How I'm simultaneously reading The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates, The Federalist Papers, and Debate on the Constitution


Although later collected as The Federalist Papers and considered the seminal work on the authoring of the Constitution, those 85 essays that were printed in New York newspapers in late 1787 and early 1788 (and subsequently and repeatedly reprinted all over the country) were not standalone pieces. They came only after the Constitution had been written, signed by all the states' delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and sent to the state legislatures for ratification. Before that could happen, there were fully four months of heated debate among the states' delegates in Philadelphia regarding the need for any changes to the existing Articles of Confederation, and if so, what those changes should be.

When the proposed Constitution was presented to the states for ratification, the debate raged on in self-printed pamphlets and essays printed in newspapers in the form of letters to the editor (often addressed to the public). Essays from the Anti-Federalist side of the fence (who greatly valued the sovereignty of the states and wanted a very weak central government, very limited in its powers) were actually some of the first to appear. Writers going by the pseudonyms Centinel, Brutus, and The Federal Farmer had already had eloquent and important essays printed within a month of the adjournment of the Convention. Federalist #1 was written (as an introduction to the whole series) by Alexander Hamilton in order to begin refuting arguments that were already in public discourse.

Knowing this, I didn't want to read The Federalist Papers front-to-back and then follow with The Anti-Federalist Papers - it seems to me that reading everything like that, with no context, timeline, or correlation, would make a very disjointed understanding of the time period and the arguments made. Fortunately, the edition of The Anti-Federalist Papers I'm reading includes breakdowns of Anti-Federalist and Federalist writings by topic, which specific essays were addressing which, and a very detailed chronology of speeches given and letters printed. Using that material, I plan to read everything in chronological order, going back and forth between the two books so I can follow the debate as I would have been able to follow it in the late 18th century - starting with some of the more important days of debate during the Convention, then progressing to the printed essays. Look here for a review when I finish!

Jason Trippet
10 December 2004

UPDATE: I received two pertinent gifts for Christmas this year - the two-volume set of Debate on the Constitution, by Bernard Bailyn. It contains an even more thorough treatment of the debate (both in the press and in the state ratifying conventions) described above, but there are overlaps and unique entries in each of the four volumes, so I went through and catalogued everything in chronological order so I would know when to switch between the different books. This doesn't include the debates in the state ratifying conventions - it makes more sense to read those in their entirety one at a time rather than interspersed between accounts in the press.

Jason Trippet
17 January 2005

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