One of my grad school classmates referred to the Anti-Federalists as “the biggest bunch of losers in American history,” owing to their rout in the battle to define the political aftermath of the Revolution.
I’m not so sure he was right. The Anti-Federalists’ opposition to the Constitution didn’t pan out, but attempts to resist centralization of political power at the expense of the states didn’t stop with ratification. If you interpret the Anti-Federalist impulse as originators of that larger political tendency, then you’d have to admit that their ideological strain has been pretty persistent over the past two hundred years. One thinks of the nullification controversy, the Confederacy, the controversy over civil rights legislation, and so on. Indeed, as J.L. Bell points out over at Boston 1775, the Anti-Federalist strain is enjoying something of a revival in some circles even as we speak.
Of course, over the long haul, federal power has expanded anyway, so maybe there’s still not much of a success story there even if we define the Anti-Federalist impulse as broadly as possible. Even many proponents of a weaker federal government failed to live up to their own rhetoric once they ended up in office, as Bell quite rightly states. (Here, again, one thinks of the Confederacy, which was all about upholding states’ prerogatives until it came time to actually carry on a war.)