If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Federalist Papers

AP.USH:
KC‑3.2.II.E (KC)
,
PCE (Theme)
,
Unit 3: Learning Objective I
In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay made the case for ratifying the new US Constitution. 

Overview

  • The Federalist Papers was a collection of essays written by John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton in 1788.
  • The essays urged the ratification of the United States Constitution, which had been debated and drafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
  • The Federalist Papers is considered one of the most significant American contributions to the field of political philosophy and theory and is still widely considered to be the most authoritative source for determining the original intent of the framers of the US Constitution.

The Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention

Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government did not have the power to regulate interstate commerce, nor was it authorized to raise taxes. Shays’s Rebellion, an uprising of farmers from western Massachusetts demanding an end to what they perceived as the unjust economic policies and political corruption of the state legislature in Boston, had revealed the inability of the federal government to put down the insurgency. It provided further evidence in support of the view that the very survival of the young nation required strengthening the federal government.start superscript, 1, end superscript
To this end, 55 delegates from twelve states convened in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787 for the Constitutional Convention, which assumed as its primary task the replacement of the Articles of Confederation. The United States Constitution emerged out of a series of compromises on a number of acrimonious debates over the structure and functions of the federal government.
But before the Constitution could enter into force, it had to be ratified, or formally approved by the assemblies of at least nine of the twelve states represented at the convention. The most serious opposition to ratification was based in the states of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia.

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist was originally planned to be a series of essays for publication in New York City newspapers, but ultimately expanded into a collection of 85 essays, which were published as two volumes in March and May 1788. They did not become known as "The Federalist Papers" until the 20th century. The essays were aimed at convincing opponents of the US Constitution to ratify it so that it would take effect as the nation’s fundamental governing document. (Opponents of the Constitution drafted their own series of essays, which became known collectively as the Anti-Federalist Papers.)squared
Newspaper advertisement for The Federalist, which reads "In the press, and speedily will be published, The Federalist, a collection of essays written in favor of the new Constitution. By a citizen of New-York. Corrected by the author with additions and alterations.This work will be printed on a fine paper and good type, is one handsome volume duo-decimo, and delivered to subscribers at the moderate price of one dollar. A few copies will be printed on superfine royal writing paper, price ten shillings. No money required till delivery. To render this work more complete, will be added, without any additional expence, Philo-Publius, and the Articles of the Convention, as agreed upon at Philadelphia, September 17, 1787. "
A 1787 newspaper advertisement for The Federalist. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The essays comprising the Federalist Papers were authored by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, three of the most influential nationalist thinkers. The nationalists urged the creation of a stronger central government that would be sufficiently empowered to confront the many challenges facing the young nation. Though the authors primarily sought to influence the vote in favor of ratifying the Constitution, Federalist No. 1 framed the debate in much broader terms, by questioning “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.”cubed
Portrait of John Jay.
Portrait of John Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. Painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1794. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Many of the most influential essays in The Federalist were penned by either Hamilton or Madison:
  • In Federalist No. 10, Madison reflects on how to prevent rule by majority faction and advocates the expansion of the United States into a large, commercial republic.
  • In Federalist No. 39 and Federalist 51, Madison seeks to “lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty,” emphasizing the need for checks and balances through the separation of powers into three branches of the federal government and the division of powers between the federal government and the states.start superscript, 4, end superscript
  • In Federalist No. 84, Hamilton advances the case against the Bill of Rights, expressing the fear that explicitly enumerated rights could too easily be construed as comprising the only rights to which American citizens were entitled.
Although the primary purpose of The Federalist was to convince New Yorkers to send to the Constitutional Convention delegates who would vote to ratify the Constitution, fully two-thirds of New York’s delegates initially opposed ratification. These delegates refused to ratify the document unless it was amended by a Bill of Rights. Thus, the authors of The Federalist failed in their original objective.
Nevertheless, The Federalist Papers is widely considered to be the most significant American contribution to the field of political philosophy and theory and is held up by scholars, lawyers, and judges to be the most authoritative source for determining the original intent of the framers of the US Constitution.start superscript, 5, end superscript

What do you think?

What was the purpose of the Federalist Papers? Was that purpose achieved?
Why do you think The Federalist was published anonymously? Why wouldn’t the authors want to reveal themselves?
Which of the essays in The Federalist do you think was most important and why?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user rafael.alonso
    why wouldn't the author revael themselves
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Could the author of the article expand on what was meant under #84? How could explicitly enumerated rights be construed as limiting entitled rights?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user 23l_massengale
    "They did not become known as "The Federalist Papers" until the 20th century," so what was it known as before the 20th century?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Faith Willis
    I always wondered why would anyone oppose having a strong central government with limited powers in writing? What other types of limited governments would have worked for America?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user keithlb0920
    Why do you think The Federalist was published anonymously? Why wouldn’t the authors want to reveal themselves?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Layla
    why do you think they all where working together
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky seedling style avatar for user 252685
    why were the federalist papers written
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The people who had these ideas wanted to share them, in the hope of seeing their ideas put into action. This is also how science progresses, through the creation and publication of papers with ideas in them, so that the ideas can be honed and sharpened through discussion on their way to being implemented.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 26holleye
    How do we know who wrote the federalist papers? It was always my understanding they were written in anonymously.
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user chrisduane819
    I took out my copy of the Federalist Papers and started to peruse #X. I really got stopped in my tracks when I read the following passage(s)(pages 38 & 39 in my copy; Continuation of I, The Union as a Safeguard Against Faction and Insurrection, James Madison):

    "Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."[*b added for emphasis]

    Interesting to me is the discussion that Madison is posing throughout this essay is the very discussion that is relevant across both parties and the Supreme Court these very days. Would you agree?

    Chris Duane
    May 11, 2022
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user tyler.plumb
    Why do you think The Federalist was published anonymously? Why wouldn’t the authors want to reveal themselves?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Sometimes adults have adversaries or enemies for reasons totally apart from what they believe. Publishing anonymously solves this problems. The focus gets put on the ideas, not on the writers. So, nobody automatically agrees with the idea because, "my friend wrote it," or disagrees because, "this came from an enemy."

      Adults, even founding fathers, can be quite childish at times.
      (1 vote)