The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Context


The Struggle for Ratification

Article 7, the brief provision that concludes the U.S. Constitution, declares, "The ratification of the convention of nine states shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution." Nine states out of 13, expressed as a percentage, comes to about 69 percent, or a little more than two-thirds. The Articles of Confederation, America's first constitution, had required unanimous consent.

Ratification of the framework devised by the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia from May to September 1787 was by no means a sure thing. It had taken nearly three and a half years for the Articles of Confederation to be ratified. For the new Constitution to succeed it was highly desirable that it be approved by the four most populous and prosperous states: Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Even better would be the unanimous approval of all 13 states.

In a changing mood, opponents, known as Anti-Federalists, deployed a wide range of arguments attacking the new document. They minutely scrutinized its numerous differences with the Articles of Confederation. Most of all, critics viewed with suspicion its creation of a strong executive power and its establishment of an independent federal judiciary. In June 1788 on the eve of ratification, Patrick Henry, one of the leading Anti-Federalists in Virginia, affirmed in ringing tones: "It is said eight states have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve states and a half had adopted it, I would, with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it." That's how determined some Anti-Federalists were to scuttle the document.

Besides Patrick Henry, the Anti-Federalists could count some highly distinguished figures among their numbers: Samuel Adams in Massachusetts, for example, a firebrand of the revolution, as well as Richard Henry Lee and James Monroe in Virginia; additionally, Governor George Clinton in New York, who was that state's chief executive from 1777 to 1795, and again from 1801 to 1804. Clinton later rose to be vice president for one term under Thomas Jefferson and for another under James Madison.

Both the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists had grown up in a political culture that made extensive use of the press. They used pamphlets, broadsides, papers, open letters, declarations, and other texts as vehicles of mass communication in the late 18th century. Such publications as the Federal Farmer and Cato's Letters put forward the Anti-Federalist point of view. An author with the pseudonym Brutus began to publish Anti-Federalist essays in the New York Journal as early as October 1787, one month after the conclusion of the Philadelphia convention. The author may have been Robert Yates, a New York judge.

Against this backdrop, Alexander Hamilton determined to produce The Federalist Papers, a series of essays in which the case for ratification of the new Constitution would be forcefully presented and a slew of counterarguments would be addressed and refuted. James Madison, who had perhaps played a more important role at the Philadelphia Convention than any other delegate, joined Hamilton. Also joining was John Jay, a distinguished lawyer and diplomat who, like Hamilton, hailed from New York. All three wrote under the pseudonym Publius, an abbreviated form of the name Publius Valerius, an ancient Roman statesman who had participated in the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE. The Federalist Papers were published in New York and addressed to that state's citizens—a deliberate choice, since the Federalists considered the support of a large, populous, and wealthy state like New York as vital to their cause.

Enlightenment Influences

In addition to analyzing the explicit and implicit ramifications of the new Constitution, the authors of The Federalist Papers plainly expressed concern with identifying and illustrating the defects of the Articles of Confederation. Called America's "first constitution," the Articles had been in force for nearly seven years—a time span sufficient to have revealed some crucial shortcomings. Under the Articles, Congress had no power to tax the people directly but could only transmit requisitions to the states. Congress also lacked the power to raise an army; here again, all the national government could do was establish quotas. Congress had no supervision of interstate commerce. There was no functioning executive, and there was no federal judiciary. All major issues required the support of nine states, while amendments required unanimous support. The votes of all the states had the same weight, regardless of their population or resources. Since the impact of the Articles was on states rather than on the people directly, there was no shared sense of loyalty to the Union.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment became predominant in England and in many parts of Europe, especially France. The Enlightenment placed a premium on rationalism, moderation, order, decorum, and the diffusion of knowledge. Scientific research displaced superstition and, to some degree, religious beliefs. The philosophers of the Enlightenment stressed exploration and experience as touchstones for the acquisition and evaluation of knowledge. It was in this intellectual and cultural tradition that the American Founding Fathers were educated and reached maturity.

Two of the most important Enlightenment philosophers for the authors of The Federalist Papers were John Locke (1632–1704) and Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755). Locke, who studied medicine at Oxford, became enormously influential in political philosophy through his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), which explored such concepts as the state of nature, the formation of civil society, the obligation of government to protect property and defend liberty, popular sovereignty, and the right of the people to dissolve government if it does not serve the public interest. Locke was also influential in his stress on empiricism, the view that knowledge is derived only from sensory experience.

The French aristocrat Baron de Montesquieu exerted tremendous influence on the American Founding Fathers through his political analysis titled The Spirit of the Laws (1748). Montesquieu's most widely cited doctrine was the separation of powers, which the authors of The Federalist Papers discuss in considerable detail. Generally, they agree with Montesquieu that the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—should remain separate and distinct. But there are instances, such as some of the links between the legislative and judicial branches, for example, where a certain amount of overlap is inevitable. It is to the Founding Fathers' credit that they recognized extremes should be avoided and all doctrines should be applied with flexibility.

Publication History

Most of The Federalist Papers appeared between October 1787 and May 1788 in various New York newspapers. In March and then in May of 1788, two brothers named John and Archibald McLean published all 85 papers in two volumes. On July 26, 1788, the New York convention voted 30–27 in favor of the new Constitution. New York thus became the 11th state to approve the document, acting about five weeks after New Hampshire, the ninth state to ratify, had made the Constitution operative. New Hampshire's approval was similarly narrow, with a vote of 57–47.

Hamilton, the guiding genius behind The Federalist Papers, seems to have intuited that ratification in New York was not assured, given such opposition as that of Governor George Clinton. In a letter to his old mentor George Washington on October 30, 1787, he confided, "The constitution proposed has in [New York] warm friends and warm enemies ... The event cannot yet be foreseen." Hamilton enclosed with his letter a copy of Essay 1, which had been printed three days earlier in the New York Independent Journal, or the General Advertiser.

Did The Federalist Papers make a crucial difference, either in the New York vote or in the new nation's overall acceptance of the Constitution? The question is unanswerable. Yet in a world in which pamphlets reigned (one thinks of the stunning impact in 1776 of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, for example), it is entirely conceivable that, if Hamilton, Madison, and Jay had not taken the matter in hand, the vote in New York might have been different. And if New York had declined to ratify, the Constitution would have suffered a serious blow, even if the required nine states were to have given their assent.

Fortunately, such a scenario did not play out. What modern readers possess in The Federalist Papers—aside from a skillfully constructed analysis of the Constitution itself—is an invaluable background document-cum-commentary. One of the authors, James Madison, may be regarded as the single most influential member of the Philadelphia convention, attuned to all wings of opinion and deeply involved in recording the debates in all their nuances and maneuverings. Another author, Alexander Hamilton, is preeminent as the most committed nationalist among the Founding Fathers. The Constitution was widely perceived, by both its supporters and its detractors, as a nationalist document, focused on strengthening the central government. The Federalist Papers, therefore, furnishes an unparalleled lens with which modern readers can discern the outlook, the expectations, and the intentions of the framers.
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