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Definition: ‘Federalist Papers’ from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In US politics, a series of 85 letters published in The Federalist in the newly independent USA in 1788, attempting to define the relation of the states to the nation, and making the case for a federal government. The papers were signed ‘Publius’, the joint pseudonym of three leading political figures: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.


Federalist Papers

Summary Article: Federalist papers
From Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought

The Federalist Papers consist of eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, published under the pseudonym of Publius, to encourage the American people to ratify the Constitution in 1787 to 1788. The essays explained the necessity of federalism, limited government, and constitutional democracy, as well as answering the objections to the proposed Constitution that had been raised by those weary of a strong central government. The essays first appeared in The Independent Journal and the New York Packet, New York newspapers, beginning on October 27, 1787, and ending in March 1788. At some points during the lifespan of the publication, up to three or four new essays by Publius were featured at a time. Following publication of the entire series, the essays were also published by Hamilton in a two-volume edition as The Federalist.

Origins in Unrest Over the U.S. Constitution

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia lasted three months and ended on September 17, 1787. The result of the convention was a constitution consisting of a series of compromises between, among others, those who were proponents of a strong federal government and those concerned with the sovereignty of state governments. With most delegates disappointed by the failure of the Articles of Confederation, the essential feature of the new document was federalism, the idea that numerous states could be permanently united under a strong central government with a variety of powers, but at the same time, these states would still maintain liberty for their people as well as the management of their own internal affairs. However, not everyone agreed that the new government of the United States should take this formation of federalism. As a result, public opinion was split on the proposed constitution, which was presented to the people for ratification by each individual state.

Those in support of ratification were not without their own disappointments in the final draft of the Constitution, with reservations as to whether their own priorities were too heavily compromised to achieve the intended goals. The private papers of both Hamilton and Madison show that neither of them believed the compromises of the convention ended with a constitution that sufficiently supported a strong government. The authors of The Federalist downplayed their own reservations about the newly drafted Constitution and put forth what they believed to be the strongest possible defense of it. The Federalist Papers represent the best possible defense that Hamilton and Madison, as well as Jay, could make of the new constitution to show that what was being presented to the people for ratification was better than the old confederation set up under the Articles of Confederation. In fact, when Hamilton signed the Constitution, he believed that what was finally agreed to at the convention was far from what his original plan for it had been but that his choice was between “anarchy and Convulsion” on the one hand, and “the chance of good to be expected from the plan” on the other hand (Harold and Cooke 1961, 4:253). Madison, despite his public defense of the Constitution, held even greater skepticism, writing in private to Thomas Jefferson that if the Constitution was to be adopted, it would not effectively achieve its national goals and would not “prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts against the state governments”(Rutland 1977, 163–64). With these concerns about the Constitution, Hamilton and Madison set out to craft their defense, not to be written as a neutral account of the meaning of the Constitution, but rather as part of a heated debate over whether or not to ratify the Constitution.

Rival essays were often presented on the same newspaper pages as The Federalist, questioning the motives of Publius as well as the worth of the proposed Constitution. Known generally as the antifederalists, the opponents of the Constitution feared that it would create an overly strong central government, subverting republicanism and leaving the people in a tyrannical situation similar to the one they had previously freed themselves from under British rule. The Constitutional Convention was convened to correct the mistake of giving too much power to the state governments under the Articles of Confederation, but the anti-federalists argued that the end product, supported by the federalists, was duplicating the features of British rule by giving too much power to the national government. While the anti-federalists were disappointed that a Bill of Rights was not included in the Constitution, it was the dangerously empowering tenets, such as the executive powers, the powers of taxation, the supreme-law-of-the-land clause, as well as the ability of Congress to do what is necessary and proper to fulfill its allocated powers, that would leave the states at the mercy of the national government.

A leading anti-federalist at the Convention, George Mason, refused to sign the Constitution, charging that if ratified it would actually deprive Americans of their liberty by virtue of the numerous powers given to the national government. The federalists argued that the checks and balances in the Constitution that ensured that no branch of government had too much power would be enough to protect the people from tyranny, but those who remained anti-federalists remained unconvinced, arguing that a powerful legislature and an executive with daunting powers did not look like the government they had fought for.

Just ten days after the final draft of the Constitution was signed, New York's governor, George Clinton, started a series of letters under the name of Cato. The letters were published in The New York Journal with the objective of ensuring that the Constitution was not ratified, and doing so by showing the people of New York its defects. Hamilton answered with his own counterattack on the opponents of the Constitution, but then quickly stopped his series of letters, preferring the much larger endeavor of writing the collaborative effort with Madison and Jay. Calling the series of essays The Federalist took away from the Constitution's opponents a name they thought they rightfully deserved. It was, after all, the anti-federalists who they believed represented the very essence of what was understood as federalism, standing up for maintaining two levels of government in a loose confederal system as had been set up under the Articles of Confederation. In contrast, the federalists were advocating for a centralized, and powerful, national government.

Hamilton would again trump the anti-federalists when choosing the pen name to be used. The anti-federalists had already published essays in papers under the names of Cato and Brutus. The Roman Cato was known for his moral integrity as well as for his political battles with Julius Caesar. Brutus was most remembered for his role in the assassination of Caesar. Hamilton chose not a defender, but actually one of the founders of Rome, Publius (Valerius Publicola), a Roman consul who improved the city's primitive republican laws, establishing a republic that would thrive for centuries.


Hamilton asked Jay to help with the series, but Jay fell ill and contributed only five essays on foreign policy, a subject he was an expert in, having been one of three Americans (along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams) involved in drafting the Treaty of 1783 that would end the Revolutionary War. Hamilton also asked Gouverneur Morris, a delegate at the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania—and future one-term senator—to be a contributor, but Morris declined to participate. Madison agreed to help write the essays, and he and Hamilton took up topics for which they had materials already prepared that they had worked on at the Convention. Hamilton discussed the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation in such areas as ensuring domestic stability, adequate war powers, and the lack of a taxation power and commercial regulation. Hamilton also defended the need for an energetic executive and defended the proposed judiciary. Madison advocated for the Constitution's separation of powers, federalism, and republicanism, while also explaining and justifying the proposed House of Representatives. Hamilton and Madison shared the writing duties concerning the proposed Senate.

Since The Federalist was written to defend the proposed Constitution, Federalist #1, written by Hamilton, promised to provide an “answer to all the objections … that may have any claim to your attention,” and would be divided into two sections. The first thirty-six essays would discuss the need of union in a large republic, with emphasis on the danger of foreign wars and influence, to be countered by a strong new national government, as well as the advantages to be achieved by a federation in such areas as commerce, the economy, naval defense, and representative government in more general terms. The second half of The Federalist, essays thirty-seven to eighty-five, discussed the merits of the Constitution itself. Several specific essays stand out.

Written by Madison, Federalist #10 is known for its defense of a large republic as essential in remedying faction. Madison's Federalist #51 examines the checks and balances and separation of powers put in place by the Constitution for the purpose of counteracting ambition. It is our human nature, Madison explains, that makes it a necessity to “first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” Hamilton's Federalist #84 is best known for its arguments opposing the addition of a Bill of Rights. Hamilton and Madison agreed that the Constitution as written would naturally protect individual liberty through the separation of powers and the checks and balances placed on the elected branches of government. Finally, Federalist #78 finds Hamilton's take on the judiciary, suggesting it to be the weakest branch of government because it cannot spend money and has no power to execute its own decisions—and then arguing for the Supreme Court's power to negate unconstitutional acts by the other branches of government.

The Federalist Papers tend to be regarded as representing the collective thought of the framers who had debated and written the Constitution, not the personal views of the authors. However, Madison himself acknowledged that the two elements were intermingled. The ideas at the Constitutional Convention were diverse; some states sent delegations that were heavily involved in the debates, while Rhode Island refused to send anyone at all. At the end of the convention, three of the fifty-five delegates refused to sign the Constitution, while others who did sign it would later have second thoughts. Realistically, no one was likely to be completely satisfied with the final draft. Perhaps the best evidence that the framers’ collective intent is altered in the essays are the views on the role of government by Hamilton and Madison themselves. After ratification, Hamilton and Madison developed a sharp disagreement on the meaning of the Constitution, with Hamilton remaining a Federalist and Madison becoming a Republican—the political party started by Madison and Jefferson that reflected the sentiments of the anti-federalists, defending states’ rights and rejecting federalist policies such as Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's proposed new national bank.

Regardless of whether or not the arguments found in the Federalist Papers can be attributed to an overarching viewpoint developed at the Constitutional Convention, the essays have profoundly influenced the study of American politics. The Federalist is widely admired and studied. Both philosophical and practical in nature, it is even more grounded in the reality of the times than other works examining the purpose of government, such as John Locke's Second Treatise of Government or Baron de Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. Further, The Federalist did not need time for the public to recognize its value. Within a year of the drafting of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers were understood to be a guide to explain the necessity of each clause proposed in the Constitution. The essays that make up The Federalist are often read individually for their insight into such issues as federalism, the separation of powers, the need for a strong national government, and judicial review, but when considered in its entirety, The Federalist ranks just after the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself as explanations for the eventual shape of politics and institutions in the United States. In fact, Jefferson described The Federalist as “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written” (Lipscomb 1903, 183).

There is some debate as to what impact Publius had on the actual ratification of the Constitution. Authors at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century considered The Federalist as being influential in the ratification process, but this view no longer prevails. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was argued that the Federalist Papers had very little, if any, direct impact on the ratification process. The Constitution needed to be ratified in each state. The Federalist Papers were published in New York, with few exceptions. A small number of individual essays were reprinted in Virginia, papers two through nineteen were printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and seven were printed in Boston. By time Hamilton, Madison, and Jay started publishing the essays, some states, including Pennsylvania, had already voted to ratify the Constitution. If the essays were in any way influential in the ratification of the Constitution, it would have had to be in the state of New York alone. However, by the time the state convention was held to vote on the Constitution in New York, the Constitution had already been ratified by ten states, with only nine required for the Constitution to be ratified. Thus, the Constitution was already in effect when the citizens of New York voted.

See also Constitutionalism; Eighteenth-Century Political Thought; Federalism; Madison, James; Representation; Republicanism; Rights, Civil; Rights, Natural and Human; Separation of Powers; State, Theories of the

Further Readings
  • Beard, Charles. 1959. The Enduring Federalist. Frederick Ungar New York.
  • Dietze, Gottfried. 1960. The Federalist: A Classic on Federalism and Free Government. Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore, MD.
  • Furtwangler, Albert. 1984. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers. Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY.
  • Gibbons, Michael T.; Wilson Carey McWilliams, eds. 1992. The Federalists, the Antifederalists, and the American Political Tradition. Greenwood Press New York.
  • Harold, Syrett C.; Jacob, E. Cooke. 1961-79. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 24 vols. Columbia University Press New York.
  • Jackson, Kenneth, T. 1994. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New York Historical Society. Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • Lipscomb, Andrew, ed. 1903. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 20 vols. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association Washington, DC.
  • Rossiter, Clinton. 1999. The Federalist Papers. New American Library New York.
  • Rutland, Robert. 1977. The Papers of James Madison. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Storing, Herbert. 1981. The Complete Anti-Federalist. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Turner, Jack. 1961. The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution 1781-1788. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
  • White, Morton. 1987. Philosophy, The Federalist, and the Constitution. Oxford University Press Oxford, UK.
  • Amanda DiPaolo
    Copyright © 2013 CQ Press

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