make better laws. The purpose of a republic is to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” (Federalist, No. 10) And, “Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.” (Federalist, No. 10)