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.1^1
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.)2^2
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.”3^3
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.4^4
  • 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.5^5

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?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on Shays’s Rebellion, see Leonard L. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
  2. Bernard Bailyn, ed. The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Anti-Federalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification; Part One, September 1787 – February 1788 (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).
  3. For more, see Michael Meyerson, Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
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