The Federalist Papers

Snippet 1: The Men Behind the Federalist Papers

"It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune. This necessity however exists; and the problem to be solved is, not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect." --James Madison."

Published between 1787 and 1788, The Federalist Papers were a collection of essays all signed with the name "Publius" and published in New York newspapers. The papers were, however, the product of three men: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. The purpose of the essays was to convince New Yorkers to ratify the newly-written and highly controversial Constitution of the United States. At the time, a heated debate was underway about the kind of government that would be best for the newly independent country. The question was, should America go forward as a loosely united "confederacy," or union, of states in which each state made most of its own rules, while allowing the American Congress only the right to conduct international trade, declare war, and raise an army? Or should it have a federal government that could collect taxes, regulate interstate trade, and above all, limit the independence of the individual states. While we all know now how that debate turned out, at the time, it was not clear that the thirteen individual states—actually, only nine were needed for ratification—would agree to give up some of their independence.

Aware that many Americans were highly suspicious of a federal government that could oppose and overrule the rights of the individual states, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay took it upon themselves to engage in an early form of public relations. To ensure the ratification of the Constitution, which gave considerable power to a federal government, the three men began publishing The Federalist Papers, which put forth a number of different arguments favoring a strong, central government and opposing a loosely-united confederacy. The Federalist Papers were widely read and seemed to have been extremely influential in encouraging not just New York, but other states as well to ratify the Constitution. Above all, they provided the pro-government forces with an answer to just about every one of the opposition's arguments

All together, historians count 85 essays and attribute 52 of them to Hamilton, 28 to Madison, and only 5 to John Jay (There is some debate about exactly how many Madison and Hamilton each wrote, and these numbers can vary slightly from source to source). Although Hamilton initiated the project and wrote the majority of the essays, it's Madison whose voice on the page still speaks to the reader more than two hundred years later. And much of what Madison, who went on to become the fourth president of the United States, said then could just as well apply today. This is particularly true of his most famous essay, Federalist no. 10, in which he warns against the danger of letting different factions, or interest groups, tear the county apart. Like Hamilton and Jay, only with more passionate eloquence, Madison was convinced that, lacking a strong national government, the newly united states would descend into a chaos of competing interests.

"So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile [merchant] interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government."

Snippet 2: Carol Berkin on the Federalists and Anti-Federalists

Carol Berkin is a historian and the author of a terrific textbook called Making America. In this video, she offers the clearest explanation of the conflict that formed the context for the The Federalist Papers. In her words, The Federalist Papers provided the "talking points" for those who favored a central government that would, or so it was hoped, balance competing interests of the individual states. This is really a must watch if you want to understand a debate that, in fact, continues to this day.

Snippet 3: And the Debate Continues

"In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." --James Madison, Federalist Paper, #51

And if you don't think that the disagreement over what's a better form of government—a loose union of states and a weak federal government or a powerful federal government that can exert control over the states—is still a hot button issue today, then watch this video, one of many suggesting that even today the federalists and anti-federalists debate is alive and well.

Last change made to this page: October 10, 2011