Alexander Hamilton, an influential New York lawyer and convention delegate, conceived The Federalist as a series of newspaper essays to defend the work of the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787. He recruited James Madison, a notable Virginia delegate to the Convention, and John Jay, a respected diplomat and former New York jurist, as coauthors. All three men believed that New York’s ratification of the Constitution was crucial in setting up an effective central government, and The Federalist was designed first to influence events in New York and then to make a nationwide impression. The impact of The Federalist helped make New York the eleventh state to ratify the new Constitution on July 26, 1788.
The first essay, written by Hamilton and outlining the projected plans for a series of articles defending the Constitution, appeared on October 27, 1787. The series concluded with the eighty-fifth essay, which was published on August 16, 1788. The first thirty-six essays were collected in March, 1788, and a volume containing essays thirty-seven to eighty-five appeared later that year. All three authors used the pseudonym Publius. The ratification of the Constitution was not seen as a foregone conclusion in 1787-1788 because many respected Americans became anti-Federalists out of fear of an overly strong federal government, and The Federalist was an effective propaganda piece that helped sway public opinion during a crucial period.
Despite multiple authorship, The Federalist retained an impressive degree of internal unity. More than two hundred years later, The Federalist is still considered one of the United States’ best contributions to world political philosophy, and conservative contemporary lawyers tend to cite it to defend their constitutional interpretations.
In the first essay, Hamilton described the scope of The Federalist. He stated that later essays would examine the usefulness of the Union, the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation to preserve the Union, and the necessity of an “energetic,” or strong, central government. The work would also attempt to prove that the proposed federal Constitution did not violate republican ideals and was analogous to existing state constitutions and that the adoption of the Constitution would preserve liberty, property, and existing forms of government. Most contemporary and later observers have agreed that The Federalist was a credible attempt to achieve these goals by men learned in history, law, political theory, and philosophy as these disciplines were understood in late eighteenth century terms by British Americans nurtured on the traditions of classical antiquity. The authors were pragmatic optimists who were well aware of human failings but optimistic that the American people could create a government worthy of emulation by others.
In the second essay, Jay set out to prove the value of the newly independent states remaining united, which had not been questioned until just before the writing of The Federalist. He argued that Americans logically constituted one people by ancestry, religion, manners, and customs as well as the possession of common governmental principles, and Americans had worked together to secure their independence in the recent Revolutionary War against Great Britain. He also stressed that the American people had recognized the importance of remaining united in the most difficult periods of the Revolutionary War conflict. In addition, Jay declared that the dissolution of the Union would end America’s greatness.
Having established or attempted to establish the value of the Union, The Federalist turned to the flaws of the Articles of Confederation for the effective conduct of foreign policy. In the third essay, Jay used his foreign policy expertise to show that weak states were not treated with respect by other countries. Jay gave the historical example of French king Louis XIV’s...
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humiliation of Genoan representatives in 1685 at a time when he would not have dared to inflict similar humiliation on representatives from England or Spain. In addition, Jay declared that moderation and reason were more likely to prevail in the national government, which could attract higher caliber individuals to positions of authority. Thus, Jay held that a strong central government would be less likely to go to war than the weaker state governments, and that the national government could conduct necessary wars more effectively than state governments.
In essay 6, Hamilton provided an even stronger defense of a strong Union. Where Jay had concentrated on foreign policy, the more domestically oriented Hamilton warned that the absence of a strong Union was bound to produce dangerous internal conflicts between states. Additionally, in essay 7, Hamilton argued that an America lacking unity would be more likely than an America with a strong federal union to get involved in European politics and wars.
Because the authors of The Federalist saw the Articles of Confederation government as too weak to deal effectively with foreign powers and to maintain the public credit, they sought an “energetic” national government with strong powers to deal with foreign nations and manage the economy as well as a judiciary to secure sound administration of the laws on the federal level. In essay 22, Hamilton stressed that a viable national government needed the power to regulate commerce, raise armed forces, and allow the larger and more populous states to have more input in national decisions than smaller states such as Rhode Island.
In addition to an “energetic” government, the authors of The Federalist sought a government that embodied the republican ideals of the Revolution in a workable and potentially lasting governmental structure. Madison, who elaborated on his fear of factions in essay 10, stressed that republicanism as embodied in the proposed Constitution provided a remedy for the instability that had historically hobbled democratic governments. He believed that the people would be better governed by their representatives than by attempting to govern themselves directly, and that a republic could provide good government to a larger territory and a greater number of citizens than a democracy could accommodate. At the conclusion of essay 10, Madison stated his views:In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans ought to be our zeal in cherishing and supporting the charter of federalists.
Because they wished to preserve the republican ideals of their generation, the authors of The Federalist thoroughly familiarized themselves with both the strengths and the weaknesses of existing state constitutions. Throughout these essays, the authors referred to state constitutions in order to justify features of the proposed constitution. For example, in essay 81, Hamilton justified separating judicial and legislative powers by reference to the constitutions of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. British tradition did not separate judicial and legislative powers, but these constitutions provided significant validation to the independent judiciary envisioned in the proposed Constitution.
Showing that the proposed federal constitution was comparable to existing state constitutions helped the authors of The Federalist buttress their contention that the proposed federal Constitution would preserve important concepts such as the sacred nature of citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property. In essay 84, Hamilton confronted fears that the adoption of the Constitution would help erode the jury trial rights long cherished by the English and their American descendants. Hamilton noted that the Constitution established the right to trial by jury in criminal cases, and he compared this guarantee to the state constitution of Connecticut, which did not establish the right to trial by jury in either criminal or civil cases.
In addition to treating the topics listed by Hamilton in the initial essay of The Federalist, the coauthors discussed other topics such as the separation of powers at considerable length. Because they shared the view of most of their contemporaries that the concentration of powers led to abuses and admired the work of the French philosopher Montesquieu, the collaborators dwelt at some length on the checks and balances that the Constitution provided to limit overreaching by the executive, judicial, and legislative departments.
Having removed themselves from the reach of King George III, the framers of the Constitution did not want to have a de facto kingship in the form of a strong executive. Thus they gave the president veto power over legislative acts, but they did not make that veto power absolute, allowing a determined legislative branch to override a presidential veto.
In essays 67-77, Hamilton treated presidential powers at length. Hamilton, who was often said to have monarchist leanings, wanted to strengthen the executive branch of the federal government in order to prevent legislative encroachment on the necessary prerogatives of the presidency. For this reason, as he explained in essay 70, Hamilton considered a plural executive unworkable. In essay 75, Hamilton defended his view that the House of Representatives was too numerous a body to make treaties with foreign powers and that the president should negotiate treaties to be ratified later by the Senate. Summarizing his view of the presidency in essay 77, Hamilton contended that the need to stand for reelection every four years and the legislature’s power to impeach placed reasonable limits on presidential abuse of power.
In addition to defending the necessity of a strong presidential office, The Federalist argued for a strong and independent judiciary to place effective restraints on the actions of the executive and legislative branches. In essays 78-83, Hamilton employed his experience as an attorney and political figure to justify the need for a strong and independent judiciary. For Hamilton, the judiciary was by nature the weakest branch of government, and it performed the invaluable function of limiting the impact of popular passions on governmental decision making because the judges could act without fear of losing their positions. He believed that the Constitution should be more important than future legislative statutes, and in essay 78, he provided a compelling defense of the need for judicial review.
Before discussing the proposed functions of the executive and judicial branches of the proposed federal government, The Federalist discussed the organization and powers of the envisioned two-chamber legislative branch at length with special emphasis on the powers of the Senate. The writers viewed the legislature as potentially the most powerful branch of the new federal government, and they wanted to assure readers that the creation of a Senate and a House of Representatives to share legislative duties provided for a legislature that reflected popular views while allowing citizens at least some time to think through issues before making potentially irreversible decisions. Turning from domestic to foreign policy, in essay 64, Jay used his background as a seasoned diplomat to defend the Senate’s participation in the treaty-making process along with the president of the United States.
In the short term, The Federalist helped convince New York to become the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution. These collected essays were also read by pro-Constitution Federalists throughout the country, and the worried anti-Federalists resisting the ratification of the Constitution did not produce an equivalent document.
In the long term, The Federalist continues to influence American concepts of government and law more than two centuries later. The authors were not perfect prophets; the anti-Federalists were not impressed with Hamilton’s contention in essay 84 that a bill of rights was not needed, and the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1790. In 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment, which limited the president’s eligibility for reelection, was adopted because after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prolonged tenure, the case Hamilton made for the indefinite eligibility of the president for reelection no longer seemed valid. Although the authors of The Federalist failed to predict all future needs, they believed that most of their work would endure while recognizing that future generations would need to alter the form of government they established.
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.