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. The new government operated under the Articles of Confederation after its ratification 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 delegates proposed the new Constitution of the United States. 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.
Such concentrated power concerned individuals that their freedoms could be in jeopardy. 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 proposal of the Constitution, opponents began to attack the document via essays in newspapers. Prominent Anti-Federalists wrote these essays 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.
New York newspapers published the essays with the express purpose of convincing New York legislators to ratify the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were extremely popular, so much so that newspapers ultimately reprinted them throughout other states.
The arguments were so convincing that Federalists in other states utilized them as a blueprint to argue the Constitution’s merits.
The Federalist Papers Writers
The three influential writers of the Federalist Papers were Alexander Hamilton, James 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.
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 certainty whether it was actually Hamilton or Madison who wrote the papers.1
Other aspects show that it is painfully obvious who wrote which essays. Hamilton’s belief for a strong centralized federal government shows in his writings.
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 delegates refused to ratify the Constitution until the addition of a Bill of Rights.
Despite the failure, the collections of essays are still highly-regarded by historians to this day. 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 the Constitution proved difficult to interpret, and the struggle between what powers it intended for the national government and what powers were for the state governments continue to this day.
The 5 Most 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. The 5 most important Federalist Papers are generally considered to be Federalist 10, 39, 51, 68, and 78.
Summary of Federalist No. 10
Of all the Federalist Papers, essay No. 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.” Madison greatly 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 the 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 No. 39
In Federalist No. 39, James Madison penned a defense of the republican form of government, first describing what qualified as a republic, then pronouncing the Constitution as a federal rather than national form of government.
Madison firmly rejected the idea that the new Constitution was not republican in nature. He first defined what makes a government republican, noting two main points:
- A government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people
- Administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior
He also lambasted the aristocratic classes of wealthy elite members of society who sought to bend government to their favor:
"It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles..."2
After noting how the new Constitution checks the boxes of how it forms a republican government, Madison next addressed the idea that the individual states would give up their identity’s as part of the new government.
Anti-Federalists argued that the new Constitution would be a national form of government, rather than a federal government. This was a major concern as under a national government, states became subordinate to the central government and over time a consolidation of state would occur.
Madison rejected this idea, arguing that each state would maintain its own sovereignty and the states would unanimously consent of their own volition to give the central government power.
"Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act."
He ultimately deduced that the new Constitution was unique in that it was “neither wholly national nor wholly federal,” which best suited the United States.
Summary of Federalist No. 51
Federalist No. 51 is also one of the more-well known essays of the collections. James Madison wrote this essay and dove 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. A single person rules the executive, the President, who is elected via the Electoral College.
The legislative branch consists of two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives. State legislatures were to elect members of the Senate and each state received two Senators regardless of state size. Instead, the House of Representatives members were to be elected via direct democracy and states were assigned members proportional to size.
The President reserved the power to nominate members of the judicial branch, though the nominations needed confirmation by the Senate. Judiciary members received life terms so that the President who appointed them had less influence over their actions, as well as 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 No. 68
In Federalist 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 framers designed the Electoral College 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.”3
Based on Madison’s notes, the Electoral College sprung as a compromise for the less populous southern states (since enslaved people 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 No. 78
Alexander Hamilton penned Federalist No. 78 where he 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.”4
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.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall affirmed the process of judicial review in perhaps the most important case in US history: Marbury v. Madison (1803).
To recap, historians generally consider the 5 most important Federalist Papers to be:
- Federalist No. 10
- Federalist No. 39
- Federalist No. 51
- Federalist No. 68
- Federalist No. 78
Despite fierce backlash, all thirteen states eventually ratified the new Constitution. Interestingly, Article VII of the Constitution stipulated that only nine of thirteen states needed to ratify the document for it to go into effect for the participating states.
Only eleven states had ratified the Constitution by the first election in 1788 that saw George Washington chosen to lead the nation. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not ratified the Constitution yet and thus were not technically part of the new government.
The Constitution faced numerous challenges in the early days of the nation’s history. The founders could not possibly have foreseen all the challenges facing the United States, but did their best to create a flexible document that would be interpreted in various ways.
Many early court cases such as Marbury v. Madison, Fletcher v. Peck, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden, among others, helped to solidify constitutional law and clarify the Constitution’s intent.
To this day politicians and jurors offer differing views as to how to interpret this living document.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Mason, Alpheus Thomas. “The Federalist–A Split Personality.” The American Historical Review, vol. 57, no. 3, 1952, pp. 625–43. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1844351.
3) “Method of Appointing the Executive, [19 July] 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0065.