Federalist and Antifederalist: The Origin of the Terms

During the colonial and revolutionary periods, the political landscape in British North America was dominated by two political factions: Whigs and Tories. Generally speaking, Whigs favored placing limits on the British monarchy and the pursuit of more liberal rights. Tories favored fewer restrictions on the monarchy and the maintenance of Britain’s traditional social order. During the American War for Independence, Whigs (generally) supported independence while Tories became synonymous with loyalists who opposed independence and wished to remain in the British Empire. Over the course of the war, most Loyalists were compelled either to flee to other parts of the British Empire or to disavow their loyalty to the king and accept their status as citizens of newly independent states.

After the war, Tories no longer existed as an organized political movement in the United States, but that did not mean the term fell into disuse. “Tory” became a political epithet that emerging parties and factions used to label their political opponents. A sure way to discredit a political opponent or movement was to call into question their support for American independence during the war. As many of the documents below demonstrate, the terms “Whig” and “Tory” were still in use even as the terms “Federalist” and “Antifederalist” were gaining popularity.

While the terms “Whig,” “Tory,” and “Federalist” were embraced by different American political factions at various times, the term “Antifederalists” never enjoyed such legitimacy. During the ratification debates, even those opposed to the Constitution resented being labeled Antifederalists. Instead, they argued that they were the real Federalists for trying to preserve the confederation of states as it then existed. They insisted that those who claimed to be Federalists were actually creating a consolidated national government that would annihilate the sovereignty of individual states.

Their argument had some merit but was hampered by the fact that the terms “Federalist” and “Antifederalist” were rooted in events prior to the drafting of the Constitution. According to Samuel Bryan, himself an Antifederalist, the terms “grew up in New York & in the Eastern States, some Time before the Calling of the Convention” to distinguish those who supported strengthening the confederation and those who “preferred local and particular Advantages.” “Federal men” were those who supported the Impost of 1783, which would have placed the finances of the Confederation on a stable footing. Those who opposed it were “Anti-Federal men.” Because many of those who opposed the Constitution had also been opposed to earlier efforts to strengthen the Confederation, such as the Impost, it was difficult for them to argue convincingly that they were the “real Federalists.”

Certainly those who opposed the Constitution did so for many reasons, but they were unable to shed the label of Antifederalist. Perhaps this was because the label was already historically grounded in the debate over the Impost of 1783 or because many newspaper printers at the time were biased towards Federalists and more willing to print Federalist pieces than those opposed to the Constitution. Federalists were also relentless in their labeling of their opponents as Antifederalists, while those opposed to the Constitution failed to devise a single term or banner to rally around. This left the Federalists in control of the narrative and ensured that the terms Federalist and Antifederalist are still used to described the political factions that struggled against each other in the ratification debate.

The following documents are divided into three collections. The first collection highlights how the terms Whig and Tory transitioned into Federalist and Antifederalist. The second collection shows how Antifederalists tried unsuccessfully to resist the label. The third contains documents arguing that a national or consolidated government is the true aim of Federalists.

From Tories and Whigs to Federalists and Antifederalists

Opponents of the Constitution Resist Being Labeled Antifederalists

Federalists as Consolidators