Political Rhetoric in the Debate Over Ratification

The debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the ratification of the Constitution offers a master class in political rhetoric.

More people are familiar with the Federalist side of the debate. Most have read James Madison’s eloquent defense of the new government’s institutional structure in Federalist 51 and understand why “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”  

And Madison summed up perfectly the central issue in the ratification debate when he wrote, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The Anti-Federalist side of the debate is not as widely known. But it too includes many outstanding examples of political rhetoric. Some of the most articulate and incisive rebuttals of the essays composing the Federalist were written under the Anti-Federalist pen name Brutus.

In his sixth essay, published on this date in 1787, Brutus examined the extent of the government’s power to levy and collect taxes, duties, and excises under the proposed Constitution.

Consider the passage below in which Brutus describes the limitless nature of the government’s power to raise revenue. Its imagery and rhythm are undeniable; its conclusion, inescapable.


This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country- It will wait upon the ladies at their toilett, and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert them even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour, preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bed-chamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take cognizance of the professional man in his office, or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop, and in his work, and will haunt him in his family, and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour, it will be with him in the house, and in the field, observe the toil of his hands, and the sweat of his brow; it will penetrate into the most obscure cottage; and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States. To all these different classes of people, and in all these circumstances, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them, will be GIVE! GIVE!