The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Main Ideas


The Importance of the Union

The essential nature of the Union plays a prominent role in The Federalist Papers. The three authors agree that the Union has numerous advantages, including the restraint of faction or party, the promotion of commerce, the development of a navy, and the prevention of insurrections, foreign wars, and other disorders. The overriding goal of The Federalist Papers is to secure support for the new Constitution, and it is significant that in the preamble to that document the first purpose of the framers is "to form a more perfect Union."

When they praised and commended the Union, however, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were all too acutely aware that many of the new Constitution's critics were arguing that Union meant "consolidation" rather than "confederation." These opponents feared, or proclaimed that they feared, the swallowing up of the states by a voracious, tyrannical central power. The authors of The Federalist Papers show a real determination to dispel such apprehensions. They carefully and methodically show that, in a federal system, the states will retain a great deal of their power. It is more likely, the authors declare repeatedly, that the states will encroach on the national government than the other way around.

On the other side of the coin, the authors of The Federalist Papers took seriously their responsibility to demonstrate the crippling insufficiency of the Articles of Confederation. Essays 21–23 are particularly focused on this topic. In those papers Hamilton concisely and persuasively points out the reasons the Articles have failed. The Articles, quite simply, do not ensure the Union, and that is one important reason why a new Constitution is necessary.

Separation of Powers

The doctrine of separation of powers was closely associated with the political philosophy of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755). Montesquieu devoted an extensive discussion to this doctrine in his political treatise The Spirit of the Laws (1748). Montesquieu, who had a significant influence on many of the Founding Fathers, built on the work of John Locke (1632–1704) in Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690).

In the U.S. Constitution, the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—are each accorded one of the first three sections or "articles." The authors of The Federalist Papers adopt the same sequence in their detailed examination of each governmental institution (Essays 52–83).

Probably the most succinct statement of the necessity for separation of powers to ensure the liberty of citizens is that of Madison in Essay 47: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." In the same essay Madison acknowledges Montesquieu, whom he calls "celebrated" and "the oracle."

Checks and Balances

As a principle or doctrine of governmental theory and practice, checks and balances are complementary to separation of powers. Separation of powers is integral to independence, while checks and balances are essential to restraint.

The framers of the Constitution included numerous checks and balances in the document. For example, the appointive powers of the president, discussed by Hamilton in Essay 69, are restrained by the "advice and consent" of the Senate. The Supreme Court's exercise of judicial review may be interpreted as a check on Congress, just as the presidential veto also operates as a check or balance on that body. The House's power of impeachment of federal officers, including the president, furnishes a powerful restraint on misconduct.

The fullest and most eloquent discussions of checks and balances are Madison's famous Essay 51 and Hamilton's Essay 73. As Madison concisely sums up the principle: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

Strength of the Federal Government

For many supporters of a new Constitution, the rebellion led by Daniel Shays in western Massachusetts in 1786–87 epitomized the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and the need for a stronger federal government. It is not coincidental that Hamilton refers to the rebellion four times in The Federalist Papers (in Essays 6, 21, 28, and 74).

Yet the Constitution's advocates had to tread a fine line between the virtues of strength and the specter of tyranny. Fewer than 10 years before The Federalist Papers were written and published, the United States had concluded a long, exhausting war of independence against an enemy most Americans considered tyrannical. Opponents of the Constitution found considerable credence when they argued a strong federal government would run the risk of substituting one tyrant for another. Patrick Henry (1736–99), who had hurled out the ringing cry "Give me liberty or give me death!" as early as March 1775, accused the new Constitution of "squinting towards monarchy." "Your president may easily become king," he told the members of the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788. (Virginia voted narrowly, 89–79, in favor of ratification.)

To muffle such fears the authors of The Federalist Papers deployed a variety of rhetorical gambits. The most direct, forceful tactic was to prove that the Articles of Confederation were too weak. But how to demonstrate that the new Constitution would not be excessively strong? In various papers, the authors reassured their readers the states would retain most of their current powers, surrendering only a few to the national government. Madison even resorts to the expedient in Essay 40 of claiming the principles of the new Constitution are not absolutely new but rather merely extensions of principles found in the Articles. Hamilton was more forthright when he bluntly asserts in Essay 15 that the Articles had brought the United States to a state of "impending anarchy."


One of the trickiest tasks confronting the authors of The Federalist Papers was to provide readers with a clear, convincing explanation of the framework of Federalism established by the new Constitution. It was a case of persuading readers that government could function in a "both-and" rather than in an "either-or" mode, at least some of the time. Madison's Essay 39 comes closer than any other paper to making this point clearly. The framers in Philadelphia, he says, have established a blend, or composite. He makes the same point in Essay 46, when he characterizes the federal and state governments as different agents or trustees of the people.

Hamilton is also persuasive when he handles this theme in relation to taxation. Federalism does not mean, he declares, that the states will lose their taxing power. With the exception of the prohibition of taxes on exports and imports, state revenues will continue much as before. Just as with his discussions of the judiciary later on in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton uses the term concurrent jurisdiction to clarify how the system will work (see Essay 34).

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