Originally published: 1787-88
652 pages

Chapter 6

THE FEDERALIST


Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison

 
The Federalist, a collection of newspaper articles first published in 1787-88, had a single purpose: to convince the freshly independent colonists, particularly in New York where a ratification battle was looming, that the just-drafted Constitution was the best possible design for governing the new nation.
     Ever since their initial dissemination these essays have served as a guide to interpreting the Constitution's provisions and intentions. Written individually by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the joint nom de plume Publius, the essays expressed opinions that were far from universally accepted at the time (and many of which are equally far from universal acceptance at this time). In fact, The Federalist consists in large measure of responses to serious doubts about the proposed Constitution set forth by opposition writers as part of the debates over ratification in New York and other states.
     Although it may appear that the arguments and points made in The Federalist are an old story they are quite the opposite. It is the core explication offered in these documents that is a major part of the square one First Principles means to explore. These eighty-five essays achieve a full explanation of what representative democracy was to be.
     In 1787 newspapers, pamphlets, and books were the best tools available for communicating with literate citizens. Public speeches were useful, but reached only a small audience. It was newspapers that offered the best vehicle to engage in the war of words that ensued subsequent to the

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1787 Philadelphia Convention. In New York, Governor George Clinton was vehemently opposed to a "national" or centralized government and strongly preferred a continuation of the confederated, or "federal" government embodied in the Articles of Confederation. Two of the three New York delegates had been absent from the Constitutional Convention almost from its beginning (a spurious and ineffective political ploy by the anti-federalists to devalue, even belittle, the drafting effort). The third delegate, Alexander Hamilton, spent much of the summer of 1787 in New York where he felt laying the groundwork for the upcoming ratification battle more important than efforts he might expend at the convention. In fact, in Philadelphia his views of the need for an even stronger national government than what was ultimately embodied in the Constitution were not well received. As a result of the absence of their delegates to the Constitutional Convention the people of New York had become, by default, bystanders to the whole process. Yet, at the close of the convention the state's newspapers were full of zealous and barbed rhetoric espousing the views of various vested interests. As the ratification process began the battle lines were sharply drawn.
     The Federalist eventually transcended its role as propaganda and came to be regarded by many as a masterful analysis and interpretation of the Constitution, as well as a compelling overview of democratic representative government. Indeed, The Federalist today is known as the fourth founding document along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the first ten amendments appended to the Constitution during the inaugural Congressional session, collectively known as The Bill of Rights. However, it is also a given that The Federalist neither
adequately foresaw nor honestly presented all of the arguments surrounding the proposed Constitution. That it did directly explain the fundamental tenets of a new paradigm is accepted, and therein lies most of its usefulness.
     Although many participants at the time The Federalist articles were written saw actual and potential flaws inherent in the construction of the new government, Alexander Hamilton reminded the populace that nothing anyone could design would be perfect-especially in the face of any overwhelming moral, economic, or other conflagration that could tear the country apart. That the Constitution might not withstand such an assault he found as no impediment to accepting what had been drafted. In Federalist Number 17 he succinctly proclaims,

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            [I]t would be idle to object to a government because it could not perform
             impossibilities.

     Although it is now well understood that the American experiment created a democratically controlled federal republic both empowered and restrained by a written constitution, this was far from clear in 1787. Of course, the concept of democracy was hardly new to the world. But the form of government created by the men of Philadelphia-with its separated powers, civil authority over the military, frequent elections, and checks and balances (between the branches of the federal government, and between the national administration and individual state governments)-created a system of shared power and equity the likes of which had never before been seen. In The Federalist the intentionally spare words of the Constitution are given life and meaning readily accessible to the average person. The guidance suggested by Publius was offered not only as propaganda but also truly as an explanation. Writing The Federalist was an intellectual exercise as much as a political one. The essays were written by the men who had been thinking and planning and discoursing on these matters for more than a decade, some for most of their lives. What they wrote was not just a news story; it was more accurately an explication of a philosophy and a system.
     Few, if any, of the participants at Philadelphia were so na´ve as to believe that the document they had created would control human beings. They understood an underlying factor-that the government they contrived would be no better than the citizens who were elected to administer it. It was also a given that if the citizens did not defend their rights and perform their duties the issue of the Constitution's powers or limitations would be irrelevant.
     One of the most remarkable aspects of the American constitutional experiment was the youthfulness of the men who had assumed the task of creating a new country. Alexander Hamilton was only thirty years old and James Madison was thirty-six. The breadth of their political thought and their understanding of human nature enabled them to achieve something their predecessors had tried in vain to create: a system of government that allowed human spirit and ingenuity to soar while simultaneously attempting to keep in check inevitable expressions of human perfidy.

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     Not everything that The Federalist's authors anticipated has come to pass. One of the intents of the Founders was that Congress would be populated by knowledgeable, educated, and thoughtful members-forming a sort of mirror image of the Constitutional Convention's delegates themselves. Wisdom in deliberation was the intent but such sagacity has often been absent over the ensuing centuries. When Madison wrote that the people should elect to Congress the best and wisest men-not just those of whose policies voters happened to approve-he was perhaps forgetting his own admonitions about human frailties; Madison's hope for sage Congressional discourse may have been doomed to failure by the essence of human nature and in spite of the desire and optimism he expressed during the drafting and ratification process. Even so, The Federalist almost always provides concise and clear interpretation of the Founders' intentions. As the years have passed these explanations have often proved defining. Without this tutelage our federal system might have taken a much different course as it matured. Reading these essays today gives each of us an opportunity to put our comprehensions to history's test and to step back from a consideration of political goals to an appreciation of political wisdom.

* * *

     It is of value to place the Constitutional era in perspective. While the Founders sought philosophically to embark on a new venture in governance the authors of The Federalist and those who would be the members of the first government had to achieve the Constitution's ratification and implementation in troubled, often dangerous, times. There were many competing interests with which the citizenry had to deal. At the end of the War of Independence the country was far from unified-physically, emotionally, politically, or economically. Trade, both national and international, was disorganized; self-inflicted inflation had destroyed the currency; an economic depression existed; armed insurrection was a reality in some quarters; taxation of any type (with or without representation) was abhorred by many. Yet the national government was deeply in debt as a result of the war and required a way out of its fiscal catastrophe. If the country was to be economically or politically viable on the international stage it had to honor its financial obligations. Undermining the ability to achieve that goal were widespread factionalism and insistent claims of state

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sovereignty that were both constant threats to national cohesion on even the most fundamental level.
     Adding to the internal woes, the Spanish government had blockaded the Mississippi River, the outlet for almost all commerce west of the Allegheny Mountains; the English had stopped traffic on the St. Lawrence River; and the treaty with Great Britain was being ignored by both sides. That the times were unstable is an understatement. The hurdles facing ratification and setting up the new government were towering. Conflicting opinions on almost every practical consideration were the rule and seemed a far greater impediment to agreement than the visible intellectual battle addressed by authors in The Federalist.
     The overall discussion in The Federalist-after a core explication in the early essays of strong resolve regarding the sanctity of liberty and property-was the proper scope and role of the federal government's authority. The sovereign entity created by the Constitution was not designed in the abstract; it had in mind the America and the people of that era, and it recognized their history, their make-up, and their habits. Hamilton's resolute desire for enlarged national powers-somewhat muted in The Federalist but expressed more vocally at the Constitutional Convention-was vigorously and publicly opposed by others who feared the loss of local autonomy. The apprehension of the unknown in this equation hindered the forward movement the Constitution offered. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is still easy to feel the depth of concern extant in 1788, as today we experience the ill-effects of lost local rule, while centralized, homogenized, and aggrandized government becomes increasingly more common and steadily less effective.
     There was also a great practical difficulty facing the Philadelphia Convention. The convention's charter allowed only for amendment and repair of the Articles of Confederation under which the
country had operated since 1781. The specific instructions to the delegates for amendment of the Articles also held that no proposed revisions were to take effect unless the legislatures of all thirteen states agreed. As debate began, a majority of the members of the convention came to understand that no repairs to the Articles would make them work-regardless of any unanimous ratification difficulties-and that a whole new document and system of government was needed.
     The core contentious issue at the convention was taxation-just as it had been at the time of the Declaration of Independence. In the ensuing eleven years it had become apparent that funding national

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obligations by means of voluntary state contributions, as existed under the Articles, was untenable. States either temporized on their promises of fiscal support or frankly disavowed them. The result was the devastating inflation that was inevitable when the federal government simply printed money to obtain the materiel it needed to prosecute the war.
     The inequality of state contributions to the revolutionary effort-financially, materially, and in terms of manpower-had caused both envy and disdain to arise in various legislative and executive quarters, threatening union from the outset. Of course, there were many other issues that needed resolution as well, yet most of them proved capable of compromise. But two questions presented no middle ground: slavery and affording the national government the power to tax. Ultimately, each was accepted as part of the Constitution, but agreement on these two issues, and others, wasn't easy. In the end a small number of the convention attendees were so dissatisfied with the power consolidated in the new national government that they refused to sign the Constitution.
     With vocal dissent among the delegates in evidence and a successful ratification process looking more dim, convention attendees reduced the number of states that had to approve the new document to nine (from the previous unanimous thirteen). They also changed the assembly in which the states would determine their approval from state legislatures to state conventions. This allowed circumvention of vested political interests that inevitably reside in legislative chambers and offered direct access to the citizens. Any state not ratifying the Constitution was free to remain an independent entity not answerable to, or protected by, the fledgling government.
     The Founders ultimately created a system that was wholly new and untested. The aim of The Federalist was to impress Americans that this document and the government that would ensue were workable for all sections and factions within the country. Delegates to the Convention had exceeded their authority in creating the Constitution and they had to convince everyone that this course was not only the best avenue, but the only avenue.
     The fact that the new document was to be subjected to approval by popularly elected state conventions-allowing the people to maintain a veto power over the efforts of the drafters-was a significant risk. These state assemblies, consisting of delegates who were far more directly responsible to their publics than are legislators today, had

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to be convinced to support all that had been done in the convention. Ratification was to be a straight up or down vote, no state could alter what had been agreed upon. With further compromise not possible, the all-or-nothing approval mechanism made supporters and opponents more extreme in their claims. While the tenor and the goal of the eighty-five essays of The Federalist in some ways matched the desperation of both the people and the times, these commentaries also had a calming effect through their well-reasoned expositions.
     If one seeks a comprehensive shortcut (which we hope is not an oxymoron) to understanding the U.S. Constitution, reading The Federalist is that avenue. Both the wisdom and shrewdness of the Founders is on display in these essays. To understand how our government was designed to work-before the intrusion of politics-and to see how to apply governing responsibility in the face of human nature, reading The Federalist is truly a necessary and certainly a profitable effort.

About the Book
The Liberty Fund edition of The Federalist is intended as a study text as well as an historical reproduction. This volume contains the main documents of the Revolutionary era, namely, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution itself. Of equal value to the text is the cross-referenced guide between The Federalist essays and that portion of the Constitution which any particular essay investigates and defends.

About the Authors
Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) was a distinguished New York lawyer and revolutionary war hero, an astute businessman, and a vigorous proponent of a strong national government. The basis of this need, he believed, was the difficulty of war, trade, and finance being conducted separately by the individual states. Although Hamilton wrote more than half The Federalist essays, he had little input during the Constitutional Convention because his colleagues did not trust his advocacy of expansive federal power. Nevertheless, when it came time to fight for adoption of the finished product there was no one more tireless in this enterprise. Indeed, Hamilton voiced the opinion, in spite of how little the final draft reflected his own views, that the Convention should unanimously approve the completed document.

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James Madison (1751-1836) was a constant member of the legislative and constitutional bodies that met and guided the new American nation throughout its formative years. Madison, as opposed to Hamilton, played the greater role at the Constitutional Convention and the majority of the final document is his work. His profound knowledge of both history and politics often, but not always, helped convince the other members of the Convention of the value of his grand outline. Once the convention concluded he too was tireless at securing adoption of the new Constitution. As a member of the House of Representatives he was instrumental in drafting and adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in the first congressional session-a not uncontroversial battle itself.
John Jay (1745-1829) was an experienced and influential New York attorney when the Revolution began. Although he initially sought conciliation, once the course of the new nation was set he devoted his energies entirely to the success of the effort. His experience in international affairs and his post as foreign secretary (equal to today's secretary of state) under the Articles of Confederation secured his participation in all aspects of colonial foreign relations, including the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which formally ended the War of Independence. During his career Jay was president of the Continental Congress and governor and chief justice of New York. He also drafted the New York Constitution in 1777. Although Jay wrote fewer of the essays (five) than did Madison or Hamilton, his prestige at the time exceeded either of theirs and so his contributions to The Federalist added significance to the enterprise, especially for those working behind the scenes. When the new nation was finally launched, John Jay became the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

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