The Federalist (1787-88)
Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), James Madison (1751-1836), John Jay (1745-1829)
Six years after the Articles of Confederation were adopted as the American bylaws in 1781, representatives met in Philadelphia to decide whether to keep and amend the Articles or to create a newer, stronger document that would establish a newer, stronger American government. In September 1787, the product of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia—the yet-to-be ratified Constitution of the United States—sparked controversy throughout the American public. Those in favor of ratifying the document that would consolidate American government were deemed “Federalists.” However, “Anti-Federalist” sentiments emerged by late September, advocating that the nation remain a confederation of states, fearing the loss of states’ rights to a centralized federal government.
In no state was the debate more heated than in New York where ratification was far from guaranteed, and no Anti-Federalist voice was more vocal than New York governor George Clinton. As a response to Clinton’s vicious attacks on the Constitution, New Yorker and future secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton initiated The Federalist.
The Federalist, now also commonly called The Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays that ran in major New York newspapers from October 1787 to April 1788, sought to persuade states to ratify the Constitution. To combat the Anti-Federalist essays appearing under the Roman pseudonyms Cato and Brutus, Hamilton published under the pseudonym Publius, a nod to Publius Valerius Publicola, who successfully stabilized and protected Rome’s democracy.
To stay up-to-date in rigorously paced debates through weekly publication (sometimes several of Publius’s essays would appear in a week), Hamilton enlisted the help of fellow New Yorker and future first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court John Jay as well as the Virginian and future fourth president of the United States James Madison. Although the collaborators managed to remain anonymous for the duration that the series ran, the authors were eventually revealed. Hamilton wrote the bulk of the essays, a total of fifty-one: numbers 1, 6-9, 11-13, 15-17, 21-36, 59-61, and 65-85. Hamilton’s essays addressed the inherent problems and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. He also primarily outlined the Executive and Judicial branches of government as well as some material on the Senate of the Legislative branch. James Madison penned twenty-nine essays of the series: Numbers 10, 14, 18-20, 37-58, and 62-63. Returning to Virginia, Madison was unable to contribute after No. 63. His essays primarily focused on philosophical and theoretical principles of federalism, republicanism, and the separation of powers. His essays also outlined the Legislative branch of government. John Jay, who negotiated the Revolution-ending Treaty of Paris alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, was taken ill early in the run of the series, thus contributing only five essays, each addressing foreign policy: Numbers 2-5, and 64.
While Hamilton and Madison are an unlikely pairing, in later years drastically diverging in political ideologies and becoming political rivals, Publius manages to speak in a seemingly “unified” voice. In fact, Hamilton and Madison so effectively performed Publius’s voice that there was uncertainty in the past regarding whether Hamilton or Madison wrote Numbers 55-58 and 62-63, now accredited to Madison.
Upon the completed run of The Federalist, Hamilton had the essays collectively published in two volumes in March and May of 1788. Concerning the overall structure of the contents, Volume I focuses on the “Union” and the importance of maintaining a unified, centralized government to hold the states together as a single republic. Volume II highlights the “merits” of the Constitution and promotes prioritizing the common good of the people over individual interests through moderation. As Charles R. Kesler insightfully explains in his 1999 introduction to The Federalist Papers: “Rather than teaching men to heed their passions so that they may gratify their fundamental passion for self-preservation…Publius chooses to speak in moderate tones to moderate men. He encourages his readers to listen to moderation’s counsel and, bit by bit, to yield to it” (xix).
For students interested in studying The Federalist according to subject matter, Kesler includes the following outline of the collected contents in his introduction:
I. The Union
Nos. 1-14: Introduction and “the utility of the UNION to your political prosperity”
Nos. 15-22: “The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union”
Nos. 23-26: “The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed to the attainment of this object”
II. The Merits of this Constitution or “The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government”
Nos. 37-40: The delicate work of the Convention and the “general form” of the proposed government (i.e., its republicanism and federalism)
Nos. 41-46: The “quantity or “general mass of power” invested in the new government and whether this is dangerous to the States
Nos. 47-84: The “particular structure” of the government and the “distribution” of its mass of power
Nos. 47-51: The separation of powers in general
Nos. 52-58: The House of Representatives
Nos. 59-61: The regulation of elections
Nos. 62-66: The Senate
Nos. 67-77: The Executive
Nos. 78-83: The Judiciary
No. 84: Miscellaneous objections, including the lack of a Bill of Rights
No. 85: Conclusion, including the Constitution’s “analogy to your own State constitution” and “The additional security which its adoption will afford
to the preservation of that [republican] species of government, to liberty, and to property.
Ultimately, Publius successfully mediated between how the creators of the Constitution and the American public understood the document, and the Constitution of the United States was ratified in June 1788. Thomas Jefferson, initially opposed to the Constitution until receiving assurance from Madison that it would include a Bill of Rights, described The Federalist as “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written” (qtd. in Kesler ix). The nature of “candor,” or unbiased thinking, throughout The Federalist continues to serve as a symbolic model for debate in the true American democratic spirit.
Kesler, Charles R. Introduction. The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, New American Library, 2003, pp. vii-xxxv.