During the colonial and revolutionary periods, Americans were accustomed to using labels like Tory and Whig when describing a person’s political persuasion. With the heightened sense of political affiliations of the American Revolution, additional monikers entered into the American lexicon such as Loyalist and Patriot. Additional terms included were monarchist, aristocrat, republican, federalist, democrat, and anarchist. In the winter of 1788 a new term “Shaysites” entered into the political lexicon, which was employed to describe radical democrats intent on destroying all forms of law and order. Many thought this was the case with the followers of Daniel Shays in Massachusetts (see The Shadow of Shays’s Rebellion). Throughout the Founding Period there was considerable debates as to who could legitimately lay claim to being true republicans.
Since nearly all desired to strengthen the Articles of Confederation, it was shocking to see that the Philadelphia Convention had violated their instructions and created an entirely new constitution. Consequently, as the ratification debate began in the fall of 1787, opponents and supporters of the Constitution were engaged in a marketing campaign and appropriated terms that would bolster their position in the minds of the general public. Those who supported the Constitution, were often branded as nationalists or consolidationists. Other labels included monarchists, aristocrats, royalists, and loyalists. One critic of the Constitution in an item entitled “Fair Play” asserted that, “many of those who arrange themselves under the banners of those who call themselves Federalists were either downright Tories, lukewarm Whigs, or disaffected to the cause of America and the Revolution.” A writer “Cato” countered and went so far as to suggest that the supporters of the Constitution were “of pure Roman extraction, whose lineage may with ease be traced up to Fœdus, a most worthy and virtuous patriot of ancient Rome.”
Those that supported the Constitution would deny these marques and championed the term “federalist.” This effort was an attempt to box the critics of the Constitution into a corner. This would put antifederalists at a disadvantage since they were alleged to be in opposition to the prevailing and preferable form of government that nearly all Americans desired; federal republicanism. It is important to note that at this point in history, when discussing politics, Americans generally used the term “federalist” when describing a political system that featured a collection of smaller states or republics with a limited central government with few powers. Representatives in this type of republic were to demonstrate civic virtue and were directly accountable to the people through frequent elections.
Antifederalists would persistently face the problem of being mislabeled. Throughout the ratification debate, they were steadfast in their attempts to persuade the public that they were indeed the real federalists, insisting that supporters of the Constitution had misappropriated the term in an attempt to hoodwink an unsuspecting public. Antifederalists were confident that once the true nature of the Constitution was exposed, the public would indeed see this deception.
The items below serve to illustrate the importance of labels and their meaning for both supporters and critics of the Constitution. and how these labels were an aspect of the ratification debates.