(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.