The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | Symbols



For the authors of The Federalist Papers the Constitution seems, at times, to take on quasi-mythic significance. In the opening essay Hamilton announces the momentous choice that citizens face. In the final paragraph of the last essay, Essay 85, Hamilton rhapsodizes, "The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy."

Madison is more down-to-earth when he discusses the obstacles and challenges confronting the framers in Essay 37. Yet even he can barely contain himself when he remarks, "The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected."

For the authors of The Federalist Papers the new Constitution provides a symbolic assurance the Union will continue. Since the Union is essential to the liberties of citizens and to the nation's survival, the Constitution is the most precious possession of all Americans because it stands for the nation.


In The Federalist Papers energy is always positive, symbolizing health, activity, effectiveness, and the nation as a whole. Hamilton, for example, uses the word energy repeatedly in Essay 70 when he discusses the need for a strong executive branch headed by a single chief magistrate, the president. In Essay 37 Madison devotes considerable emphasis to "energy in government," regarding it as essential to "security against external and internal danger."

Energy is, of course, precisely what the Articles of Confederation did not have. In almost every department of government, from taxation to war to the judiciary, the Articles were singularly feeble. Congress had no power to tax citizens directly but had to depend on requisitions to the states for revenue. Likewise, Congress had to rely on a quota system for the raising of troops. Practically speaking, there were no executive or judicial branches of government.

The authors of The Federalist Papers, therefore, saw energy as in unique demand. For the essayists the word energetic seems to have had connotations similar to the contemporary adjectives proactive, dynamic, resourceful, and vigorous.


Just as "energy" has consistently favorable connotations in The Federalist Papers, "faction" has universally bad ones. The classic discussion is Madison's Essay 10. Madison specifically defines faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

This definition, in effect, makes faction symbolic of conflict, divisiveness, selfishness, and harm. Madison's stress on the idea of "some common impulse of passion, or of interest" is noteworthy. Individuals who form a faction, he implies, are people driven by unworthy motives. They can amount to a majority or to a minority. But they do not have the public good at heart.

What, then, is the difference between Madison's "faction" and groups on the contemporary scene such as political parties or interest groups that lobby Congress for certain special causes? Perhaps there is not a great difference. Readers know that George Washington, one of Madison's mentors, distrusted political parties, and also that the framers of the Constitution took great pains to guard against corruption and conflicts of interest. Yet Madison's argument in Essay 10, that the size and diversity of the United States would largely offset and restrain the potential damage of factions, has stood the test of time.

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