What are the Federalist Papers?

The beginning of the United States is littered with influential documents that have stood for centuries. One of the most important among them are the Federalist Papers. Just what are the Federalist Papers and what was their purpose?

Following the American Revolution the new American nation set forth under a new government. This government was created by the Articles of Confederation that had been ratified by all 13 states during the revolution.

It quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation drastically limited the power of the federal government. The federal government could not raise an army or navy, raise taxes, nor regulate interstate or foreign trade.

In all these cases, the federal government had to rely on the states, an arrangement that left the United States weak. There was no better example of this than the inability of the United States to pressure the British to vacate their forts on the frontier as promised in the 1783 Treaty of Paris (it was not until Jay’s Treaty of 1794 that the British finally left).

In addition, Shays’ Rebellion also highlighted the weakness of the Articles, when the federal government was powerless to put down an uprising of rural Massachusetts citizens.

This crisis led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 where the new Constitution of the United States was proposed. Before it could go into effect, nine of the thirteen states needed to ratify the document.

This was not to be an easy task. Many states had reservations over the new Constitution, including one of the biggest at the time: New York.

In order to help defend the new Constitution a few of the greatest minds of the day combined forces to convince citizens of the document’s purpose. The result was the Federalist Papers.

What are the Federalist Papers?

The Federalist Papers were a series of essays written and published to defend the new Constitution and convince its detractors to ratify it.

The new Constitution had many opponents, known as Anti-Federalists. This faction generally thought this new form of government would give the federal government too much power. Some argued the powers given were greater than even Britain had over the colonies.

With such power, individual freedoms could easily be squashed. In addition, states’ rights would be severely diminished. Without assurances for individual freedoms through a Bill of Rights, large states such as New York and Virginia refused to ratify the Constitution.

Immediately after the Constitution was proposed, opponents began to attack the document via essays in newspapers. These essays were written by prominent Anti-Federalists under pseudonyms such as “Brutus” and “Cato.” 

Three influential supporters of the Constitution, known as Federalists, responded by writing 85 essays over the course of several months declaring their support of the Constitution and explaining in great detail why it was the best form of government for the new nation.

They too wrote under a pseudonym, “Publius,” named after the Roman Publius Valerius Publicola who was reportedly instrumental in the founding of the Roman Republic.

The series of essays were originally compiled and simply named The Federalist. It was not until years later that the essays became known as The Federalist Papers.

The essays were published in New York newspapers with the express purpose of convincing New York legislators to ratify the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were extremely popular, so much so that they were ultimately reprinted throughout other states.

The arguments were so convincing that they were essentially used as a blueprint for Federalists in other states to argue the Constitution’s merits.

The Federalist Papers Writers

The three influential writers of the Federalist Papers were Alexander Hamilton, John Madison, and John Jay.

Alexander Hamilton first had the idea for the series of essays. Hamilton knew he had to respond to the Constitution’s detractors. In his home state of New York, support for ratification was low and even the two other New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not wish to ratify the document.

To help with the monumental task he recruited John Jay, an influential lawyer and diplomat, and James Madison, now known as “The Father of the Constitution,” to help write the essays.

He also asked Gouverneur Morris and William Duer to help. Morris declined the offer and Duer wrote three essays, though Hamilton disliked his work and did not have them published.

Of the 85 essays, Hamilton would go on to write the majority of them. John Jay only wrote five essays given his ill health at the time. James Madison would write 29 essays, including some of the most influential ones remembered to this day.

These include Federalist 10, which is a defense of how the Constitution would protect against dominant factions, and Federalist 51, which explains the checks and balances of the government.

The Federalist Papers Writers and Authors chart

Alexander Hamilton wrote the remaining 51 essays. It was a monumental feat writing such lengthy and convincing arguments in such a short period of time.

It is interesting to note that Hamilton and Madison teamed up in their defense of the Constitution. As history has shown, Hamilton and Madison’s partnership did not last long as the two shortly afterwards found themselves on opposite sides constantly clashing in their ideologies.

In some ways the writings of Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers were in sync. In fact, the similarities are such that the authorship of twelve essays are in dispute as historians cannot discern with certaintly whether it was actually Hamilton or Madison who wrote the papers.

Other aspects show that it is painfully obvious who wrote which essays. Hamilton’s belief for a strong centralized federal government is clearly shown.

On the other hand, Madison’s beliefs are apparent that although he believed a stronger federal government than the Articles of Confederation allowed was necessary, there needed to be strict checks and balances on its power and states’ rights should take precedence.

The Legacy of the Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers have left a lasting legacy even centuries after they were first written. The essays served the important purpose of helping to explain the meaning behind and intentions of the new Constitution.

Interestingly enough, the Federalist Papers failed in their original goal. Despite the persuasiveness of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, New York still refused to ratify the Constitution until the delegates were assured it would be amended with a Bill of Rights.

Despite the failure, the collections of essays are still highly-regarded to this day by historians. They serve as a gateway into the minds of the founding fathers in terms of what they intended for the new Constitution and nation as a whole.

The uniqueness of the American system cannot be understated. There was no other document or system of government like it in history.

The concept of federalism, where power is shared between national and state governments, was also new and unique to the Constitution. The founders hoped that this system would avoid the pitfalls of a wholly nation system (like the British monarchy) or a wholly confederate system (like the Articles of Confederation).

The founding fathers could not have possibly anticipated everything that would occur under the new system, nor the challenges the new nation would face.

In theory, the Constitution was very clear: the federal government is authorized with very specific listed powers and the rest of the powers are reserved for the states.

In practice this would prove difficult to interpret, and the struggle between what powers are reserved for the national government and what powers are reserved for the state governments continue to this day.

Important Federalist Papers

While all 85 essays have stood the test of time, there are several that are more relevant in today’s era than the rest. These essays are continually looked upon to interpret the intentions of the founding fathers.

Summary of Federalist Papers 10

Of all the Federalist Papers, essay 10 is one of the most famous. In Federalist No. 10 James Madison delivered a well-reasoned argument as to why the Constitution was uniquely capable of preventing the United States’ domination by factions and special interest groups.

Madison reasoned that it is simple human nature to separate into factions. There inevitably will be different opinions concerning government, religion, liberty, etc that arise and that citizens will form factions over.

Madison was not concerned with the potential of small factions ruling the nation (perhaps underestimating the power and influence of the small faction of the wealthy).

Instead, he was concerned about majority factions that could “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” As it is popularly known, Madison feared the “tyranny of the majority.”

Madison reasoned the new Constitution would be able to help prevent “tyranny of the majority.” The new government would be a Republic with power shared between states and national government. The varying levels of government, shared power, direct, and indirect elections would prove to be a buffer against such a threat.

In addition, Madison predicted the republic of the United States would grow to be even larger. A large republic would thus have an even wider array of geographic, religious, social, and economic interests, making it even less likely for a true majority faction to dominate.

While there is no true safeguard against the power of factions or special interest groups, Madison argued the Constitution was uniquely capable of safeguarding American liberties from the majority factions.

Summary of Federalist Papers 51

Federalist Papers No. 51 is also one of the more-well known essays of the collections. The essay was also written by James Madison and dived into the system of “checks and balances” within the new government.

The Constitution splits the United States’ government into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive is ruled by a single person, the President, who is elected via the Electoral College.

The legislative branch is split into two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Members of the Senate were to be selected via state legislators and each state received two Senators regardless of state size. The House of Representatives members were to be elected via direct democracy and states were assigned members proportional to size.

Members of the judicial branch were to be nominated by the President, though confirmed by the Senate. Judiciary members are to serve for life so that their actions will not be influenced by the President who appointed them, nor the Senators that confirmed them.

Federalist 51 went on to describe how the system of checks and balances would preserve liberty in the United States. By giving express powers to the different branches, it served to act as a “check” on the other branches’ power.

If one branch were to become too powerful, American liberties could be in jeopardy. A balance of power between the three branches of government would help to preserve the liberties and freedoms fought for in the revolution.

Summary of Federalist Papers 68

In the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton provided a defense for the method of electing the President of the United States: the Electoral College.

There were many differing proposals to select the member(s) of the Executive branch at the Constitutional Convention. Some proposed election by direct democracy, others by state legislatures, and still others by Congress.

In addition, there were differing plans as to just how many executives there should be, with proposals ranging from one to as many as three. Hamilton himself favored only one executive, however he believed that the executive should hold office for life instead of having terms.

These differing proposals resulted in a compromise to elect the President: the Electoral College. In Federalist No. 68 Hamilton outlined the thoughts behind the idea. He claimed that the electors would be “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station,” which would help to ensure the President was someone worthy of the title.

Since the electors could not hold political office, they would be outside politics in a “detached situation” and aid in the avoidance of corruption in the election process.

In essence, the Electoral College was designed as an alternative to direct election by citizens. It was also considered as a compromise for slave-holding states.

Madison himself admitted direct election would have been preferable in his notes during the Constitutional Convention: “The people at large was in his opinion the fittest in itself.”

However, he later quipped:

“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”

Method of Appointing the Executive

Based on Madison’s notes, the Electoral College sprung as a compromise for the less populous southern states (since slaves did not count as citizens).

Given the dubious nature of the beginnings of the Electoral College, it is no wonder that many Americans believe it to be one of the more archaic and unnecessary aspects of the Constitution.

Summary of Federalist Papers 78

The Federalist Papers No. 78 was written by Alexander Hamilton and helped to explain the role of the judiciary branch in the new Constitution.

Hamilton described the judiciary as the weakest of the three branches. He wrote, “It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.”

This weakness justifies the permanency in office of federal judges, so that they can uphold public justice and security without fear or reprisal from the other branches. He was also quick to note that federal judges cannot be removed so long as they display “good behavior.”

In Federalist No. 78 Hamilton argued strongly for the process of judicial review. Judicial review is the process where federal judges can determine whether or not a statute or law is in conflict with the Constitution, the “fundamental law.” He wrote:

“A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.”

Federalist No. 78

The Constitution did not expressly give the judiciary the power of judicial review; these were merely Hamilton’s thoughts and interpretations of what the document could entail.
The process of judicial review was affirmed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall in perhaps the most important case in US history: Marbury v. Madison (1803).

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