The Federalist Papers Summary

Published between 1777 and 1788, The Federalist Papers are a collection of 85 essays intended to support the ratification of the United States Constitution. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamliton, James Madison, and John Jay under the collective pseudonym "Publius," though scholars have not been able to definitively assign authorship to each of the essays in the collection.

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2454

First published: serial, 1787-1788; book, 1788 (also known as The Federalist Papers)

Type of work: Political essays

Critical Evaluation:

Seventy-seven of the eighty-five essays which comprise The Federalist were printed serially in New York newspapers between October, 1787, and May, 1788; the remaining eight first appeared in the two-volume...

(The entire section contains 2454 words.)

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First published: serial, 1787-1788; book, 1788 (also known as The Federalist Papers)

Type of work: Political essays

Critical Evaluation:

Seventy-seven of the eighty-five essays which comprise The Federalist were printed serially in New York newspapers between October, 1787, and May, 1788; the remaining eight first appeared in the two-volume edition published in March and May of the latter year. In an attempt to preserve secrecy of authorship, all were signed with the masking signature of "Publius." Although historians are still in dispute over the writers of certain of the papers, the claim has been made that Hamilton wrote sixty; James Madison, fourteen; John Jay, five; and Hamilton and Madison together, six. Lengthy, repetitious, and partisan, they are nevertheless unrivaled as the classic exposition and defense of the principles on which the United States of America was founded.

In the first and concluding essays, Hamilton declared the constitution proposed by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 to be energetic, perfectly republican, conformable to the state constitutions, and able to guarantee property and liberty. He urged the electorate to shun demagogues who disparaged its proponents as the "wealthy, well-born, and the great," to rise above "obstinate adherence to party," and to fulfill America's destiny as perceived by the framers. Madison joined him in rejecting objections that the new constitution contained no bill of rights or limitation on the reeligibility of presidents. They urged its ratification and subsequent amendment as freer or less crippling compromises than attempts at revision before submitting it to the states. Madison exhorted Americans to fulfill their limitless personal and national personalities, to "improve and perpetuate" the "one, great, and flourishing empire" won by the revolutionary patriots, to compromise a "decent regard for former times" with a rejection of "blind veneration for antiquity," and to be "manly" enough to test innovation and set a "new and noble course." Hamilton admitted that the new constitution was not perfect, but he hailed it as "the best that the present views and circumstances of the country will permit."

Hamilton and Madison cited as authority for the proposed constitution the Continental Congress' summons of the convention to establish "a firm national government" on the one hand, "for the sole and express purpose of revising the articles of Confederation" on another, but above all to achieve a constitution "adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union." Madison insisted that the new document merely expanded on the principles of the articles to invigorate at this "critical" juncture the existing union with "powers commensurate with its objects." He averred that the new method of ratification was more practicable and that the old Congress and the states should not charge with unconstitutionality the convention which they had unconstitutionally summoned. The proposed constitution should be ratified, he said, if only because "it would accomplish the views and happiness of the people," consistent with the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that they could "abolish or alter" governments to effect their safety and happiness. Limiting this right to changing governments by "some solemn and authoritative act," not by transitory whims of the populace or of legislative "cabals," Hamilton denied "that a party to a compact has a right to revoke that compact" by legislative or popular acts. He would, however, exchange the old confederation's shallow foundation of authority delegated by the state legislatures for the constitution's firmer basis of "CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE."

Madison scorned "theoretic" politicians who believed that "reducing mankind to perfect equality in their political rights" would equalize and assimilate their possessions, opinions, and passions. Pronouncing a democracy appropriate to small areas capable of direct government by all citizens, he endorsed a united federal republic, governed through popular representatives, as appropriate to the country and its future growth. He declared this government one of mixed national and federal characteristics because both central and state governments were derived "directly or indirectly from the great body of people" and because the voters' ratification of the new constitution would not be an act by citizens of a consolidated nation, but of independent states. Although the central government would be national in its operation upon citizens as individuals, its extent would be federal in its limitation to "certain enumerated objects." Both Madison and Hamilton envisaged a union more federal than national, in which each state would play a large corporate role in federal elections.

Although Hamilton agreed that the new government would deal with "enumerated and legitimate objects," he emphasized that its laws would be "the SUPREME LAW of the land." As state officials would be bound to its observance by oath, they would become "incorporated" into its operation and "auxiliary to the enforcement of its laws." He discouraged "fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed," lest one departure from the "sacred" fundamental law breed precedent for constant infraction. Both he and Madison believed a military establishment necessary to national power and harmless to the states and people because of its dependence on state militia and biennial congressional appropriations. Hamilton frankly urged the use of federal force to suppress insurrections stirred up by demagogues and "desperate debtors" who, like Shays in Massachusetts, might "provoke . . . the people to wild excesses."

Madison foresaw federal improvement of communication by roads and canals, but he denied that the "general welfare" clause added to the government's "few and defined" powers enumerated in the constitution. However, he and Hamilton agreed that the "necessary and proper" clause bred constructive and implied powers useful in achieving the "particular powers" and the overall goal of an efficacious government, saying: "No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that whenever the end is required, the means are authorized."

Although agreeing that constitutional laws of the union were the "supreme law of the land," they believed that neither that provision nor complicated and indirect legislative devices could usurp popular liberty, supplant state power, or cloak encroachment on the coordinate departments, because all government action was ultimately limited by popular acceptance and because the new distribution of powers between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches was so well balanced.

Hamilton and Madison agreed that the new government should be furnished with sure financial sources to accomplish its goal of a more energetic government, whose power to tax was actually less potentially onerous than that of the old one, which had "complete power to REQUIRE of the States indefinite supplies of money for the common defence and general welfare." Hamilton exceeded Madison in advocating an "unqualified" power of taxation, in dismissing distinctions among external, internal, direct, and indirect taxes, and in demanding a power to tax "at least equal" to the union's resources and sufficient to establishing its credit in any contingency; and he candidly disagreed with Madison's contention that federal taxes would fall mainly on foreign trade. He assured those fearful of federal usurpation of taxation that "the prudence and firmness of the people" would safeguard "the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the State governments." Believing that the states' ultimate activity and need for revenue would become "very narrow" after the liquidation of revolutionary debts, he willingly conceded them "independent and uncontrollable authority to raise their own revenues," provided the central government had a monopoly on external taxation and concurrent jurisdiction in internal taxes. He promised that the central government would not attempt to abridge the states' tax resources, but would restrain itself to powers "exclusively delegated" to it or forbidden to the states.

Hamilton's preference for a more centralized government and a limited electorate made him see indirect election of presidents and senators for rather long terms of office, the limited presidential veto, the life tenure of judges subject to good behavior, and the freedom of the states to set voting qualifications as valuable safeguards against egalitarianism. Although admitting that judicial review was not "directly" authorized by the constitution, he praised this process of measuring legislation against that document as consistent with colonial practice, the framers' intent, and common sense. He considered it to be the best means "to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws," without which they would be dead letter, and to be an "excellent barrier" against legislative tyranny. He declared such an independent but coordinate judiciary could never endanger liberty or the rights of states because of its interdependence on the executive and legislative branches, which were subject to election by the people and by states. Only such a court, he said, never realized by the Confederation, could secure the constitutional guarantees against ex post facto laws and bills of attainder. Life tenure subject to good behavior for judges was justified, he averred, by the scarcity of men of "sufficient skill" and "requisite integrity."

He considered the federal courts essential to the maintenance of the "majesty of the national authority," brooking neither "NON-COMPLIANCE" nor "DIRECT and ACTIVE RESISTANCE" by individuals or states to the laws of the central government, which operated directly upon the citizens themselves, and from compliance with which states could relieve their citizens, not by "omission or evasion," but only by encroaching upon the union.

Although Madison recognized men's economic motivation, Hamilton made blatant appeal to their materialistic aspirations in which he saw those of farmers and merchants "blended and interwoven." He promised that the new government would multiply the national wealth by providing uniform and sound currency, uniform taxes (mainly on foreign goods, disregarding his own inconsistency), economy in government, and avoidance of excise or sumptuary taxes.

Hamilton and Madison agreed that no one or the "whole mass" of the powers of the new government was unnecessary, improper, or too dangerous to the states. They held that the states would have a constant advantage over the central government through their corporate role in elections, control of militia, and larger bureaucracy. Madison declared that the central government would be "more obsequious than overbearing" toward the states, and that this circumstance accorded with their closer proximity to the people and greater ability to achieve the "supreme object" of securing the "solid happiness" of the people. He and Hamilton agreed that in federal-state controversies the "predilection and probable support" of the people would go to the states.

In such controversies, Madison held that the "ultimate authority" for both union and states was the "great body of citizens." If some "madness" drove the federal government to an "unwarrantable" act, he believed that popular "disquietude" and "refusal to cooperate with the officers of the Union" would be accompanied by "obstructions" thrown up by state officials, neither of which the federal government would long risk. Madison declared the constitutional provision for settling such controversies before the Supreme Court to be the essential alternative to civil war or disunion and to be consistent with the federal nature of the new government.

It was Madison who dubbed opponents of the proposed constitution "Federalists." Unlike Hamilton, he did not fear "faction," which he defined as a number of citizens united to action by common passions or interests "adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community." Fearing faction less than its eradication either by loss of liberty or imposition of conformity, he insisted that political diversity would best maintain a government protective of men's diverse and disparate faculties. But he alleged that governmental regulation of conflicting economic and political interests was necessary to achieve approximate justice through the rule of the majority in order to avoid either anarchy or tyranny.

Claiming that essential agreement among the framers had caused them to bury reservations and to sign the proposed constitution, all three authors urged quick ratification of that document as originally submitted, avoiding "delays of new experiments" and disregarding the inconsistent and disunited critics of the federal constitution. Only such a federal union, they agreed, would be energetic enough to maintain any union; only it could achieve for Americans prosperity at home, respect abroad, security against foreign pressures, settlement of international disputes, regulation of foreign trade, and avoidance of unjust wars.

Additional Reading

  • Adair, Douglass. Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998. An important series of essays, worthy of a thorough reading.
  • Blackmun, Harry A. "John Jay and The Federalist Papers." Pace Law Review (Spring, 1988): 237-248. Blackmun presented this speech at the Peter Jay family home on the occasion of the bicentennial of The Federalist. He discussed John Jay's contributions to The Federalist and the flaws in the 1787 Constitution's treatment of African Americans, American Indians, and women.
  • Carey, George W. "The Federalist": Design for a Constitutional Republic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. An examination of The Federalist.
  • Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of The Federalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Epstein holds that the authors of The Federalist envisioned a new government that could accommodate both its most and its least pretentious citizens as well as make use of factions. Epstein devotes a chapter to essay 10, in which James Madison treated factions and also shows how the partisanship of the people, spirited election contests, and the exclusion of citizens in the aggregate help create a workable framework for republican government.
  • Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of "The Federalist Papers." Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. Furtwangler's work provides a more critical and less reverential approach to the analysis of The Federalist. The author sees The Federalist as a piece of high-quality journalism that should be studied not with uncritical reverence but with an examination of the contradictions between different essays.
  • Millican, Edward. One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Millican's text stresses nationalism as the key factor motivating the authors of The Federalist. He connects Alexander Hamilton's support of a strong, centralized government with the views of Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal liberals. Millican contends that both the political left and the political right fell short of Publius's sound brand of nationalism in the 1980's.
  • White, Morton. Philosophy, "The Federalist," and the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. White analyzes the philosophical assumptions that guided Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in their writings as Publius. White finds that Publius was both a pragmatist and an ideologist who was sometimes troubled by conflicting beliefs such as the need to retain slavery in order to preserve the Union in the context of the realities of 1787. In conclusion, White holds that The Federalist was a philosophical hybrid of "Lockean rationalism" in morals and "Humeian empiricism" in politics.
  • Wills, Garry. Explaining America: "The Federalist." Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Wills, a convert from National Review conservatism to moderate liberalism, offers a unique perspective on the ideology of The Federalist. He illustrates Scottish philosopher David Hume's influence on Hamilton and Madison as authors of The Federalist.
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