In the eight months following the adjournment of the constitutional convention of 1787, alexander hamilton, james madison, and john jay wrote a series of eighty-five essays in support of the proposed Constitution. These essays were published in newspapers and as a two-volume book under the title The Federalist. This work was intended to influence voters electing delegates to the ratifying conventions and the delegates themselves; and the length, detail, and subtlety of its argument suggest an additional intention of enlightening later generations. While some contemporaries thought other, simpler and briefer, writings better calculated to influence the decision of 1787–1788, The Federalist was regarded as a work of enduring value by thomas jefferson ("the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written"), george washington, and others. It has remained the most comprehensive and profound defense ever written of the American form of government; and it has been, as Chief Justice john marshall wrote in mcculloch v. maryland (1819), "justly supposed to be entitled to great respect" by courts engaged in "expounding the constitution."
The first section of The Federalist (#2 through #14) explains the advantages of a union as compared to independent American states. A large country is better suited than small countries to avoid or win wars, to pursue profitable commercial arrangements, and to raise revenue. Moreover, a large country's relative freedom from fear of war makes it more likely to preserve a free government. (Small countries facing frequent wars eventually accept the risk of being less free in order to be more safe.) Most novel was The Federalist 's claim that a popular form of government would be more likely in a large country than in a small country to secure private rights and the public good. montesquieu and the Anti-Federalist writers who quoted him acknowledged that large countries ruled by monarchs enjoyed certain advantages in foreign affairs, but insisted that only small republics could enjoy the internal advantages of a patriotic citizenry ruling itself for its own good. In the famous Federalist #10 Madison argued that even in the smallest republic the citizenry is not an "it" but a collection of diverse individuals. Those individuals' rights deserve protection, but their passions and interests can unite them in groups that oppose the rights of others or the public good. Madison offered a twofold defense of a large republic. First, the diversity of a large country makes it less likely that any single group will constitute a majority of the voters and therefore be able to oppress other groups by virtue of the republican principle of majority rule. Second, in a large republic elections will be more likely to choose "fit characters" who will pursue the public good. The conclusion that republican government was possible, indeed better, in a large country served to reconcile the unpleasant necessities that seem to require largeness with the deep-rooted desire to have a popular government.
Essays #15 through #36 explain the necessity of "energetic" government. Although the national government has limited purposes, it must be able to tax and raise armies. Under the articles of confederation, Congress could demand the necessary money and men but had to address its demands to the state governments, whose disobedience could not be punished and whose compliance therefore could not be counted on. The decisive innovation of the new Constitution was the government's ability to address its commands to individual citizens, each of whose inability to contemplate forcible resistance made him respectful of "the arm of the ordinary magistrate." By defending this innovation in the name of federalism, The Federalist transformed the meaning of that term. Whereas others regarded true federalism as requiring what Montesquieu called a "society of societies"—that is, a union composed of and ruling over political communities rather than individuals—The Federalist regarded that as a prescription for disunion, thus deserving the name "antifederal" for its inevitable tendency.
The prospect that the new government would be able to exercise its nominal powers and coerce citizens raised the question of how such an energetic government could be confined to its proper purposes and restrained from oppression. The Federalist did not look to a careful enumeration of granted or excluded powers to control the government, because mere "parchment" would do little by itself and because certain formidable powers (for example, taxation) could not be excluded or even limited in their extent. The government could only be controlled by being "well modeled," by having a "general genius" and "internal structure" that made it trustworthy. This meant first of all that the government was "wholly popular"; its whole power was entrusted to the representatives of the people, and could therefore be controlled by the people in elections. The Federalist #37 through #84 explains the "conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government."
The fact that popular elections permit the people to "oblige the government to control itself" exhausts neither The Federalist 's prescription for a well-modeled government nor its argument for popular government. For one thing, the people are vulnerable to rulers who deceive them, misuse their powers between elections, or cancel elections. "A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." The auxiliary precautions are of various sorts, but all are designed to make ambition counteract ambition, so that no ruler's love of power is given free rein. aseparationof powers, legislative, executive, and judicial, insures that the people will be ruled in accordance with known laws that are enforced even against those who adopt them. The executive's veto power both preserves this functional separation and, together with the legislature's bicameralism, inhibits hasty lawmaking. The judiciary enjoys a tenure of good behavior to fortify judges in their task of preventing illegal executive acts and unconstitutional legislative acts. This last activity, now known as judicial review, was given its first sustained intellectual defense by Hamilton in The Federalist #78. Hamilton insisted on the court's duty to enforce the Constitution as law and indeed, because it was solemnly and authoritatively adopted by the people, as superior to the laws passed by the legislature, even if the legislature's laws were supported or instigated by the people themselves. The legislature's power of impeachment provided a remedy against abuse of this judicial authority, or of the President's formidable powers. And the existence of state and national governments with independent powers to serve their own distinct objects gives each a platform and a motive to expose the other's encroachments.
The Federalist defended such auxiliary precautions (that is, precautions in addition to the people's electoral power) as reducing the chance that the government would betray and oppress the people as a whole. A more difficult problem, already explained in The Federalist #10, was that the people are not a whole, and that rulers elected by the majority might oppress the rights of minorities. The longer terms of senators, Presidents, and judges enabled them to oppose sudden and transient unjust impulses of the majority. A grateful people might reward such service once the heat of passion had cooled, or an excellent ruler might do his duty without reward; but the Constitution's institutions could not defend against an enduring majority's unjust passion or interest—hence the importance of a large country's diversity in making such majorities less likely.
The Federalist defends the "particular structure" of the Constitution not only as discouraging oppression but as encouraging good government. The task of a good national government is to secure the nation against foreign and domestic violence and to regulate its commerce so as to promote the general welfare. These activities in turn serve the most fundamental object of government, which is justice, meaning the protection of each individual's right to exercise his own faculties in the acquisition of property and in other activities. Thus an important accomplishment for any government is that it not itself be a source of injustice, that it achieve "the negative merit of not doing harm."
Further, positive merit of doing some good is encouraged by the Constitution's creation of offices in relatively small numbers and with relatively long terms, so as to encourage more capable candidates to seek office and to be elected and (more important) to put those elected in a situation in which they feel a personal motive to do some good. The experience officials could gain in office would help them devise means to promote the public good; and the distance of the people from direct rule would enable them to judge dispassionately and retrospectively the merit of their officials' policies according to their experience of the apparent effects of those policies. In the best case, officials moved by "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds" would have an opportunity to "undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit." Even in more ordinary cases, a durable senate would tend to foster stability in the laws and a single executive would be able to enforce them energetically.
The Federalist 's defense of these institutions does not, however, deduce them entirely from the requirements of safe and good government. By those standards, The Federalist would not have found indefensible the "mixed" government of England, whose popularly elected House of Commons permits the people to restrain the government from oppression, whose king is an energetic executive, and whose House of Lords provides a source of stability and of protection for the rights of a minority. The Federalist emphatically defends the "strictly republican," "wholly popular" character of the American Constitution, which is made necessary by "that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." Not a knowledge of human fitness for self-government but an assertion of that fitness, or a knowledge of the human impulse to assert that fitness, justifies popular government. To protect the faculties of men requires protecting their faculty of passionately defending their own opinions, respecting their "pretension" to rule. The Federalist defended the American Constitution not only for its likely service of the interests of Americans but also for its tendency to "vindicate the honor of the human race."
The Federalist remains America's most important political book because it offers an explanation and defense of our form of government written by men who could not take the goodness or permanence of that regime for granted. Americans who study The Federalist today may find not only new reasons to appreciate the Constitution they inherit but also an account of government somewhat different from that assumed in contemporary opinion. For example, to The Federalist justice means impartial protection of the right to exercise one's faculties, not equal provision for the satisfaction of one's needs or desires. constitutionalism means that the people's solemn choice of their own form of government can be overridden only by a new, deliberate popular choice, not silently and gradually improved by judges trying to make the Constitution a living document. And representation is an arrangement that allows an opinionated people to select capable rulers and periodically pass formal judgment on their service of the public good, not an imperfect simulation of ancient direct democracy or a primitive version of modern opinion polling. The Federalist is thus both a source of understanding and appreciation of the American Constitution and a guide to reflection on its subsequent development.
David F. Epstein
Adair, Douglass 1974 Fame and the Founding Fathers. New York: Norton.
Diamond, Martin (1963) 1972 The Federalist. Pages 631–651 in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: Rand McNally.
Epstein, David F. 1984 The Political Theory of The Federalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.