The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers
Collection of essays advocating the ratification of the U. S. Constitution, published 1787-88.
The Federalist Papers are considered by many to be among the founding classics of American political thought, along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Federalist Papers were part of the national debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Opponents of the Constitution thought the document gave the national government too much power at the expense of the states—especially the power to tax and make war—privileged landholding aristocrats, and created a virtual monarch in the presidency. The Federalist Papers attempted to alleviate these fears, explaining the necessity of the Constitution and a strong central government to provide “political prosperity.”
The Federalist Papers contain eighty-five essays that were published anonymously by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the name of “Publius.” The essays flooded the New York newspapers between October 27, 1787 and May 1788. The essays were published in book form as The Federalist Papers in May 1788, and included seventy-eight published essays along with seven new essays. The term Federalist was a loaded one, and Hamilton chose it carefully. Federalism had previously connoted support for strong state government and a weak central government—a federation of states—while support for a strong central government was termed nationalism. By naming the proponents of the Constitution Federalists, Hamilton effectively redefined the term, suggesting that while they advocated a strong national government they also supported states' rights. He also classified his opponents as Anti-Federalists, thus preventing a debate in terms of state versus national power. The Federalist Papers were not explicitly concerned with taking power away from states, but from factions—minority or majority groups whose zeal on a particular issue, left unchecked, could work against the public good. This is the theme of Federalist No. 10, sometimes considered the most important of the essays. A strong national government, the Federalists argued, would prevent factions from taking control by forcing debate and compromise. The Federalist Papers also advocated for representative government, instead of pure democracy, as the structure best able to insure stability and prevent temporary passions from setting the course for the nation. Anti-Federalists, however, saw representative government as an effective means for the “transfer of power from the many to the few,” according to Anti-Federalist Richard Henry Lee. The Federalists won the day, but barely: the Constitution was ratified by all the states in May 1790, though the vote of many states was determined by a very small majority—the role of The Federalist Papers in gaining the victory is a matter of debate among scholars. Most Anti-Federalists accepted the defeat with grace, but declared that they would seek to improve the government through the means allowed by the new Constitution. Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists began by proposing a Bill of Rights to safeguard individuals and states, ten of which were ratified as constitutional amendments in December 1791.
The authors of The Federalist Papers linked the essays to classical traditions through their pseudonym—the name “Publius” refers to the founder of the Roman republic. The pseudonym served several purposes. In addition to placing the essays squarely in a classical tradition—a contrast to the bombastic letters that had appeared earlier—it placed the focus on the arguments rather than the specific writers. In addition, many later scholars have argued that the figure of Publius pulled the distinct ideas of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay into a coherent voice greater than the sum of its parts. The voice of Publius has become a focus of modern studies of The Federalist Papers, as critics disagree about just how coherent the collection of essays is. Albert Furtwangler suggests that Publius works successfully as a unifying speaker, making a strong spokesperson for the Federalist cause. Others, however, have found that the essays are composed of a multiplicity of voices, and not merely those of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. James Jasinski describes the many languages and rhetorical positions assumed by Publius as an example of the heteroglossia theorized by the literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, reflective of the many voices straining to be heard during the formation of the American nation.
Because the issues of The Federalist Papers address the foundation of the American political system, scholarship on them is also often political, sometimes even polemical. The debates surrounding the Constitution in the 1780s did not disappear when the work was ratified. Scholars on the right and left have accused the authors of The Federalist Papers of elitism. Christopher M. Duncan contends that “the Federalists sought to insert an aristocratic political order” that was contrary to the spirit of true republicanism. Critics including Duncan and John Burt find in The Federalist Papers a cynical, materialist view of human nature that has a negative effect on the form of government they propose. Others, however, have countered these charges. In his study of Publius, Furtwangler concludes that a close examination of The Federalist Papers does not sustain a cynical or elitist interpretation. Kathleen M. Sullivan more directly confronts those she calls the new Anti-Federalists, suggesting that more than two hundred years of Constitutional success have proven wrong the Anti-Federalist objections.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Carey, George W. Introduction to The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic, pp. xi-xxiii. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Carey provides an overview of The Federalist Papers, examining their inconsistencies and exploring modern critiques, interpretations, and misunderstandings of the text.]
The Federalist comprises eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay between October, 1787, and May, 1788, under the pseudonym “Publius” to help secure ratification of the proposed Constitution in New York state.1
But its status today as one of the three or four basic documents of our founding period—the others by common consent being the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—derives from considerations that far transcend the immediate purpose of its authors.2 Indeed, some have gone so far as to rank it among the great classics of political thought because of its realistic analysis of and approach to the perennial problems associated with popular self-government.3 What is beyond question, however, is its place in the American political tradition as the single most authoritative source for understanding the character of our constitutional system.
The reasons for its lofty status in our political tradition are multiple...
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Criticism: Influences And Origins
SOURCE: Mace, George. “The Federalist: From the Truth of Speculation to the Utility of Practice.” In Locke, Hobbes, and the Federalist Papers: An Essay on the Genesis of the American Political Heritage, pp. 98-122. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.
[In the following essay, Mace examines the influence of Locke and Hobbes on Publius's ideas in The Federalist Papers, noting that Publius improves upon their political theory by adding a way to ensure liberty and stability.]
“In a way beset with those that contend, on one side for too great Liberty, and on the other side for too much Authority, 'tis hard to passe between the points of both unwounded. …1 I recover some hope, that one time or other, this writing of mine, may fall into the hands of a Soveraign, who will consider it himselfe, (for it is short, and I think clear,) without the help of any interessed, or envious Interpreter; and by the exercise of entire Soveraignty, in protecting the Publique teaching of it, convert this Truth of Speculation, into the Utility of Practice.”2
The Federalist was first published as a series of papers in the New York City press. As Martin Diamond observed, they were addressed to three different audiences: the people of the state of New York, the delegates at the state ratifying conventions, and...
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SOURCE: Pangle, Thomas L. “The Federalist Papers' Vision of Civic Health and the Tradition Out of Which That Vision Emerges.” Western Political Quarterly 39, no. 4 (December 1986): 577-602.
[In the following essay, Pangle explores The Federalist Papers's use of and deviation from the classical tradition of Republicanism, suggesting that Publius developed a new definition of civic virtue. Citing influences such as Machiavelli, Hume, and Montesquieu, Pangle highlights the path of Publius in creating a new idea of civic health and of liberty itself.]
The bicentennial of the American Constitution invites us to reconsider not only the legal and constitutional theory that informed the framing, but also the more fundamental and difficult question of the kind of human being and the way of life the Founders saw the new regime as fostering. The inhabitants of the United States (and, increasingly, of the West in general) are willy-nilly molded, in decisive ways, by a specific political culture. To understand this culture that shapes us, to take a truly critical or free stance toward it, we need to gain as clear a view as possible of the intentions of those who designed the basic or original stratum. The original designers of a political system are of course not the sole shapers of a nation. They may not have fully understood even their own doings or the implications of what they achieved. Besides,...
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Criticism: Political Themes
SOURCE: Garrity, Patrick J. “Foreign Policy and The Federalist.” In Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding, edited by Charles R. Kesler, pp. 83-99. New York: The Free Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Garrity looks at the formation of early American foreign policy as revealed in The Federalist Papers.]
In the first volume of his memoirs, Henry Kissinger reflects upon those traditions of American foreign policy that stand in the way of a more realistic approach to the preservation of U.S. national interests. Because of our geographic remoteness and the shield provided by British sea power during the nineteenth century, Kissinger tells us, “Americans came to consider the isolation conferred by two great oceans as the normal pattern of foreign relations. Rather arrogantly we ascribed our security entirely to the superiority of our beliefs rather than to the weight of our power or the fortunate accidents of history and geography.” The United States' belated interventions in the two great Eurasian wars of this century are said by Kissinger to have come about more from passion and idealism than from a cool calculation of the imperatives of the balance of power. Even the post-1947 American policy of containing the Soviet Union suffers according to Kissinger's standards: “This [American] definition of containment treated power and diplomacy as two...
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SOURCE: Carey, George W. “Republicanism.” In The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic, pp. 3-27. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Carey discusses Publius's conception of republicanism, focusing on the problem of factions and Publius's “cure” for overcoming their potential evils.]
To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of [majority factions], and at the same time to preserve the spirit and form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
Any number of places in The Federalist could be used as a suitable point of departure for an analysis of Publius's conception of republicanism. The very first essay, aside from being a logical starting point, suits our purposes very well. Here we find listed among the subjects to be covered in the subsequent papers “The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government” (36). The word true in this context suggests that the proposed Constitution already has been measured against standards of republicanism that were not “true”; or that, at the very least, there were principles of republicanism abroad which were not valid. These suppositions are borne out in the first section of Federalist 39, wherein...
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SOURCE: Milligan, Edward. “Publius the Nationalist.” In One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea, pp. 209-29. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Milligan argues that the authors of The Federalist Papers—collectively and individually—are better thought of as nationalists than federalists, suggesting that they very clearly favored a strong centralized national government, but disputing the notion that they primarily defended the property rights of the wealthy.]
The exposition of the argument of Publius is now complete, and it is time to stand back from the canvas to take an overall look. The foregoing analysis has shown that The Federalist exhibits a clearly nationalist outlook and that the other prominent themes of the essays—federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the interest-group theory of No. 10—are less central to Publius's purpose. Without difficulty, we can ascertain from the text of this treatise, what we know anyway from other sources, that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay wished above all else to coordinate the resources of the American nation and in reality had no love for the federal features of the new Constitution.
The present study has identified four key propositions that can be considered to comprise the nationalist point of view. All are present in The Federalist,...
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SOURCE: Burt, John. “Tyranny and Faction in the Federalist Papers.” Raritan 13, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 56-84.
[In the following essay, Burt finds that the The Federalist Papers's solutions to the problems of tyranny and factions are a “species of hypocrisy,” based on mistaken assumptions.]
In his 1878 essay “Kin Beyond Sea,” Gladstone distinguishes between the English and American Constitutions, noting that “the one is a thing grown, the other is a thing made.” He was at least partly wrong, but he did capture the founders' exhilarating sense of making new discoveries in political theory prompted by their experiences as English colonists and as citizens of the Confederation, their sense, that is, of having to improvise new institutions on the basis of principles they had had to invent for themselves when the assumptions they brought to politics failed them in practice. Their experiences required them to analyze their political institutions in fresh terms, giving them, as Gordon Wood has pointed out, a new understanding of the relationship of the structure of a government to the structure of the society it is intended to govern. Their new understanding properly deserves to be called revolutionary even as one recognizes that that revolutionary understanding has been obscured—until the last few years perhaps—by the far different course of subsequent revolutions elsewhere....
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Criticism: Publius And The Narrative Voice
SOURCE: Furtwangler, Albert. “The Form of the Federalist.” In The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers, pp. 45-79. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Furtwangler discusses the figure of Publius as a coherent voice, distinct from the individual opinions or arguments of Madison, Hamilton, or Jay, and examines the theme of candor—a polite, deferential generosity—found throughout The Federalist Papers.]
PUBLIUS AND CANDOR
From these beginnings, a new figure emerged before the eyes of readers in 1787. A public figure who might seem to represent a single, thoughtful author, he was in fact an effective mask for these collaborative efforts, a fictitious, well-calculated spokesman for a new way of understanding constitutional government. To all but a handful of its readers, the Federalist was the work of “Publius.” And Publius identified himself with a distinctive way of reviewing and weighing all the constitutional arguments a reader was likely to encounter. This general outlook of Publius was, I believe, the most effective means the authors found to hold their series together.
In general Publius laid great stress on two points. One was a reasoned belief in the benefits of government on a large scale—the centralized, extensive government proposed in the Constitution. This idea had both...
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SOURCE: Abbott, Philip. “What's New in the Federalist Papers?” Political Research Quarterly 49, no. 3 (September 1996): 525-45.
[In the following essay, Abbott focuses on Publius as a storyteller, using narrative as a central means for advancing his argument in The Federalist Papers.]
The centrality of the Federalist Papers in American political thought is indisputable. Even the most severe critics of Publius grant its monumental importance as a “new explanation of politics, of whose beauty and summetry the Federalists themselves only gradually became aware” and as a “masterly statement” in support of a literal or at least ideological coup d'état (Beard 1913; Wood 1969). For others, the Federalist Papers is a sacred text, a text which captured the “thought and intention of those few men who fully grasped what the ‘assembly of demi-gods’ was doing” and which Americans return to recapture “a level of thoughtfulness about fundamental political alternatives” (Diamond 1983: 88). The uniqueness of the Federalist Papers is thus tethered to an act, the act of founding. The act certainly produced some important incoherences in interpretation (multiple authorship; inability to pursue lengthy philosophical argument; repetition; the frequent use of “quick kill” in argumentation) but it is foremost the source of its power and authority. For without a narrative...
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SOURCE: Jasinski, James. “Heteroglossia, Polyphony, and The Federalist Papers.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 27, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 23-46.
[In the following essay, Jasinski uses the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's notions of heteroglossia and polyphony to examine the rhetoric of The Federalist Papers.]
INTRODUCTION: THE CHALLENGES OF THE LINGUISTIC TURN
In the last few decades historians have devoted significant attention to the language used by political actors during the American revolution and founding. The ground-breaking work of Bailyn, Pocock, and Wood established the importance of language as a motivating force, conceptual filter, and constitutive process.1 The concept of ideology as a paradigm or organizing conceptual framework figured prominently in these early studies. Initially, the (re)discovery of situated language led to the recovery of a republican ideology at the core of the early American political imagination.2 The claims of republican historiography were, of course, contested by other historians who located alternative ideological frameworks such as “liberalism” or “protestant Calvinism” in the language of early American politics.3 More recent historical scholarship challenges “the assumption that there is but one language—one exclusive or even hegemonic paradigm—that characterizes the political...
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Criticism: Anti-Federalists, Then And Now
SOURCE: Dry, Murray. “Anti-Federalism in The Federalist: A Founding Dialogue on the Constitution, Republican Government, and Federalism.” In Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding, edited by Charles R. Kesler, pp. 40-60. New York: The Free Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Dry analyzes The Federalist Papers as a response to particular Anti-Federalist arguments. Quoting from the Anti-Federalist tracts “Letters of Brutus” and “Letters of the Federal Farmer,” Dry highlights passages in The Federalist Papers that respond to them directly, focusing on issues of the definition of federalism, and limitations on Congressional powers of taxation and war.]
The Federalist is usually studied standing alone, as the definitive account of the Constitution. After all, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the two major authors, were both members of the Federal Convention, and Madison is generally regarded as the “Father of the Constitution.” Moreover, The Federalist's full explanation of the Constitution's provisions, as well as its argument for a strong government, remain impressive and instructive today.
Both the form and the substance of the work, however, suggest that it can best be studied in conjunction with the Anti-Federalist opposition. Not only was most of The Federalist first published in the...
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SOURCE: Duncan, Christopher M. “The Faith of the Federalists.” In The Anti-Federalists and Early American Political Thought, pp. 99-122. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Duncan offers a highly critical view of The Federalist Papers, maintaining that its politics are underwritten with a cynical, Hobbesian view of human nature and a strong tendency toward elitism.]
… we were under a necessity of either returning to the house, and by our presence enabling them to call a convention before our constituents could have the means of information, or time to deliberate on the subject, or by absenting ourselves from the house, prevent the measure taking place. … Thus circumstanced and thus influenced, we determined the next morning, again to absent ourselves from the house, when James M'Calmount, esquire, a member from Franklin, and Jacob Miley, esquire, a member from Dauphin, were seized by a number of citizens of Philadelphia, who had collected together for that purpose, their lodgings were violently broken open, their clothes torn, and after much abuse and insult, they were forcibly dragged through the streets of Philadelphia to the State house, and there detained by force, and in the presence of the majority, who had the day before, voted for the first of the proposed resolutions, treated with the most insulting language; while the...
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SOURCE: Sullivan, Kathleen M. “The Contemporary Relevance of The Federalist.” In New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution, edited by Alan Brinkley, Nelson W. Polsby, and Kathleen M. Sullivan, pp. 7-14. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
[In the following essay, Sullivan defends the principles of The Federalist Papers from what she calls the new Anti-Federalists: proponents of states' rights and a weaker federal government. Sullivan acknowledges the differences in technology and society that affect some of Publius's basic assumptions about factions and centralized government, but nonetheless concludes that founders' advocation of Federalism remains the best method for addressing the problems of modern America.]
The framers of the Constitution empowered the federal government in the belief that it was the best check we have on the “propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities,” as James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10. Yet many contemporary critics of the federal government urge that federal powers be devolved to the states. With such a massive power transfer, welfare, health care, environmental, and other policies would be governed not in Washington but rather in fifty separate statehouses. Much attention has been focused on what effects this would have on particular programs. More should be focused on how it would dismantle the basic premises of...
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Allen, W. B., and Gordon Lloyd. “Interpretive Essay.” In The Essential Antifederalist, pp. viii-xiv. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Examines the importance of Anti-Federalist thought to American government, particularly the Bill of Rights.
Draper, Theodore. “Hume and Madison: The Secrets of Federalist Paper No. 10.” Encounter 58, no. 2 (Fall 1982): 34-47.
Explores the theory that Madison's ideas for the “extended republic” were influenced by Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.
Niegorski, Walter. “The Anti-Federalists: Collected and Interpreted.” The Review of Politics 46, no. 1 (January 1984): 113-25.
Reviews scholarship on the Anti-Federalists.
Quinn, Frederick. Introduction to The Federalist Papers Reader, pp. 3-33. Washington D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1993.
Outlines the history of the thought behind The Federalist Papers and details the significant propositions of the text.
Rombes, Nicholas. “Speculative Discourse: Uses of the Future in the Declaration, The Federalist Papers, Jefferson, and Paine.” In Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper, edited by A. Robert Lee and W. M. Verhoeven, pp. 77-92. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996....
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