Federalism in the early Republic
Federalism was a political solution for the problems with the Articles of Confederation which gave little practical authority to the federal government. For example, the Articles allowed the Continental Congress the power to sign treaties and declare war, but it could not raise taxes to pay for an army and all major decisions required a unanimous vote.
The movement was greatly strengthened by the reaction to Shays' Rebellion of 1786–1787, which was an armed uprising of yeoman farmers in western Massachusetts. The rebellion was fueled by a poor economy that was created, in part, by the inability of the federal government to deal effectively with the debt from the American Revolutionary War. Moreover, the federal government had proven incapable of raising an army to quell the rebellion, so that Massachusetts had been forced to raise its own.
In 1787, fifty-five delegates met at a Constitutional convention in Philadelphia and generated ideas of a bicameral legislature (United States Congress), balanced representation of small and large states (Great Compromise), and checks and balances. James Madison stated in a long pre-convention memorandum to delegates that because "one could hardly expect the state legislatures to take enlightened views on national affairs", stronger central government was necessary. This convention almost immediately dropped its original mandate and instead set about constructing a new Constitution of the United States. Once the convention concluded and released the Constitution for public consumption, the Federalist movement became focused on getting the Constitution ratified.
The most forceful defense of the new Constitution was The Federalist Papers, a compilation of 85 anonymous essays published in New York City to convince the people of the state to vote for ratification. These articles, written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with some contributed by John Jay, examined the benefits of the new, proposed Constitution, and analyzed the political theory and function behind the various articles of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers remain one of the most important sets of documents in American history and political science.
Those opposed to the new Constitution became known as the Anti-Federalists. They generally were local rather than cosmopolitan in perspective, oriented to plantations and farms rather than commerce or finance, and wanted strong state governments and a weak national government. The Anti-Federalist critique soon centered on the absence of a bill of rights, which Federalists promised to provide.
Because George Washington lent his prestige to the Constitution and because of the ingenuity and organizational skills of its proponents, the Constitution was ratified by all the states. The outgoing Congress of the Confederation scheduled elections for the new government, and set March 4, 1789 as the date that the new government would take power. In 1789, Congress submitted twelve articles of amendment to the states. Ten of these articles, written by congressional committees, achieved passage on December 15, 1791 and became the United States Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment set the guidelines for federalism in the United States.
As soon as the first Federalist movement dissipated, a second one sprang up to take its place. This one was based on the policies of Alexander Hamilton and his allies for a stronger national government, a loose construction of the Constitution, and a mercantile (rather than agricultural) economy. As time progressed, the factions which adhered to these policies organized themselves into the nation's first political party, the Federalist Party, and the movement's focus and fortunes began to track those of the party it spawned.
While the Federalist movement of the 1780s and the Federalist Party were distinct entities, they were related in more than just a common name. The Democratic-Republican Party, the opposition to the Federalist Party, emphasized the fear that a strong national government was a threat to the liberties of the people. They stressed that the national debt created by the new government would bankrupt the country, and that federal bondholders were paid from taxes paid by honest farmers and workingmen. These themes resonated with the Anti-Federalists, the opposition to the Federalist movement of the 1780s. As Norman Risjord has documented for Virginia, of the supporters of the Constitution in 1788, 69% joined the Federalist party, while nearly all (94%) of the opponents joined the Republicans. 71% of Thomas Jefferson's supporters in Virginia were former anti-federalists who continued to fear centralized government, while only 29% had been proponents of the Constitution a few years before. In short, nearly all of the opponents of the Federalist movement became opponents of the Federalist Party.
The movement reached its zenith with the election of John Adams, an overtly Federalist President. However, with the defeat of Adams in the election of 1800 and the death of Hamilton, the Federalist Party began a long decline from which it never recovered. What finally finished off the Federalist party was the Hartford Convention of 1814, in which five New England states gathered to discuss several constitutional amendments necessary to protect New England's interests in regard to the blockade of their ports by the British during the War of 1812. The threat of secession also was proposed during these secret meetings. Three delegates were sent to Washington, DC to negotiate New England's terms only to discover the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war with the British. The Federalists were then seen by many as traitors to the union.