Federalist Papers

views updated May 29 2018


The Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, were intended to win public support for the Constitution by explaining in detail how the proposed system of government would work. The essays, signed with the pseudonym "Publius," appeared in several New York newspapers from October 1787 to April 1788, and were also reprinted in other states. Their carefully crafted arguments in favor of the Constitution convinced many Americans to support its ratification and influenced later interpretations of constitutional principles.

origins and authorship

Supporters of the Constitution realized that winning ratification in New York would be a difficult task. Governor George Clinton, who led the opposition, attacked the Constitution in several published letters signed "Cato," charging that the framers had no authority to devise a new system of government, and that the Constitution threatened the rights of the citizens as well as the states.

Hamilton realized that an effective response was necessary. Believing that a well-reasoned defense of the Constitution would win over many voters, he decided to publish a series of papers explaining the principles of the Constitution and why it was an improvement over the current Confederation government. Hamilton wrote the first "Publius" letter and enlisted John Jay and, later, James Madison to assist in the undertaking. Madison composed about one-third of the essays, Jay five, and Hamilton the remainder (the authorship of several is un-certain). The essays describe how the Constitution would operate as well as how the new system of government would mesh with both the principles that had inspired the Revolution and the lessons learned from the experience of the Revolution itself.

key political principles

More than half of the essays emphasized the need for a stronger central government. The Federalist arguments for this were based on the need to preserve liberty while maintaining domestic order, and the essays sought to modify the political ideas of republicanism in light of the lessons of the Revolution. Republican ideology held that the virtue of the people would insure their commitment to the common good, but wartime experience had convinced the Federalists that people were more likely to ignore political ideals to pursue selfish ends at the expense of the public interest.

During the Revolution power had remained in the hands of Congress and the states. Because state and sectional interests were often in conflict, the United States had found it difficult to formulate and carry out policy even in times of crisis. States had refused to contribute the taxes and troops demanded by Congress, jeopardizing the war effort. Sectional disputes over the goals sought in peace negotiations had caused difficulty in settling the treaty with Great Britain. American farmers had refused to sell grain to their own troops for Continental paper money, yet sold food to their British enemies for gold. Without an executive strong enough to carry out the mandates of Congress, or a mechanism to compel either states or individuals to comply with congressional decisions, it proved nearly impossible to execute any coherent policy. This was demonstrated again after the war, when the Confederation government was unable to respond effectively to Spain's closure of the Mississippi River to American commerce, or to Britain's refusal to evacuate forts as required by the peace treaty.

The authors of the Federalist Papers explained at length how the Constitution would remedy these deficiencies. In Federalist No. 26, Hamilton declared that an energetic government was not the enemy of liberty, but rather the best means of securing people's rights. For Hamilton, the energy of this government was centered in the executive. A strong president, he asserted in Federalist No. 70, is necessary for government to be effective. "A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government," he wrote, and this was equivalent to "a bad execution; and a government ill executed… must be in practice, a bad government."

Hamilton also refuted claims that because the Constitution granted the federal government direct power over citizens, it threatened liberty. He noted in Federalist No. 21 that the Confederation's inability to enforce its own laws was a "striking absurdity." This weakness was a greater threat to liberty than the power granted to the national government, for the current Confederation government was powerless to intervene if a tyrant should gain control of a state and oppress the citizens. Furthermore, Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 31, without the power to collect taxes, the national government would be unable to meet even its ordinary financial needs. The Revolution had shown that the states could not be relied upon to supply requested funds—only the authority to collect taxes directly from the people could provide the revenues that were the "essential engine" of effective government.

In a glaring break with republican beliefs, Hamilton argued in favor of the Constitution's provision for a standing army. The idea that a professional army could be employed to oppress the people was a key element of republican thought, and the Constitution's creation of a powerful federal government combined with the possibility of a standing army at its disposal frightened many Americans; opponents of the Constitution found this to be a powerful argument against ratification. Hamilton maintained that a standing army would not be an instrument of tyranny, but instead leave citizens free to pursue their livelihoods to their benefit and that of the United States. In Federalist No. 24 he stated that taking people from their farms and businesses for extended militia service "would be as burdensome and injurious to the public as ruinous to private citizens." Hamilton dismissed the idea of the army being used to oppress the people in Federalist No. 26, noting that such a scheme would require the unlikely collusion of the executive and legislative branches, while in Federalist No. 27 he stated that there would be no need to use the army to enforce the laws, as the Constitution granted that power to the federal judiciary.


"By a faction, I understand 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, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Another key principle of republican thought invoked by opponents of the Constitution was the belief, based on historical examples, that a large republic could not survive for long without falling under the grip of tyranny. Madison addressed this issue in Federalist No. 10. He did so by focusing on a fear shared by supporters and opponents of the Constitution, that of faction, which he defined as "a majority or minority… united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Should any faction gain power, Americans believed their liberty would be endangered. Madison conceded that faction could not be eliminated, only controlled, but that it was more easily controlled in a large republic than a small one. A large republic would benefit from a larger electorate as well as from a larger pool of qualified leaders, both of whom were less likely to fall under the influence of factions. Also, competing regional interests would be better balanced in a geographically large country.

Other key points discussed in the Federalist Papers included the separation of powers, the role of the judiciary, and the limits of federal power. Madison dealt with the first as it related to the division of state and national power in Federalist No. 14, writing that the two-tiered system allowed the federal government to focus on issues of national concern while the states focused on domestic responsibilities, so that the people would be well served in both spheres. In Federalist No. 51 he added that the state and national governments would help preserve liberty by serving as a check upon one another; Madison also noted that the structure of the federal government would protect liberty by distributing power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, a point also made in Federalist No. 47. Hamilton addressed the function of the federal judiciary in Federalist No. 78, in which he stated that the primary role of federal judges was to review laws to insure their compatibility with the Constitution. By invalidating laws that conflicted with constitutional principles, judges would uphold the will of the people as expressed by their ratification of the Constitution. Hamilton defended the Constitution's controversial "necessary and proper" clause in Federalist No. 33, declaring that it merely gave the federal government the means to carry out the responsibilities granted to it by the Constitution. The national government itself and the people were, Hamilton, wrote, the final judges of what policies were necessary and proper.

the federalist legacy

The Federalist Papers had a lasting influence on how Americans have understood the Constitution, and thus on American society and culture. Acting on principles contained in the Federalist Papers regarding the need to control factional domestic unrest, George Washington suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Andrew Jackson demanded South Carolina's compliance with federal tariff laws in 1832, and Abraham Lincoln resisted secession in 1861. The elasticity of federal powers contained in the "necessary and proper" clause has justified a variety of actions, including Thomas Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase and Franklin Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. The principle of judicial review proved crucial to the success of the Civil Rights Movement by enforcing the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment. In explaining how the framers intended the Constitution to work, the Federalist Papers have enabled subsequent generations of Americans to better comprehend and apply constitutional principles, and the Federalist Papers remain among those documents that best define American political ideas.


Carey, George W. The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Kramnick, Isaac. "The 'Great National Discussion': The Discourse of Politics in 1787." William & Mary Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 1988): 3–32.

Wright, Benjamin Fletcher, ed. The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961.

Jim Piecuch

See also:Articles of Confederation; Commonwealth Men; Constitution: Creating a Republic; Declaration of Independence; Shays's and Whiskey Rebellions.

Federalist Papers

views updated May 21 2018


A collection of eighty-five essays byalexander hamilton(1755–1804), james madison(1751–1836), andjohn jay(1745–1829) that explain the philosophy and defend the advantages of the U.S. Constitution.

The essays that constitute The Federalist Papers were published in various New York newspapers between October 27, 1787, and August 16, 1788, and appeared in book form in March and May 1788. They remain important statements of U.S. political and legal philosophy as well as a key source for understanding the U.S. Constitution.

The Federalist Papers originated in a contentious debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution. After its completion by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, the Constitution required ratification by nine states before it could become effective. A group known as the Federalists favored passage of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists opposed it.

To secure its ratification in New York State, Federalists Hamilton, Madison, and Jay published the Federalist essays under the pseudonym Publius, a name taken from Publius Valerius Poplicola, a leading politician of the ancient Roman republic. Their purpose was to clarify and explain the provisions of the Constitution, expounding its benefits over the existing system of government under the articles of confederation.

Federalist, No. 78, and the Power of the Judiciary

"We proceed now to an examination of thejudiciary department of the proposed government." So begins Federalist, no. 78, the first of six essays by alexander hamilton on the role of the judiciary in the government established by the U.S. Constitution.

Hamilton made two principal points in the essay. First, he argued for the independence of the judiciary from the other two branches of government, the executive and the legislative. In presenting a case for the judiciary, he reached his second major conclusion: that the judiciary must be empowered to strike down laws passed by Congress that it deems "contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution."

In presenting his argument for the independence of the judiciary, Hamilton claimed that it was by far the weakest of the three branches. It did not, he said, have the "sword" of the executive, who is commander in chief of the nation's armed forces, nor the "purse" of the legislature, which approves all the tax and spending measures of the national government. It had, according to Hamilton, "neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment."

As a result of this weakness, the U.S. Constitution protects the judiciary from the other two branches by what Hamilton called "permanency in office." Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution declares, "Judges … shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour." By making the tenure of federal judges permanent and not temporary, Hamilton argued, the Constitution ensures that judges will not be changed according to the interests or whims of another branch of government. According to Hamilton, permanent tenure also recognizes the complexity of the law in a free society. Few people, he believed, will have the knowledge and the integrity to judge the law, and those deemed adequate to the office must be retained rather than replaced.

The judiciary must also be independent, according to Hamilton, so that it may fulfill its main purpose in a constitutional government: the protection of the "particular rights or privileges" of the people as set forth by the Constitution. Here, Hamilton made his second major point. To protect those rights, he proclaimed, the judiciary must be given the power of judicial review to declare as null and void laws that it deems unconstitutional.

Critics of the Constitution claimed that judicial review gave the judiciary power superior to that of the legislative branch. Hamilton responded to them in Federalist, no. 78, by arguing that both branches are inferior to the power of the people and that the judiciary's role is to ensure that the legislature remains a "servant" of the Constitution and the people who created it, not a "master":

There is no position which depends on clearer principles than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this would be to affirm that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves.

Although judicial review is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court established the legitimacy of the concept when it struck down an act of Congress in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60. The courts had embraced judicial review by the twentieth century, leading some critics to maintain that the overly active use of judicial review had given the courts too much power. Whether or not the courts have demonstrated "judicial activism" by striking down legislation, Hamilton was correct in foreseeing that the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts would protect the rights defined by the people in their Constitution.


Marbury v. Madison; Marshall, John.

Hamilton, a New Yorker who served as treasury secretary under President george washington from 1789 to 1795, was the principal architect of The Federalist Papers. Hamilton conceived the idea for the book and enlisted the aid of Madison and Jay. He is thought to have written fifty-one of the essays: numbers 1, 6–9, 11–13, 15–17, 21–36, 59–61, and 65–85. Madison, who served two terms as the president of the United States, from 1809 to 1817, probably authored twenty-six of the papers: 10, 14, 37–58, and 62–63. Madison and Hamilton probably wrote papers 18–20 together. Jay, who sat as the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, from 1789 to 1795, wrote five essays: 2–5 and 64.

The essays presented a number of arguments with great importance for the founding of the U.S. government. They forcefully made the case for a strong union between the states (numbers 1–14); the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation (15–22); the advantages of a strong, or "energetic," central government (23–36); and a republican government's ability to provide political stability as well as liberty (35–51). The later essays examined the roles of the three branches of government—the legislative (52–66), the executive (67–77), and the judicial (78–83)—as well as the issue of a bill of rights (84). The last essay consists of a closing summary (85). In making their arguments, the authors also discussed the benefits of federalism, under which the state and federal governments would each have a distinct sphere of power.

Several of the essays have been especially influential in U.S. political history and philosophy. The most famous, Federalist, no. 10, by Madison, concerns the dangers and remedies of factionalism for a republican government. Madison, seeking a "republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government," argued that a large republic of the kind envisioned by the Constitution will be less likely to fall victim to disputes between different factions than will a small republic. Here and in essay 51, Madison claimed that the diversity, or "plurality," of interests that exist in a large commercial republic will prevent any one faction from uniting to deprive the rights of a smaller faction.

The essays on the role of the federal judiciary have had a lasting influence on U.S. law. Essay 78 contains an important defense of the principle of judicial review, the power that allows the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by Congress. In number 80, Hamilton argued for the establishment of a system of federal courts separate from state courts, an idea that was realized several years later.

further readings

Bailyn, Bernard. 1998. The Federalist Papers. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1787–88. The Federalist Papers. Reprint, New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1961.

Helfman, Tara. 2002. "The Law of Nations in 'The Federalist Papers'." Journal of Legal History 23 (August): 107–28.

Martinez, J. Michael, and William D. Richardson. 2000."The Federalist Papers and Legal Interpretation." South Dakota Law Review 45 (summer): 307–33.


Constitution of the United States; "Federalist Papers" (Appendix, Primary Document).

Federalist Papers

views updated May 23 2018


The Federalist (also known as the "Federalist Papers") is a collection of eighty-five essays on the U.S. Constitution written under the pseudonym Publius by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Hamilton conceived of the project as a means of countering anti-Federalists, opponents of the Constitution who were busily writing their own essays warning of the dangerous powers given to the proposed national government. Madison and Hamilton eventually wrote all but five of the essays, which appeared serially in New York City newspapers between October 1787 and August 1788. They were also published in book form in 1788.

Although the procedure for ratification required only nine states to approve the proposed Constitution, New York's support was crucial both because of the centrality of the state and because of its importance as a center of trade. If New York had voted against ratification, the Constitution would likely not have gone into effect, even with the necessary nine votes elsewhere. Ironically, The Federalist had little impact on ratification in New York. Although New York City elected representatives to the special convention who favored ratification, rural New Yorkers were suspicious, and the final makeup of the state convention had a clear majority opposed to ratification. Hamilton and his supporters eventually wore down the opposition, though, and New York became the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution on 26 July 1788. Despite failing to influence many New York voters, The Federalist had a major impact beyond New York. The essays were reprinted throughout the states and served almost as a debater's handbook for the forces in favor of ratification at other state conventions.

The Federalist examined a number of major issues, such as the flaws in the Articles of Confederation (which governed the United States of America until the Constitution was ratified), the nature of federalism with its division of power between a national and state governments, and the powers of the various branches of government as well as why those powers were necessary. Although The Federalist does contain some innovative political philosophy (most famously, Madison's Federalist No. 10, with its novel argument that a republican government is safer in a large, not small, republic), it focuses mostly on practical considerations of how government should function. In this, the authors exhibit what would become a distinctly American, pragmatic attitude. Because nearly all agreed that America should have a republican government, the writers ignored many of the philosophical questions that had engaged Western political philosophy up to that time.

The Federalist also served an extremely important rhetorical function. The moment for such an ambitious series of political essays was brief. A few decades after 1787–1788, the essays would probably not have had a significant impact because of the explosion of newspapers. The essays themselves fostered a tone of civility in the debate and contributed to the larger discursive framework that the authors were attempting to establish. The well-wrought, carefully reasoned political essays became virtual enactments of the kind of deliberation the authors hoped the national government would foster.

The Federalist almost never mentioned specific anti-Federalist writers or essays, even though those attacks shaped the project. The invisibility of the anti-Federalists within the essays was part of Publius's rhetorical strategy to establish himself as a neutral commentator offering an unbiased overview, rather than as a partisan responding to specific charges. These tactics reinforced the overall thrust of The Federalist. Instead of trying to score every possible debating point, the authors attempted to shift the entire realm of the debate away from considerations of competing interests to considerations of the public good, as they defined it.

They also argued themselves into a more reasonable position. Both Hamilton and Madison had argued vigorously for an even more powerful national government during the Constitutional Convention. Now called upon to defend the Constitution to people suspicious even of the powers that were given, they offered a moderate view of what the national government would actually be empowered to do.

Hamilton and Madison had read widely in political philosophy and drew upon a large range of historical and political writings in articulating their understanding of the Constitution. Perhaps most important, David Hume, the Scottish enlightenment thinker, influenced both men on a number of important issues.

The Federalist continues to have a significant role in the American political tradition. Not only do political scientists still turn to it as the most authoritative guide to the U.S. Constitution, but legislators, presidents, and U.S. Supreme Court justices continue to study its pronouncements in their efforts to understand the Constitution.

See alsoAnti-Federalists; Constitution, Ratification of; Constitutional Convention .


Adair, Douglass. Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. New York: Norton, 1974.

Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Wills, Garry. Explaining America: The Federalist. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Andrew S. Trees

Federalist Papers

views updated Jun 11 2018


FEDERALIST PAPERS. On 27 October 1787, the first essay of The Federalist, written under the pen name Publius, appeared in a New York City newspaper. Its author was Alexander Hamilton, who conceived the project of publishing an extended series of essays to support the ratification of the newly proposed Federal Constitution. Hamilton recruited two other prominent leaders as his co-authors: John Jay and James Madison. Together, they published seventy-seven newspaper essays by April 1788, and another eight appeared in the second volume of the first book edition. Hamilton is credited with writing fifty-one essays, Madison twenty-nine, and Jay, weakened by illness, just five. All three authors drew upon their extensive experience in national politics and the military and diplomatic struggle for independence. The two main authors also played critical roles in the maneuvers leading to the Federal Convention and the drafting of the Constitution, and they also founded the rival schools of constitutional interpretation that developed after it took effect. As a result, The Federalist has long been regarded as the most authoritative exposition of the original meaning of the Constitution, and the leading American contribution to Western political thought.

The division of assignments allowed the authors to tap their particular strengths. Hamilton, the more ardent nationalist, had seven years of service in the Continental Army, mostly as aide-de-camp to General Washington; he was also a close student of public finance and a successful attorney. It was therefore fitting that he wrote the essays emphasizing the necessity for an effective national union with adequate powers over national defense and revenue, as well as those examining the executive and judiciary. Madison's experience was primarily legislative; he was more engaged with basic questions of political theory, and more concerned than Hamilton with balancing the authority of the Union and the states. It was equally fitting, then, that he wrote the leading essays on Congress and federalism, as well as addressing anti-Federalist objections that the Constitution violated fundamental maxims of free government.

Two of those maxims were closely associated with one of the most celebrated works of eighteenth-century political science, Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws. One of these maxims argued that republican government could safely operate only in small, homogeneous societies where the citizens shared similar interests and the virtue to subordinate private interest to public good. The other held that liberty depended upon a rigid separation of both the functions and personnel of the different departments of government. Madison challenged these propositions in two famous essays. "Federalist 10" argued that liberty would be more secure in a large, diverse republic, where "factious majorities" would find it more difficult to gain control of the government. "Federalist 51" concluded a series of essays on the separation of powers by arguing that the task of maintaining equilibrium among the departments required giving the members of each branch the incentives and means to protect their constitutional powers. Hamilton's best-known essay is "Federalist 78," which offered an early defense of the theory of judicial review, enabling courts to measure legislative and executive acts against constitutional standards.


Adair, Douglass. "The Tenth Federalist Revisited." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 8 (1951): 48–67.

———. "'That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science': David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist." Huntington Library Quarterly, 20 (1957): 343–360.

Cooke, Jacob, ed. The Federalist. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of The Federalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Kesler, Charles R. ed. Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding. New York: Free Press, 1987.


See alsoUnited States Constitution ; andvol. 9:The Call for Amendments .

About this article

Federalist Papers

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic


Federalist Papers