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The Federalist Papers

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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...

(The entire section contains 861 words.)

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