Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution

Course No. 4878
Professor Thomas L. Pangle, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
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Course No. 4878
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Course Overview

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, ..."—U.S. Constitution

While those words were written over 200 years ago, recent years have seen an explosion of interest in and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Its authority and stature are routinely invoked by voices from every point on the political spectrum who seek to defend their views on issues ranging from separation of powers to the proper role of the Supreme Court to legitimate interpretations of the Bill of Rights, with frequent references to the Founding Fathers and their true "intent."

But how much do most of us really know about that intent?

The fact is, as Professor Thomas L. Pangle makes clear in The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution, many of those Founding Fathers—men who had been signers of the Declaration of Independence, leaders of the American Revolution, or delegates to the Continental Congress—were highly critical of the new Constitution and staunchly opposed it when it was first put forth for ratification by the states as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation.

Learn Which Founders Opposed the New Constitution ...

Thomas Jefferson, for example, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was highly skeptical of the proposed constitution and was not among the Federalists who were urging ratification, although his reluctant support for it was eventually won by his good friend James Madison.

Patrick Henry, whose declaration "Give me liberty or give me death!" is arguably the most iconic quote of the American Revolution, was an eloquent voice against ratification, his oratorical skills a potent weapon of the Anti-Federalist side in his native state of Virginia.

And John Hancock, the Declaration's first signer, was still another opponent of the new constitution, but later joined with fellow critic Samuel Adams to lead the effort at compromise through which Massachusetts approved ratification, but with many substantial amendments recommended.

Joined by a chorus of notable essayists—writing, in the style of the day, under the pen names "Agrippa," "Brutus," or "Cato," meant to evoke the ideals of Classical Republicanism they favored—the Anti-Federalists formed a potent opposition.

Which Founders Led the Battle for It ...

On the other side of the argument, an equally distinguished chorus of voices—led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—was raised in support of the proposed constitution.

They urged that its innovative structure—a structure the Anti-Federalists considered frightening and dangerous—ought to be passed without any substantial amendments. And in The Federalist, the extraordinary collection of polemical papers organized by Hamilton, they presented their side's answer to the objections raised by the proposed constitution's opponents.

The debate that ensued—even while some states ratified the document and others rejected it—raged for the better part of two years. Each side argued to prove and persuade others to their position. And beneath its rhetorical flourishes lay not only the longest and most profound civic argument in our nation's history, but also a civics lesson that deserves to endure for all time.

And How Both Sides Helped Define the Result!

It was an argument that would result in not only the ratification of the Constitution but also of what that Constitution would become—and the finished document was a testimonial to the contributions of the "victorious" Federalist side and the "losing" Anti-Federalists as well.

Why were the nation's planners so divided? What were the concerns that caused so many passionate defenders of American independence to take such different views? And why are the answers so important to us today?

In addressing these issues—including fervently presented renditions of the great debate's most illustrious writings and speeches—Professor Pangle brilliantly revives "the great controversy out of which our Constitution was born, so that we ourselves can begin to re-enact, in some degree, the debates and thus the choices—and, more importantly, the arguments for the choices—that were made by the founding generation."

In an era when contemporary arguments on the national stage so often mirror the same conflicts debated by the Founders, our own reenactment of that original debate can enrich our ability to be active and participating citizens.

"By listening to the original critics of the Constitution," Professor Pangle notes, "and by seeing how the defenders are responding to those critics, we will have better access to the age-old, deeply puzzling problems in the very nature of Republicanism with which our founders were wrestling and trying to solve. We can see precisely what dangers this new Constitution was meant to combat and what it was designed to achieve.

"But also, and equally important, we can see what our constitutional system was not designed to achieve, what alternative concerns and goals of political life were abandoned or subordinated, what costs were consciously paid, what limitations were accepted in opting for this ... new system."

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12 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Significance and Historical Context
    We introduce the major players in the debate over the Constitution's ratification. Most important are those who took part in the struggle in New York—where some of the most thoughtful Anti-Federalist writings were produced and later responded to with the influential Federalist papers organized, and in substantial part written, by Alexander Hamilton. x
  • 2
    Classical Republicanism
    The Anti-Federalists attack the proposed constitutional order, saying it departs too much from the traditionally revered Greco-Roman ideal of virtuous participatory republicanism. We clarify the Anti-Federalist objections and explore their own reservations about classical republicanism. x
  • 3
    The Anti-Federalists' Republican Vision
    The participatory and virtue-centered vision of the Anti-Federalists dictates a more decentralized arrangement than the more consolidated national government proposed by the Federalists. We introduce the Federalists' response, highlighting their focus on the demands of national security and foreign policy. x
  • 4
    The Argument over National Security
    Articulating a need for sound defense and foreign policy, The Federalist critiques the existing constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and then moves to a general critique of the inadequacy of confederacies. Anti-Federalists counter by suggesting that Federalists may be falling prey to visions of an empire. x
  • 5
    The Deep Difficulties in Each Position
    Anti-Federalists accuse Federalists of giving national security pre-eminence over republican freedom. Federalists reply by claiming that Anti-Federalists fail to face up to what union and national security truly require. x
  • 6
    Debating the Meaning of "Federalism"
    The Federalists' defense of "Federalism" reveals that the state governments are to be strictly subordinate to the central government—thereby intensifying the Anti-Federalist critique. x
  • 7
    The Madisonian Republic
    How do the Federalists propose to prevent despotism in the central government? Their answer, articulated by James Madison, rejects the classical republican ideal of a confederacy of small, fraternal democracies in favor of a vast, representative republic, animated by competition among mutually hostile "factions." x
  • 8
    The Argument over Representation
    Madison identifies majority faction as the overriding danger in republics and calls for a new conception of representative government removed from the populace—a call that echoes, although in a more aristocratic way, the emphasis upon virtue found in the classical tradition. x
  • 9
    Disputing Separation of Powers, Part 1
    For Anti-Federalists, the proposed House of Representatives is too weak and will be overpowered by more powerful branches of government. For Federalists, the House is the most dangerous part of government and therefore most in need of being checked and balanced. x
  • 10
    Disputing Separation of Powers, Part 2
    Anti-Federalists argue that a federal-level "separation of powers" would be merely artificial, with no reliable basis in social reality; they argue instead for state governments to check the federal government. They also argue for a small executive council instead of the proposed presidency. x
  • 11
    The Supreme Court and Judicial Review
    Hamilton's expectation of a virtuous national leadership is most evident in his defense of the unelected, life-tenured Supreme Court and its historically unprecedented power of "judicial review." The Anti-Federalists predict abuse of this power and insist on a court that includes elected officials. x
  • 12
    The Bill of Rights
    The addition, by the first Congress, of the 10 amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, is the one great victory of the Anti-Federalists—but it is won at the ironic cost of giving much more power to a Supreme Court that they fear. x

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Your professor

Thomas L. Pangle

About Your Professor

Thomas L. Pangle, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Thomas L. Pangle holds the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin. He earned his B.A. from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. Before joining the faculty at The University of Texas, Professor Pangle taught at Yale University, Dartmouth University, the University of Chicago, and the …cole des...
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Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 157.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent summary of opposing views This is an excellent summary of the positions of those who supported the new Constitution, and those who opposed it. The lectures are clear, well presented and closely follow the outline. We tend to take our Constitution for granted. These lectures show that those in opposition also had cogent and compelling arguments, and that ratification of the Constitution was no sure thing. A great “what if” is to speculate what would have happened had ratification failed. These lectures show how many of the fears of the Anti-Federalists, which were minimized by the Federalists, have come to pass. For example, the federal government predominates. The questions remains, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Also, Madison’s vision of the benefits of diffused factions is less compelling today in the age of internet and social media, but it’s hard to see what can be done about it. These lectures don’t attempt to answer such questions, but they constantly must be asked and still are worth pondering. As Prof. Pangle says at the end, what is needed is an ever renewed rethinking of the Great Debate.
Date published: 2020-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lecture series for the current time As a novice in this field of knowledge I am very happy to have heard these lectures. Prof. Pangle gives an excellent summary of the debates by the founders in framing the constitution.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Presenter So Far I expected that this course would only explain the Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution. I was wrong. Professor Pangle, by his elegant presentations, gives the Federalist and Anti-Federalist points of view, during the creation of the U.S. Constitution. When I say, Professor Pangle is an elegant presenter, I mean that, literally. Throughout his 12 Lectures, he did not hesitate or mutter an "um" or "ah". I've never heard a speaker do that. I was impressed! He was a joy to listen to. I have read the Federalist Papers many times over and knew little about the Anti-Federalists. I appreciated the presentation of their side of the argument. I learned a lot about the discussions, during that time period. Anyway, at first I thought Professor Pangle was really an Anti-Federalist supporter, not that it makes any difference, now. He seemed to side with the Anti-Federalists' point of view more often than with the Federalists. However, he did present both sides of the argument. After finishing the lectures, I think he has, and the Anti-Federalists had, a point of view that worried the Anti-Federalists. They worried that the Supreme Court would be too powerful. I think they were right. They worried about taxation. I think their concerns were valid. The Federalists were concerned about International Trade and security from rogue nations, where individual States would be ineffective against these nations, in time of war. I could go on, but, you need to hear the ideas presented in these lectures, to appreciate the minutia Professor Pangle gave as evidence. I would recommend these lectures. However, wait until the end lecture to make up your mind as to their value. I think Professor Pangle will suprise you.
Date published: 2020-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Yes, ratify I thought I knew a few things about our Constitution and now I know a heck of a lot more. Thoroughly informative and captivating discussion. Do not watch this before bedtime, thinking it will help you go to sleep. Very invigorating.
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from informative but biased I have taken dozens of Great Courses, many really great, many simply outstanding. In all those courses I have rejected only three on the basis that the lecturer failed to back up his/her own theories with facts and sources or where the lecturer let his/her own bias seriously intrude into the course contents. This course suffers from the latter defect. Among the Great Courses are a multitude on our founding fathers and the American Revolution and American philosophy and history in general. All of them excellent. This course not one of them. Prof. Pangle lets his own severe bias toward what he terms a "republican" form of government compromise this course. I would suggest he is in favor of a Republican Party form of government. This bias shows up as the Prof. presents excerpts from the federalist and anti federalist publications(this is the informative part of the course) and then unfortunately gives his own very slanted opinion of whether the points raised by those publications turned out to be true. In general he takes the anti federalist viewpoint in bemoaning for example the taxing power of the central . government and the alleged impact on the taxing authority of the States thereby crippling the States. Bluntly the reality is that the States have not been shy about imposing their own income, property, sales and other taxes and I am not aware of any State impoverished by the taxing power of the central government. We are more than 200 years under our Federalist Constitution and my own view and the reality is that this Country has not only survived but flourished. None of the doomsday scenarios raised by the anti federalists have come to pass. Even the "necessary and proper" clause that could be abused has among its early worthy children the Louisiana purchase and National Bank. Funny that the Prof. fails to note that the objections raised by the anti federalist have proven to be without merit.. In short, if the instructor insists on making comments about the merits of the positions on the sides in the Great Debate vis a vis the subsequent history of the USA he should comment fairly and without bias. I think he fails this standard. I am therefore of the opinion that the student would be better drawing his/her information from other Great Courses in particular courses by Prof. Guelzo.
Date published: 2020-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best for understanding the Founding Fathers This is the best video that I have viewed so far for understanding the founding fathers with respect to the constitution. Dr. Pangle goes deep into some of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers. I recommend reading Gordon S. Wood's "Creation of the American Republic" and a the relevant Federalist papers along with watching these videos
Date published: 2019-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! As a community college American Government instructor, I am always looking to strengthen my knowledge of the complex notion of checks and balances. This course did a fantastic job of highlighting the arguments of both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists with support from historical philosophy and specific critical documents like the Federalist Papers and their companion opposition pieces. Dr. Pangle uses additional scholarly materials such as correspondence between the framers and uses them to make clear reference to the personal reasons why some of them adopted the positions they used in argumentation. Quick, thorough review with great presentation by the instructor. Thank you, Dr. Pangle!
Date published: 2019-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Point and counter-point This course should be required at some level by every student in America and all those who desire to become American citizens. It is a great refresher courses for those who have previously studied the Federalist papers. The presenter was prepared and presented both sides of the great debate.
Date published: 2019-03-14
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