The Federalists and the Bill of Rights

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the vision of the Federalists
  • Identify the amendments included in the Bill of Rights

In June 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the federal Constitution, and the new plan for a strong central government went into effect. Elections for the first U.S. Congress were held in 1788 and 1789, and members took their seats in March 1789. In a reflection of the trust placed in him as the personification of republican virtue, George Washington became the first president in April 1789. John Adams served as his vice president; the pairing of a representative from Virginia (Washington) with one from Massachusetts (Adams) symbolized national unity. Nonetheless, political divisions quickly became apparent. Washington and Adams represented the Federalist Party, which generated a backlash among those who resisted the new government’s assertions of federal power.

Federalists in Power

The Constitution sketched a federal framework that aimed to balance the forces of decentralized and centralized governance in general terms; but it did not flesh out standard operating procedures that say precisely how the states and federal governments were to handle all policy contingencies imaginable.

Though the Revolution had overthrown British rule in the United States, supporters of the 1787 federal constitution, known as Federalists, adhered to a decidedly British notion of social hierarchy. The Federalists did not, at first, compose a political party. Instead, Federalists held certain shared assumptions. For them, political participation continued to be linked to property rights, which barred many citizens from voting or holding office. Federalists did not believe the revolution had changed the traditional social roles between women and men, or between Whites and other races. They did believe in clear distinctions in rank and intelligence. To these supporters of the Constitution, the idea that all were equal appeared ludicrous. Women, Blacks, and Native peoples, they argued, had to know their place as secondary to White male citizens. Attempts to impose equality, they feared, would destroy the republic. The United States was not created to be a democracy.

The architects of the Constitution committed themselves to leading the new republic, and they held a majority among the members of the new national government. Indeed, as expected, many assumed the new executive posts the first Congress created. Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist, as Secretary of the Treasury. For Secretary of State, he chose Thomas Jefferson. For Secretary of War, he appointed Henry Knox, who had served with him during the Revolutionary War. Edmond Randolph, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was named Attorney General. In July 1789, Congress also passed the Judiciary Act, creating a Supreme Court of six justices headed by those who were committed to the new national government.

Many of Washington’s picks for the cabinet were staunch Federalists who believed that a strong central government was critical to the success of the United States. Men such as Alexander Hamilton wanted an active government that would promote prosperity by supporting American industry. However, Washington also chose Thomas Jefferson to be his secretary of state, and Jefferson was committed to restricting federal power and preserving an economy based on agriculture. Almost from the beginning, Washington struggled to reconcile the Federalist and Republican (or Democratic-Republican) factions within his own administration.

Congress passed its first major piece of legislation by placing a duty on imports under the 1789 Tariff Act. Intended to raise revenue to address the country’s economic problems, the act was a victory for nationalists, who favored a robust, powerful federal government and had worked unsuccessfully for similar measures during the Confederation Congress in the 1780s. Congress also placed a fifty-cent-per-ton duty (based on materials transported, not the weight of a ship) on foreign ships coming into American ports, a move designed to give the commercial advantage to American ships and goods.

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The Bill of Rights

Many Americans opposed the 1787 Constitution because it seemed a dangerous concentration of centralized power that threatened the rights and liberties of ordinary U.S. citizens. These opponents, known collectively as Anti-Federalists, did not constitute a political party, but they united in demanding protection for individual rights. Several states made the passing of a bill of rights a condition of their acceptance of the Constitution. Rhode Island and North Carolina rejected the Constitution because it did not already have this specific bill of rights.

Federalists followed through on their promise to add such a bill in 1789, when Virginia Representative James Madison introduced and Congress approved the Bill of Rights. Adopted in 1791, the bill consisted of the first ten amendments to the Constitution and outlined many of the personal rights state constitutions already guaranteed.

Rights Protected by the First Ten Amendments
Amendment 1 Right to freedoms of religion and speech; right to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances
Amendment 2 Right to keep and bear arms to maintain a well-regulated militia
Amendment 3 Right not to house soldiers during time of war
Amendment 4 Right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure
Amendment 5 Rights in criminal cases, including to due process and indictment by grand jury for capital crimes, as well as the right not to testify against oneself
Amendment 6 Right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
Amendment 7 Right to a jury trial in civil cases
Amendment 8 Right not to face excessive bail or fines, or cruel and unusual punishment
Amendment 9 Rights retained by the people, even if they are not specifically enumerated by the Constitution
Amendment 10 States’ rights to powers not specifically delegated to the federal government

The adoption of the Bill of Rights softened the Anti-Federalists’ opposition to the Constitution and gave the new federal government greater legitimacy among those who otherwise distrusted the new centralized power created by men of property during the secret 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.

There was much the Bill of Rights did not cover. Women found no special protections or guarantee of a voice in government. Many states continued to restrict voting only to men who owned significant amounts of property. And slavery not only continued to exist; it was condoned and protected by the Constitution.

Watch It

Review each of the amendments in the Bill of Rights in this short video.

You can view the transcript for “A 3-minute guide to the Bill of Rights – Belinda Stutzman” here (opens in new window).

Link to Learning

Visit this PBS Learning Media site to walk through an interactive related to the Bill of Rights (click “launch” and then “continue as guest.”

Visit the National Archives to consider the first ten amendments to the Constitution as an expression of the fears many citizens harbored about the powers of the new federal government. What were these fears? How did the Bill of Rights calm them?

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Bill of Rights: the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, which guarantee individual rights