In October 1787, the first in a series of 85 essays arguing for ratification of the proposed U.S. Constitution appeared in the Independent Journal, under the pseudonym “Publius.” Addressed to “the People of the State of New York,” the essays—now known as the Federalist Papers—were actually written by the statesmen Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, leading supporters of the Constitution and the strong national government it created. They would be published serially from 1787-88 in several New York newspapers.
The first 77 essays, including Madison’s famous Federalist 10, appeared in book form in 1788. Entitled The Federalist, it has been hailed as one of the most important political documents in U.S. history.
Debate over the Constitution
As the first written constitution of the newly independent United States, the Articles of Confederation nominally granted Congress the power to conduct foreign policy, maintain armed forces and coin money. But in practice, this centralized government body had little authority over the individual states, including no power to levy taxes or regulate commerce, which hampered the new nation’s ability to pay its outstanding debts from the Revolutionary War.
In May 1787, 55 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to address the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation and the problems that had arisen from this weakened central government. The document that emerged from the Constitutional Convention went far beyond amending the Articles, however. Instead, it established an entirely new system, including a robust central government divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches.
As soon as 39 delegates signed the proposed Constitution in September 1787, the document went to the states for ratification, igniting a furious debate between “Federalists,” who favored ratification of the Constitution as written, and “Antifederalists,” who opposed the Constitution and resisted giving stronger powers to the national government.
The Rise of Publius
In New York, opposition to the Constitution was particularly strong, and ratification was seen as particularly important. Immediately after the document was adopted, Antifederalists began publishing articles in the press criticizing it. They argued that the document gave Congress excessive powers, and that it could lead to the American people losing the hard-won liberties they had fought for and won in the Revolution.
In response to such critiques, the New York lawyer and statesman Alexander Hamilton, who had served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, decided to write a comprehensive series of essays defending the Constitution, and promoting its ratification. As a collaborator, Hamilton recruited his fellow New Yorker John Jay, who had helped negotiate the treaty ending the war with Britain and served as secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation. The two later enlisted the help of James Madison, another delegate to the Constitutional Convention who was in New York at the time serving in the Confederation Congress.
To avoid opening himself and Madison to charges of betraying the Convention’s confidentiality, Hamilton chose the pen name “Publius,” after a general who had helped found the Roman Republic. He wrote the first essay, which appeared in the Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. In it, Hamilton argued that the debate facing the nation was not only over ratification of the proposed Constitution, but over the question of “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
After writing the next four essays on the failures of the Articles of Confederation in the realm of foreign affairs, Jay had to drop out of the project due to an attack of rheumatism; he would write only one more essay in the series. Madison wrote a total of 29 essays, while Hamilton wrote a staggering 51.
What the Federalist Papers Said
In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Jay and Madison argued that the decentralization of power that existed under the Articles of Confederation prevented the new nation from becoming strong enough to compete on the world stage, or to quell internal insurrections such as Shays’s Rebellion. In addition to laying out the many ways in which they believed the Articles of Confederation didn’t work, Hamilton, Jay and Madison used the Federalist essays to explain key provisions of the proposed Constitution, as well as the nature of the republican form of government.
In Federalist 10, which became the most influential of all the essays, Madison argued against the French political philosopher Montesquieu’s assertion that true democracy—including Montesquieu’s concept of the separation of powers—was feasible only for small states. A larger republic, Madison suggested, could more easily balance the competing interests of the different groups (or “factions”) within it. “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests,” he wrote. “[Y]ou make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens[.]”
After emphasizing the central government’s weakness in law enforcement under the Articles of Confederation in Federalist 21-22, Hamilton dove into a comprehensive defense of the proposed Constitution in the next 14 essays, devoting seven of them to the importance of the government’s power of taxation. Madison followed with 20 essays devoted to the structure of the new government, including the need for checks and balances between the different powers.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote memorably in Federalist 51. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
After Jay contributed one more essay on the powers of the Senate, Hamilton concluded the Federalist essays with 21 installments exploring the powers held by the three branches of government—legislative, executive and judiciary.
Impact of the Federalist Papers
Despite their outsized influence in the years to come, and their importance today as touchstones for understanding the Constitution and the founding principles of the U.S. government, the essays published as The Federalist in 1788 saw limited circulation outside of New York at the time they were written. They also fell short of convincing many New York voters, who sent far more Antifederalists than Federalists to the state ratification convention.
Still, in July 1788, a slim majority of New York delegates voted in favor of the Constitution, on the condition that amendments would be added securing certain additional rights. Though Hamilton had opposed this (writing in Federalist 84 that such a bill was unnecessary and could even be harmful) Madison himself would draft the Bill of Rights in 1789, while serving as a representative in the nation’s first Congress.
Ron Chernow, Hamilton (Penguin, 2004)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
“If Men Were Angels: Teaching the Constitution with the Federalist Papers.” Constitutional Rights Foundation.
Dan T. Coenen, “Fifteen Curious Facts About the Federalist Papers.” University of Georgia School of Law, April 1, 2007.