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A classic of American political thought, The Federalist is a series of eighty-five essays by three authorsAlexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jaythe purpose of which was to gain support for the proposed new Constitution of the United States, a document that many considered too radical. Most of the “papers” were published in periodicals as the vote on approving it drew near. Without the support of these powerfully persuasive essays, the Constitution most likely would not have been ratified and America might not have survived as a nation.
Beginning with an assault upon the country’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, the authors of The Federalist present a masterly defense of the new system. Hamilton, Madison, and Jaythree of our most influential founderscomment brilliantly on issue after issue, whether it be the proper size and scope of government, taxation, or impeachment. Today lawmakers and politicians frequently invoke these commentaries, more than 200 years after they first appeared.
Written in haste and during a time of great crisis in the new American government, the articles were not expected to achieve immortality. Today, however, many historians consider The Federalist as the third most important political document in American history, just behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. They have become the benchmark of American political philosophy, and the best explanation of what the Founding Fathers were trying to achieve.
Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University; he teaches in both the Law School and the English Department. His books include Law and Letters in American Culture, The American Enlightenment, 1750–1820, and Reading the Early Republic.
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From Robert A. Ferguson’sIntroduction to The Federalist
The greatest American contribution to world literature has come through the country’s originating claims. Between 1776 and 1820, the most intense philosophical period of civic discourse ever known, a literature of public documents dominates intellectual creativity in the United States. It consists of pamphlets, orations, declarations, ordinances of expansion, bills of rights, petitions of toleration, constitutions of all kinds, and a handful of judicial opinions. The best of these works reach for national identity through claims of universal rights and faith in the dignity of humankind. The words they contain are the aspirations that have attracted so many to American shores. More concretely, the same writings create representative government as we know it and a continental republicanism previously unimaginable. The obvious capstones of this literature are the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution of the United States in 1787, official texts honored throughout the world. Not far behind them, however, and a commentary on both, comes a collaboration of essays known as The Federalist. Printed first as ephemeral newspaper articles amid factional clamor but then as a two-volume book, it stands alone today as a practical guide to political theory and a sourcebook of civic understanding.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were the three very different and mostly separate authors of the eighty-five papers that make up The Federalist. They proceeded under a general plan set by Hamilton, but they worked independently on individual assignments. The loose partnership would last ten months, from October 27, 1787, until August 16, 1788, and when it was done, it, better than any other writing of the time, would come closestto articulating what the new and struggling United States might become. The Federalist took its direction and tone from the most vital dispute in American history. At issue was acceptance or rejection of the newly proposed Federal Constitution of 1787, and the debate over it was an acrimonious one. Citizens were being forced to make a choice between radically different conceptions of their country at a time when few observers could predict with confidence that the states would survive for long as one nation.
We forget how controversial the Constitution was in the moment of its birth. The document that now governs the United States was drafted in secrecy by men who knew that they had acted beyond the mandate given to them. Sent as state delegates to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to discuss problems in the new union, they had been told to make any adjustments within the Articles of Confederation as the official compact of union. The Articles had been drafted in the anti-authoritarian moment and spirit of 1776. It was a companion document to the Declaration of Independence, and it left autonomy in the hands of the individual states. Nonetheless, five years would pass before the apprehensive states approved even this loose coalition, and they did so in 1781 only after many revisions by Revolutionary leaders who feared centralized authority. The framers of the Constitution in Philadelphia basically ignored these fears. Instead of tinkering with the arrangement, they junked the Articles of Confederation altogether and wrote out their own document of fundamental principles. When they were done, they had substituted a much stronger ideal of union than the suspicious compromisers of the original Confederation had contemplated or would have allowed.
Nor was that all. When the framers in Philadelphia made their document public on September 17, 1787, after four long months of closed deliberation, they tacked on a string of non-negotiable demands. They insisted that their document, the new Constitution, be submitted unchanged by Confederation authorities to the states for ratification, that it be approved through state conventions for that purposee rather than through the existing state legislatures, that ratification require only a strong majority of the states rather than the unanimity stipulated under the original compact, and that their own deliberations remain secret and inviolable during debate over the document that they had written. Finally, the framers resisted any reconsideration by a comparable deliberative body of the kind that they had just conducted among themselves. When asked toward the end of theConvention about possible amendments through another general conclave because “it was improper to say to the people, take this or nothing,” Charles Pinckney answered for all of the framers when he replied, “Conventions are serious things, and ought not to be repeated.”
The early responses to the framers’ proposals ranged from uncertainty to outrage. If the Constitution was to be accepted, clearly much would have to be explained and quickly. The essays that make up The Federalist sought to be that explanation. They began to appear almost immediately. The first two anonymous newspaper essays were in print the month after the Constitution became public. The Federalist, in this sense, must be read as a partisan response to the anxiety that most early republicans felt as they tried to absorb the altered plan of union offered to them. The initial articles were treated, in fact, as political bluster for the popular press. When they continued to appear and accumulate, they won another dubious distinction: The eighty-five assembled papers would be the most protracted and prolix pamphlet series Americans had seen in an age of obsessive pamphleteering. Beleaguered opponents dubbed them the most tiresome production they had ever encountered. Supporters, of course, found higher qualities; a few even saw what the essays would become. When Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France, read his own copy of The Federalist in Paris in late 1788, he called it “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written,” a claim that holds up well today. There is no other book in constitutional thought in any language quite like The Federalist for its careful and thorough blend of range, penetration, principle, structure, and practical implication.