The Federalist Papers Essay - Critical Essays

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 and interrelated. Clearly the prestige of its authors, their prominence during the founding era, and especially the fact that one of them, James Madison, has come to be regarded as the father of the Constitution, have lent both respectability and authenticity to this work. Quite apart from the stature of its authors, however, its prominent position among our founding documents would still be secure. It is, to begin with, the most systematic and comprehensive treatment of this era that we have concerning the proposed Constitution. To be sure, it is an avowedly sympathetic treatment, one that puts the best possible light on the Framers' handiwork. But for this reason it is all the more invaluable. Precisely because Publius is obliged to acknowledge and refute the principal objections posed by the critics of the new system, he must go well beyond simply explaining the provisions of the proposed Constitution and their interrelationship. He is also obliged to delve into the whys and wherefores of its main features; to articulate and defend in the strongest terms possible the principles upon which they rest. What is more, in this enterprise he cannot avoid presenting us with a hierarchy of values and sense of priorities relative to its goals and operations which are not readily comprehended, if at all, from reading the Constitution with an innocent eye.

The Federalist, we may go so far as to say, provides us with what can appropriately be termed a “constitutional morality” which, of course, represents another reason for its centrality in our political tradition. That is, concomitant with its effort to render the proposed Constitution a coherent whole, it urges upon the rulers and ruled alike standards of behavior conducive to maintaining and perpetuating this coherence—e.g., the public's tranquility ought not be disturbed and its confidence in the regime undermined by unnecessarily submitting constitutional questions to it for resolution; the people should not tolerate representatives who exempt themselves from the operations of the laws they pass; the courts should exercise “judgment,” not “will,” which is the prerogative of the legislature. Sometimes this morality is presented more obliquely in the form of assumptions or presumptions central to key aspects of Publius's argument—e.g., that given the opportunity, the people's votes will center on “fit” characters; that sympathetic bonds between representatives and their constituents will serve to deter the representatives from betraying the public trust.

Because it does provide us with a constitutional morality, we have come to look upon The Federalist, with exceptions here or there, as revealing the intentions and motives of the Founding Fathers. It is not uncommon to find justices of the Supreme Court appealing to its authority in disputes over constitutional questions ranging from the prerogatives and responsibilities of the respective departments of government to the proper relationship between national and state authorities.4 Such is clearly the case, too, among students of the American political tradition, who have, since the turn of the twentieth century, increasingly come to look upon it as the most authoritative source for understanding the theory and “spirit” behind our constitutional order—a theory and spirit which many, if not most, would contend still prevails in the operations of the system.


While there is no gainsaying the central role of The Federalist for an understanding of the American political tradition, serious differences do arise over the character and substance of its teachings—differences so basic and substantial as to raise the question of whether we can ever understand our political tradition, much less the nature of the regime that the Founders sought to establish. This concern may be put as follows: In recent decades, The Federalist has come to be viewed by students of the American political tradition as embracing mutually inconsistent positions and values. These inconsistencies, it is further contended, not only reveal a good deal about Publius's real motives and ends, but those of the Founding Fathers as well. From their perspective, more concretely, The Federalist represents an ambitious but futile effort to wrap the mantle of republicanism around a regime designed to protect minorities of various descriptions of wealth and status from the leveling demands of popular majorities.5

In their earliest and crudest form, the essential outlines of the picture most frequently drawn by these critics ran roughly as follows: contrary to what he writes at various places in The Federalist, Publius shared the Framers' conviction that the democratic and egalitarian impulses fed by the rhetoric of the Declaration and unleashed by the Revolution had to be restrained.6 His positions reveal that he shared the Founders' distrust of the people and their low estimate of man's inherent nature. So much, it is contended, is evident from his defense of the separation of powers, which would allow the Senate and president, both elected through processes designed to insure their allegiance to the privileged classes, to block the democratic impulses of the House of Representatives. What is more, so this line of attack runs, if these institutions should fail, or if, perchance, they were to join the House in common cause, the Supreme Court, whose members are selected through a process that virtually insures a “conservative” outlook and loyalty to entrenched interests, with its power of judicial review would pose the final and impassable barricade to truly popular government.

The more modern and sophisticated versions of this theme take the form of arguing that Publius, more clearly than even the Framers, could see that the government of an extended union such as that envisioned under the proposed system would be relatively inert and largely immune to majority pressures. At the very least, the extensiveness of the union, coupled with the multiplicity and variety of interests it embraces, would render the formation of ruling majority coalitions very difficult. Moreover, even if such coalitions were to form, the separation of powers would afford opposing interests or coalitions ample opportunity to block the will of the majority. By this account, then, Publius's legacy is a system which, to a great extent, incorporates Calhoun's “concurrent majority” or “concurrent consent” principle,7 wherein, on any given measure, powerful groups can exercise a veto over laws affecting their interests or, short of this, can secure important modifications and changes in such laws to make them more palatable. As a consequence, so this critique runs, our national government is not only most attentive to the better organized and more affluent interests (which belies its presumably republican character), it is also frequently paralyzed by these interests. This paralysis, in turn, renders it incapable of comprehensively meeting and dealing with the long-term and deep-seated social and economic problems confronting the nation8—a deplorable and dangerous state of affairs exacerbated by the federal character of the system which further disperses authority and power.9

This, in brief, constitutes the essentials of the modern liberal critique of The Federalist, which, since the turn of the twentieth century, has gained currency in academic circles. But, astonishingly enough, many conservative commentators have come to accept Publius's legacy in similar terms, albeit with one highly significant difference: they look upon these presumed undemocratic features with an approving eye.10The Federalist, in their view, articulates the Framers' belief in the sanctity of the rights of private property, rights which constitute the foundation for securing and perpetuating a truly free society. They see the separation of powers as designed to curb the democratic excesses, particularly the insatiable demand for greater equality, which would adversely affect these rights. Thus, in their view, one of the chief functions of the Senate and the president is to temporize or thwart these destructive and egalitarian impulses that might find expression in the popularly elected House. But if these institutions should prove unequal to the task, the conservatives conceive the Supreme Court as specially designed or constructed to thwart infringements on inviolable property rights.11

Nor, unlike their liberal counterparts, are modern conservatives particularly concerned about the dispersion of authority inherent in the constitutional design. On the whole they consider federalism a vital principle, not only for preventing a dangerous concentration of powers in the hands of the national government, but also for reinforcing and perpetuating the traditions of self-government by allowing for meaningful grass roots political participation at the state and local levels. Consequently, of special concern to conservatives in recent decades has been the nationalization of the Bill of Rights by the Supreme Court—a process wherein, they hold, the Court has abandoned its intended role as an impartial arbiter between the state and national governments by intruding upon the sovereign prerogatives of the states.

Leaving to one side the normative dimensions of the conservative-liberal perspectives and their views concerning the changes that have occurred, we see that both share very similar views relative to the nature of the Constitution and its intended functions. Moreover, as we have said, in no small measure their views are derived from their readings of The Federalist. Yet what cannot help but strike even a casual reader of The Federalist is that it conveys an almost entirely different picture of the character of the Constitution and its place in our tradition. For instance, the clear message of the appeal in the last paragraph of Federalist 14 is that the movement toward the new system represents a progression quite in keeping with the spirit and principles of the Revolution, as well as with the political developments that followed in its wake. “They [the American people] accomplished a revolution, which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate” (104-5).12 And, in this regard, as Publius makes clear at various junctures in The Federalist, the proposed system is designed to correct the potentially fatal defects of the Articles. From his perspective, at least, the proposed Constitution is an effort to improve and perpetuate the union that grew out of the Revolution.

Indeed, the very first paragraph of The Federalist poses the question of whether the abiding principles of the Declaration of Independence can be realized in practice. That is, in raising the concern of whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” (33), Publius is also asking, in effect, whether the people are really capable of exercising in practice that fundamental right proclaimed in the Declaration, namely, “to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Moreover, like the Declaration, Publius's enterprise is predicated on the proposition that there is an obligation to show the reasons and need for change: that fundamental changes in the constitutional order are not to be undertaken for “light and transient causes.” In other words, there is no incompatibility between Publius's overriding purpose and the basic values of the Declaration. On the contrary, his goal and mode of procedure are precisely those we should expect from one who has accepted the fundamental principles of the Declaration.

But it is not only with regard to the relationship of the Constitution to the Declaration that we find a discrepancy between what Publius writes and the conservative-liberal interpretation. Publius, as we shall see, has no doubts that the deliberate sense of the community will prevail under the forms of the proposed Constitution (e.g., 63:384). While he is concerned about rule by unjust majorities (majority factions), he sees the futility of providing against “this evil … by creating a will in the community independent of the majority” (51:323). The solution to this problem provided by the proposed system he regards as faithful to “the spirit and the form of popular government” (10:80). In fact, he boldly asserts that “a republican remedy for the diseases [majority factions] most incident to republican government” is to be found “in the extent and proper structure of the Union” (10:84).

Equally important, he seems to pride himself on the fact that the proposed system is an “unmixed” republic, i.e., one whose foundations are “wholly popular” (14:100-101). There are, he writes, “no qualifications of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession” for elective office under the proposed system. The path to elective office, as he puts it, is open to “every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country.” Likewise, the electorate for members of the House, as he sees it, is to be “the great body of the people of the United States” comprised of those who are eligible to vote for members of the lower chambers in the states—“not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune” (57:351).

Nor is it fair to say that Publius rationalizes a system built upon the Calhounian “concurrent majority” principle. On the contrary, he is critical of the rules governing the voting in the Congress of the Articles for reasons that go beyond the equal suffrage of the states—a provision which, we cannot help but note in passing, he regarded as contrary to “that fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.” What seemed to bother him more, however, was the requirement of an extra-majority—two-thirds of the states—for passing laws, a requirement which, due to the “non-attendance of a few States,” he remarks, has “frequently” put the Congress “in the situation of a Polish diet, where a single veto has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements.” And his comments that follow in this context are most revealing in...

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Criticism: Influences And Origins

George Mace (essay date 1979)

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...

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Thomas L. Pangle (essay date 1986)

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...

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Criticism: Political Themes

Patrick J. Garrity (essay date 1987)

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...

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George W. Carey (essay date 1989)

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...

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Edward Milligan (essay date 1990)

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...

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John Burt (essay date 1993)

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...

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Criticism: Publius And The Narrative Voice

Albert Furtwangler (essay date 1984)

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.]


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...

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Philip Abbott (essay date 1996)

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...

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James Jasinski (essay date 1997)

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.]


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...

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Criticism: Anti-Federalists, Then And Now

Murray Dry (essay date 1987)

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...

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Christopher M. Duncan (essay date 1995)

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...

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Kathleen M. Sullivan (essay date 1997)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 253 words.)