The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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The Federalist Papers | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Federalist Papers are a collection of documents, fundamental to the American political system, written in defense of ratifying the U.S. Constitution. The majority of the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers were produced between 1787 and 1788, in the months leading up the Constitution's formal ratification on June 21, 1788. The coauthors—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—are now household names, being that they're three of the Founding Fathers of the United States. At the time, however, these men had an uphill battle to fight in order to convince their colleagues to approve a federal Constitution, thereby giving much greater power to the federal government.

In addition to their persuasive effects convincing others to ratify the Constitution, The Federalist Papers are noteworthy for their attention to the problems that arise with a democratic government. The authors addressed problems such as the potential for tyrannical leadership head-on, suggesting solutions to overcome the pitfalls of democracy. Today The Federalist Papers are considered some of the most important documents of American political thought ever produced, and the collection serves as a road map for American governance.

1. The Federalist Papers were instrumental in defining the problem of "tyranny of the majority."

An unintended consequence of democracy is the problem known as "tyranny of the majority," in which the electoral process will always favor the values and views held by the largest number of people, marginalizing other perspectives. The Founding Fathers were aware of this difficult problem in any democratic government and discussed it at length in The Federalist Papers.

In Essay 10 Madison explained that majority rule was more of a threat in smaller states—and that by adopting a federal constitution, the United States would maintain a diverse enough number of viewpoints and political attitudes to avoid democracy devolving into tyranny. In addition, Madison advocated for the separation of powers in government to combat this unfortunate possibility. His treatise on "tyranny of the majority" in The Federalist Papers helped define and draw attention to the matter, and it is regarded by historians and political theorists as an important preventative insight.

2. The Federalist Papers were met with responses critiquing the Constitution.

Just as Madison and Hamilton argued for the 1787 ratification of the Constitution in The Federalist Papers, dissenters appealed to states' independence in the aptly named Anti-Federalist Papers. In the same way that the authors of The Federalist Papers wrote under the pseudonym "Publius," paying homage to the ancient Roman statesman, the anti-federalists also chose pen names of important classical historical figures. One of the most prolific of these authors wrote as "Brutus," referencing the adviser to Julius Caesar who betrayed him in an attempt to prevent a tyrannical Roman government. Another author wrote as "Plebeian," the Roman term for a member of the lower class, while others shirked the Roman theme altogether and wrote under pseudonyms such as "A Customer," "An Old Whig," and "Montezuma."

3. The Federalist Papers were most heavily circulated in New York—and for good reason.

The Federalist Papers were most widely distributed in New York state, which was the most intensely divided regarding the Constitution's ratification. While many in New York City supported the federalists' cause, the comparably rural upstate regions were bitterly against expansion of federal government. Hamilton, a New York federalist, earned votes in favor of ratification by threatening that the city of New York might potentially split from the rest of the state if the political divide continued.

The Federalist Papers were instrumental in reassuring New Yorkers from both regions that the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution would prevent tyranny in government and that federalism was necessary for Americans to conduct foreign affairs appropriately. Aside from New York's divided populace, the state also held one of the country's highest populations at the time, and the federalists knew that persuading New York to ratify was crucial for their movement. This was made even more obvious by the fact that each of The Federalist Papers is specifically addressed "To the People of the State of New York."

4. The Federalist Papers were written extremely quickly.

The authors of The Federalist Papers knew that the clock was ticking if they wanted to ratify the Constitution and that they only had a short time to write and distribute their arguments effectively. The 85 articles of The Federalist Papers were published within a period of only 10 months, from October 1787 to August 1788, with a new essay being produced and printed at least once a week. Hamilton, who arranged the printing, was expected to pay up front but instead convinced his printer that the importance of the documents would lead to a wide enough distribution. Scholars have remarked on the clarity with which the authors were able to write under such incredible pressure.

5. Hamilton was praised for his flawless handwriting.

In addition to the rapid pace with which the authors produced The Federalist Papers, one author was commended for his impeccable penmanship. Hamilton was renowned for his good handwriting, which was a treasured quality in the era before documents were typed. Although the statesman claimed that he was writing like he was "running out of time," his political essays were always completed with what biographer Ron Chernow described as a "beautiful, clear, flowing hand." Historians believe Hamilton mastered this craft while working as a trade house clerk at age 14, where he would write letters and transmissions for hours on end.

6. Hamilton refused to let a Continental congressman work on The Federalist Papers due to his bad writing.

All articles in The Federalist Papers are thought to have been produced by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. However, two other members of the Continental Congress were considered for the job: Gouverneur Morris and William Duer. Morris was unable to assist the project due to a busy schedule, but Duer claimed he was willing. Despite this, Hamilton rejected Duer's potential authorship after reading some of his essay drafts and finding them to be poorly written. Though he was probably stung by this rejection, Duer published several essays supporting the Constitution's ratification separately. Seeing his colleagues publish under the pseudonym "Publius," Duer wrote as "Philo-Publius," meaning "friend of Publius."

7. The Federalist Papers underwent a series of name changes over the years.

The title "The Federalist Papers" is actually a modern revision of the original title of the collection, which was simply called The Federalist when it appeared as a complete book in 1788. The book also carried a lengthy subtitle that is rarely used today—the work's full title was "The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787: in Two Volumes."

8. There's been dispute regarding the authorship of some of the essays in The Federalist Papers.

Most historians agree that, of the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton wrote 51, Madison wrote 14, Jay wrote 5, and Madison and Hamilton collaborated on 3. The remaining 12 papers, however, have been the source of much debate—and are often referred to as "the disputed papers." Thought to have been authored by either Madison or Hamilton, these papers were the subject of an extremely detailed study employing mathematical algorithms to differentiate between writing styles and place each essay closer to one author on a spectrum. The 1998 study, conducted by Robert A. Bosch and Jason A. Smith, concluded that all 12 disputed papers were more aligned with Madison's composition style.

9. The Federalist Papers strongly advocated for a checks-and-balances system in American government.

The authors of The Federalist Papers sought to alleviate fears from Americans that a large federal government, as opposed to a series of powerful state governments, would lead to tyranny. Madison took it upon himself to outline a system of checks and balances—now a cornerstone of American government—to prevent any individual or group from having too much unchecked power. In Essay 51 Madison advocated the importance of this separation of powers and described how it would prevent a failure of democracy. In one of the clearest and most historically crucial defenses of checks and balances, Madison wrote:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

10. Madison has been called "the father of the Constitution" but always rejected the title.

Madison, who would become the fourth president of the United States, was instrumental in both drafting and advocating for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. This led him to be referred to by many as "the father of the Constitution." As a leader from Virginia, which was the largest and most politically important state at the time, his contributions to the nation's founding have always been seen as among the most crucial. Even among other figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, Madison has often been referred to as "the Founding Father." However, he was also extremely humble—he always rejected his title as "the father of the Constitution" and insisted that the document was a collaborative effort.

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