Introduction to the Federalist Papers

America has had two federal constitutions. The first, called the Article of Confederation, was completed in 1777 and ratified in 1781, all during the Revolutionary War. Under the Articles the federal government had no judiciary, no executive branch, a small legislature appointed by state legislatures, a President elected by that legislature with a one-year term and a prohibition on serving again for another two years, and no enforceable power to tax. The last of these restrictions broke its back—states never came close to supplying the federal power’s requisitions for money.

The federal authority convened a convention in May of 1787 to amend the Articles. It was clear from the beginning that amendments alone would not fix the terrible disadvantages found in so many parts of a federal government so constituted. It was also the case that amending the Articles required approval from all thirteen states. Rhode Island did not appear at the Convention and had been largely absent from national affairs for some time, making amendment impossible. So the 55 delegates who gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention as it has come to be called embarked on an entirely new shape to federal power. After four months of rancorous debate and compromises, the group published a draft constitution on 17 September 1787. That is the Constitution that governs us today, with 27 Amendments, none of which affect the basic structure of our federal government.

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Article VII of that document required ratification by popular conventions called in each state. When nine states ratified, the Constitution would be considered in force for those nine states. One state (Delaware) ratified on December 7 of that year, but others dawdled, extending the process into the following summer. The ninth state to ratify, New Hampshire, did so on 21 June 1788. Rhode Island and North Carolina voted against the new constitution, only coming into the fold a year or two later. New York, the last of those ratifying, was very close to also saying no, but turned at the last minute to assent by the slim margin of 30 to 27 in July of 1788.

We can see from this picture that, despite the obvious and admitted problems with the Articles, approving the new constitution was hardly automatic. Indeed, the idea of popular rather than legislative ratification was surely motivated in part by the sense that few state legislature would be willing to give up so much power to a central authority. As seen by many in the country, its radical increase in federal powers threatened the basic liberties the Revolutionary War was fought to secure. The battle over ratification was waged in discussions, meetings, and newspapers. Ratification conventions were often marked with strong oppositions, with ratification only approved in some states on the promise of amendments to the new constitution. (The lack of a Bill of Rights was the only promised amendment that was actually realized.) The contest led to the writing of one of the most important documents in the history of political theory and our country—the Federalist Papers. It is the story of these papers that we outline below.

Hamilton’s Rage

In October of 1787, just a month after the Constitutional Convention released the draft of the new constitution for the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton sat at his desk, fuming. He left the Convention unhappy. He knew the country would never accept his sense of things—that the states should be entirely subordinate to a new federal order. Just after the Convention Hamilton said, “No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than mine were known to be.” But the ridicule and protest the new constitution attracted on its release was intolerable. The new constitution was at least a real national government that could set the country on a course for survival if not greatness. Without it, either the states would be at war with each other, or the country as a whole would succumb to the British or the French over time.


Hamilton’s Motivations

Hamilton was a lawyer, a trained master at argument. The forms of public communication at the time were books, pamphlets, and newspapers. Paine’s Common Sense, a passionate 1776 book-length pamphlet arguing for liberty and an independent American without a monarch, seems to have been read by everyone (it is claimed to be the most widely read document of length in American history relative to the size of the population even though the exact number of copies printed is not known). But time was against a pamphlet; newspapers were the only realistic vehicles to combat the diatribes that appeared in, yes, newspapers. States would be forming local conventions to elect delegates to state conventions to vote up or down on the new constitution shortly. Newspapers were the only chance to urge support.

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Hamilton may have had another motive. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention representing New York. New York’s governor, George Clinton, opposed any further increase in federal power. Hamilton’s two companion delegates, John Lansing and Robert Yates, left the Convention a month and half after it started in protest over its obvious direction toward increasing federal power. Without a quorum, New York had no vote thereafter in the Convention; Hamilton was voiceless in effect. Yes, he got his six-hour speech appealing for a President elected but holding office for life, senators holding office for life, absolute executive veto over approved legislations, judicial review, governors of all states appointed by the federal government, with absolute veto power over all state laws, and features generally congruent with the British form of government which he explicitly endorsed as the best on earth. Yes, he served on the Committee on Style that actually wrote out the final draft for publication that among other things inserted the Preamble at the last minute, it written by Gouverneur Morris. But he missed at least half of the Convention himself and made no reported contribution to the new constitution. He wanted a voice now.

A systematic defense of the new constitution was in order. As much as Hamilton felt the new constitution did not go far enough to chain states to a pole, he knew the new prospective order was not just new but historically unique, an experiment. No previous country had taken up Montesquieu’s argument for a balanced government based on separated government functions—legislative, executive, judicial—rather than the common division of king, aristocracy, and the people as a balancing mechanism. No country was so committed to elected leaders for limited terms. No country gave so much power to the states who had constitutions mirroring the proposed federal structure in many ways, each hewing to one or another variation of the republican form, a system of tiered, concurrent sovereignties known as “federalism.” The people had a general sense of constitutions from their own state, but they would not know the true extent of executive power (greater than in any state), the reasoning behind the various forms of election, and the justification for so much centralized power in the first place.

It is possible that Hamilton had another motivation. He was something of a foreigner, born in Nevis, an island in the British West Indies, the year still not known (he was either 30 or 32 at the time he organized the Papers). He may or may not have been a citizen of Britain before Britain lost the war, and thence a citizen of the United States after. His role in the war as Washington’s adjutant would be hard to overestimate. He married into a wealthy high-ranking New York family. But his sideline role at the Convention may have grated, symbolized for him a kind of alienation from the center of things. What better way, given the opportunity, to create lasting fame for himself than write the metatext for the new constitution. The new constitution was, after all, a framework, a very small one as constitutions go (it was shorter than any state constitution at the time). It barely hinted at critical features. And like all constitutions it was completely free of any explanations for its many terms. Why have the President elected every four years by this novel, perhaps inexplicable, Electoral College, itself a last minute change in the Convention from a President appointed by the Legislature? Why should the House be elected but the Senate appointed? Why the explicit protections for slavery when most northern states were mulling legal abolition of slavery (Vermont’s constitution of 1777 had already done it)? Why do states establish voter qualifications for federal offices?

sWe will never know of course, but something moved Hamilton to conceive not just an answer to the various charges against the constitution but a tour de force, a full explication of what was wrong with the Articles of Confederation, not just wrong but fatally wrong, a defense of so much centralized power that fully reflected the dangers to the country without it, a well-developed philosophical defense of both the particular republican and federal forms as conceived in the new constitution, ones rooted in an estimate of the people’s inclination to virtue on the one hand, ambition, avarice, and violence on the other, and an article by article, paragraph by paragraph explanation of the new constitution that would in its magnitude and power give the document a sense of real life before ratification. He wanted to, in effect, construct the new constitution out of the thin framework of its own words.

Development of the Papers

Hamilton originally imagined as many as 25 newspaper articles starting soon, in late October of 1787. They would target the New York ratification vote, Hamilton’s state. He invited James Madison to join the effort (whether before he started or after is not clear—both were in New York at the time but Madison’s first essay was number 10). No one knew the new constitution better than Madison. Like Hamilton, Madison was discouraged by the turn of events at the Convention. His most important hope was the power of the federal government to veto any state law as the best means of corralling the out-of-control behavior of the states when freed of the shackles of his Majesty King George III. It was a key element of the first proposal at the Convention that he wrote but was presented by Edmund Randolph as the Virginia Plan. It was left on the meeting house floor. But Madison’s own notes, the principal source we have for what went on at the Convention—the group adopted a rule at the beginning to forbid daily minutes so delegates could change their minds without embarrassment—show that he intervened at the Convention more than any other delegate and likely deserves his title as Father of the Constitution, the bearer of the seed but not the producer of the child. (Madison’s notes were not made public until four years after his death in 1836.  He did not want what happened at the Convention to influence the meaning of the Constitution, which as he observes in the Federalist Papers will develop over time as it passes from paper to real experience.  He was not an originalist.)

Madison was also the better and deeper thinker. His general weak state of health kept him out of the war, he had no interest in managing the family estate, but his close relationship to Thomas Jefferson led him into Virginia then national politics, and his experience at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) under John Witherspoon installed history and the corpus of Scottish A picture containing person, person, indoor, suit Description automatically generatedphilosophy (principally David Hume and Adam Smith) into his bones. Hamilton was a lawyer, by nature a fierce advocate regardless of the issue, but equally well educated at what is now Columbia. Madison mulled things over, looking at this side and that, changing his mind at times as new ideas drifted into the fertile train in his brain. This did not prevent him from writing in a style of uncompromising certitude, the style of the time. He was not convinced that we needed a complete make-over rather than just amendments to the Articles of Confederation until a year before the Convention, yet he led the charge for complete overhaul. His famous break from Hamilton in 1791 over Hamilton’s national bank that produced our two national political parties is more likely a similar adjustment than a change of heart. While not quite relevant to the issues here, it is worth noting two of Madison’s most important contributions to the course of American history: he persuaded Washington to come out of retirement and attend the Constitutional Convention, giving it authority impossible from anyone else (Washington was elected the Convention chair as its first official act), from which his unanimous election as the first President under the new constitution was almost automatic; and he shepherded the Bill of Rights through a reluctant first Congress. It is hard to imagine the country without these two events. He of course was also our fourth President. Nice resume.

A painting of a person Description automatically generated with medium confidenceHamilton also convinced John Jay to join the parade. The oldest at 42 years (Madison was 36), he had by far the most international experience of the three, having negotiated the Treaty of Paris with Britain that formally ended the Revolutionary War and serving as ambassador to Spain and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation. He was the architect of the New York constitution written in 1777. He was president of the Continental Congress from 1779 to 1782, which is to say during the last three years of the war, which makes it interesting that Hamilton would want him given his troubles with the Congress raising money for the war effort. Jay would become the first Chief Justice of the new United States, from 1789 to 1795, and thereafter the governor of New York for two terms. Jay would write the first four essays after the introductory opening written by Hamilton, each about the necessity of union in the face of external threats and the needs for one voice in treaty and trade negotiations. He fell ill after and wrote only one more paper.

While this trio were not diving into the deep end of political philosophy, what they wrote is political philosophy, the explanation and justification for a particular political system based on human nature, general principles, history, and how these three shape collective systems of government within a largely new, untried form. No other work of political philosophy came from the minds of anyone so deeply immersed in the very system they were creating. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith and most others were professional philosophers of sorts with little or no political experience. Cicero was a Consul and wrote from experience. Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the Florentine Republic, and wrote from experience. Milton had a modest position in the British Commonwealth, but his political tracts were written before. Edmund Burke was a member of Parliament when he penned his famous work on the French Revolution. Of this group only Machiavelli is widely read within the realm of political philosophy today. With these minor exceptions, only the Federalist Papers were carved in stone from lived experience at the highest levels in politics and war. It is from this source, one can assume, that gives the Papers a very practical, down to earth, hiatorical feel within its corpus as political theory.

The Named Author—Publius

In keeping with a fashion of the time, the three decided to name themselves Publius, after one of the founders of the Roman republic.  Pseudonyms had become commonplace in England during the seventeenth century to allow women writers to publish and protect male writers who were advancing dissident opinions.  Daniel Defoe hid himself that way when challenging crown or country.  Works of literature were published at the time with pseudonyms more often than not, including famous writers (now) such as Jane Austin and George Eliot.  Virtually all articles for or against the new constitution were similarly authored; we never learned the identity of some of them.  But this trio may have had auxiliary motivations.  One, anyone attending the Convention would know how distant the opinions of Hamilton and Madison were from the published constitution, an invitation to disclose the counterfeit views of Publius, particularly from Yates and Lansing.  In a similar vein, a single author would mask any differences that might arise, and indeed did, arise from a trio of authors hastily writing polemics, in which consistency would be expected.  Three, all three may have wished the text to be pure, standalone, exempt from comparisons with what each had written before, even if congruent with the Papers themselves.

These motivations have stood the test of time.  Even though the authors were named in a French translation published in 1792, and even though Washington among others clearly knew who wrote them at the time, the Federalist Papers are seldom sifted through other writings from Hamilton and Madison.  The obvious differences between the Papers and later beliefs of course demand attention, but they are generally not used to backfill novel meanings into the Papers.  Even the fame of the authors once generally known (the first U.S. publication with names attached appeared in 1810, but as general authors, not given per Paper), did not automatically insert the Papers into the forefront of political theory discussions.  That did not happen until early in the twentieth century, and then only to impute to them motivations designed to protect the elite, professional class against the depredations of agrarian interests.  Indeed, it can be argued that not until Douglass Adair took a more approving (and correct) view of the Papers in the 1950s did they rise to their current level of esteem.  That esteem rose not coincidentally with the Supreme Court’s transition from a business Court to a civil rights Court (1937) and the culmination of incorporation of most of the Bill of Rights into state laws through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Until then, federal trespass upon and federal protection of civil liberties had little moment.  You may think it should have after the Civil War and 1877 Compromise that turned the south over to its previous owners, the ensuing Jim Crow laws denying citizenship in practice to our black citizens for eighty years of terror.  But the Supreme Court of that time treated the Fourteenth Amendment very differently, only gradually applying “due process” and “equal protection of the law” to questions of human rather than business liberty.

The Federalist Papers—Body of Work and Orientation

We are not privy to any conversations or plans the three developed. All we have are the papers themselves. The group ended up writing 85 essays, published between 27 October 1787 and 13 August 1788. The first thirty-six came in a rush—the last of the group published on 8 January 1788. Numbers 8 through 13 came in one week. Each four to eight pages long in book form, the combination consumed more than 200,000 words; a current paperback version devotes 500 pages to their reproduction. Jay wrote five, Madison 29, the balance of 51 by Hamilton. They actually finished all 85 by the end of April. Hamilton had the first thirty-six published in book form in March, the balance in late May. We do not know why he waited until August to publish the last one in a newspaper, after the last meaningful ratification in New York occurred in July. But that ratification is a story in itself.

Among the many striking features of the set is the sense of plan and organization the composite exhibits for what must have been a chaotic effort at writing and production. Their competition, called “anti-federalists,” whose page volume in total was comparable but came from many uncoordinated pens, tended to complain about one or two issues in any one article—lack of a bill of rights, far too much power in the executive office, the sense that so much power at the center would consume the states over time, the likely encroachment of the federal judiciary on state courts, and of course the threat of federal taxation attacking individual property and incomes. Their tone was outrage, their language strewn with invective and echoes of British oppression, that all we gained with all we sacrificed would be lost to the maw of a new tyranny.

By contrast, The Federalist (the name given them in their first publication) was almost sedate, organized, tutorial, lecturing rather than hectoring, logical. Here is Hamilton from the first paragraph of the first essay:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, 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.

Under the circumstances this is an entirely false dichotomy. The Articles of Confederation had been duly approved by the most common means at the time—vote by state legislatures. It was entirely legitimate, a product of reflection and choice. It could be argued that the proposed constitution was hastily assembled by its 39 signers in the exclusive interest of protecting their financial interests that were endangered by the free flow of democracy just established in the thirteen states. (This was the most fashionable argument among academics in the first half of the twentieth century, using Federalist 10 for evidence; it still has advocates.) Its appeal to a public vote rather than legislative vote was a transparent ruse to capitalize on the turmoil in the country that had shaken the common citizen unfamiliar with the better workings and intelligence of those serving them in state government, where the decision about proper federal authority was logically placed. Where is “accident and force” in this picture?

What anti-federalist did not have that the federalists (as they were called) had was a comparable alternative vision or proposal. Citizens were not choosing between two different new constitutions; they were voting for or against one constitution. The alternative was the Articles of Confederation; any state voting “no” would presumably be under the aegis of the Articles, even though it would not make any sense unless all voted no. The country was in turmoil; of that no one doubted. The Articles of Confederation were not working; of that no one doubted. The dangers were acute; of that no one doubted. What would a “no” vote mean? Hamilton suggests here, “accident and force,” a rhetorical masterpiece. Almost every direct defense against an anti-federalist attack in the Papers has this sense of diminishment, of arguments unworthy of the great task before us.

The first paper also produces the second most common defense, that anti-federalists were self-serving; Hamilton again from Federalist One:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

Is there a reference to a real complaint here? This is strictly ad hominem, but smoothly delivered. It must be said, however, that men who wrote then were all trained or had good ears for a particular style of writing that this paragraph exemplifies. It is the reason Madison and Hamilton sound so much alike. Many anti-federalists were equally capable of such redolent sentences, where the sound and rhythm alone seduce one to a sense of power and truth when the complexity of thought and style often clouds easy comprehension.

General Structure and Content of the Federalist Papers

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But the most consistent and powerful rhetorical strategy adopted by Hamilton (and we presume with some help from Madison who wrote the most philosophical of the papers) was an enormously ordered explication of the conditions leading to the new constitution, the principles by which its specific provisions were formed, and detailed examinations and defenses of its contents, article by article. It feels like a cathedral under construction. The Papers divide into the following sections:

On the Necessity of Union: Papers 2 through 14
On the Failures of the Articles of Confederation: Papers 15 through 22
On the Necessity of Strength in a Federal Government: Papers 23 through 36
On the Principles of Republican Government: Papers 37 through 51
On the House of Representatives: Papers 52 through 61
On the Senate: Papers 62 through 66
On the Executive Branch: Papers 67 through 77
On the Judiciary: Papers 78 through 83
Winding up: Papers 84 and 85

The combination is both seductive and exhausting. Readers at the time complained about the abusive flood of essays from Publius. But the more powerful force was seduction. The opening 22 essays were hard to dispute. We needed a strong central government to fight wars, negotiate trade relations, conclude treaties and other international arrangements, and quell domestic rebellions if the states could not. The Articles of Confederation hardly needed eight essays to be trashed; everyone knew they needed a real upgrade in power if we were to survive as a nation. The essays on “energy” at the federal level as Hamilton described it (he wrote all of the essays from 23 to 36) entered more contentious waters as they largely addressed taxation and a standing army, but the essays on taxation would have eased most souls and the essays on a standing army were dramatic and compelling. (In a later essay Madison opposes a standing army, but consistency was not a necessary requirement with so many essays over so many months—who could remember the details?)

The middle essays, all written by Madison, are among the triumphs of political philosophy if one is willing to forgive their concision. Madison wraps up the major problems within western philosophy in Federalist 37, the place we would recommend any serious reading of the papers to begin. The world is too obscure, the mind too limited, our language too feeble to understand enough to come to perfect conclusions about human affairs. The tensions between liberty and power, the state and federal governments, small and large states, and other combinations of competing interests are perpetual and obstructive of perfection in government. (Madison adds to this list in Federalist 10, now the most famous of the Papers, which forms a corporate part of the philosophical parade.) From here Madison works his way around to Federalist 51, the second most popular paper today (it is often paired with 10 in civics classes as if they represent the whole, a serious mistake in our view). Federalist 51 defends the balance of powers as a check on encroachment of one branch by another, which Madison animates with now famous lines like: “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” and “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. 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.

The plethora of details around each branch of the government that follows, from 52 to 83, has a numbing effect. It is perhaps most evident in Federalist 54, Madison’s defense of the 3/5th rule relative to counting slaves in state populations for proportions of representation. It is seldom noticed that he opens paragraph two with “it will perhaps be said”, a transition to the subjunctive that exculpates himself from any attachment to the argument itself. He makes his view of slavery evident elsewhere (42 particularly), hoping for the most expeditious elimination of the tragic but necessary element of the American economy (his family owned slaves on their Virginia plantation). One focus of recent attention is on Federalist 78 in which Hamilton insists that the new constitution embodies an unstated but clearly implied power of judicial review, of declaring laws passed by the Congress void because they conflict with the constitution. This view was opposed, ironically, at the time by John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (from 1801 to 1835, the longest such service in the Court’s history and without question the most important) who was the first to exercise judicial review in 1803 Marbury v Madison as a ruse to avoid insisting that this same Madison, then Secretary of State under Jefferson, should give Marbury a job that Madison would simply refuse, diminishing the Court’s powers considerably. Judicial review was next exercised by Chief Justice Taney in 1857 Scott v Sandford, perhaps the most invidious decision in Supreme Court history, and a likely and ironic contributor to the Civil War that the decision was attempting to avert. Madison was clearly right in Federalist 37—nothing is clear.

Madison and Hamilton in Virginia and New York debates.

Article VII of the new constitution required approval by the people: ratification would be accomplished by “conventions of nine states,” where “conventions” meant a public meeting of delegates elected by local conventions that chose delegates to participate. It was assumed that each “representative” delegate was charged with an up or down commitment. We have no idea about what went on at the meetings that chose the delegates; no records have come down to us. But many of the state conventions did keep records of their debates. It was clear that delegates from local meetings may be persuaded to change their minds, that is, forsake their obligation to vote as they have been instructed; otherwise, why the presentation of a debate?

A picture containing text, person, wall, indoor Description automatically generatedThe last two states to vote in the first year after the Convention were Virginia and New York. Madison attended the Virginia convention, battling Patrick Henry (of “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” fame), a bombastic, hypnotic speaker who condemned the new constitution as the work of the devil. Madison, not a good speaker and not bombastic, nevertheless wore Henry down with one reasoned argument after another, finally winning the day as Virginia voted 89 for, 79 against. Madison reportedly used the Federalist Papers as arguments, suggesting that his work on them consolidated, clarified, and perhaps created the kinds of arguments he needed to compete with the florid Henry.

Hamilton had more of a problem in New York. Delegates arriving in New York City for the convention and vote were 46 against, 16 for based on charges from regional conventions. Over three weeks of haggling, Hamilton seems to have worked enough of a miracle to realize a final vote of 30 for, 27 against. We have no confirmed view of why minds were changed, but it is rumored that Hamilton promised, in the taverns after each day’s meeting, that New York would remain the capital of the country (it had been the capital under the Articles of Confederation from 1785 to 1789). This was a promise he had no right or power or knowledge to make, but it has a romantic ring. Ironically, it was Hamilton who fashioned the deal that caused the capital to locate between Maryland and Virginia on swampland now known as Washington, DC.

Effect and Later History

It is generally believed that the Federalist Papers had almost no direct effect on voting for or against the new constitution at the time. The Papers were only widely published in New York newspapers; a few were published elsewhere. Eleven states voted for the new Constitution by July 1788, beginning with Delaware on 7 December of 1787, two more than were needed. Virginia and New York were the last and the most contentious. At first Rhode Island and North Carolina voted no, but both joined later, by very small margins within their conventions. Vermont joined the union in 1790. The Papers were published frequently in the nineteenth century, but never with a sense that they should be integrated into the current conversation about American politics.

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They became a fashion of note with the 1913 James Beard’s book, The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which catapulted Federalist 10 into such prominence for Beard’s suggestion that Madison was an economic determinist and foreshadowed certain views of Marx, a suggestion supported by two paragraphs in 10. Since then the Papers have held a principal place in studies of American government and political philosophy. There are natural disagreements about what they actually say, which are the most important, and how close they came, and come, to describing our actual government. Both political parties have claimed them for support, a mistake in our view (the Papers support neither). The Supreme Court warmed to them in the twentieth century, particularly after the 1937 turn to a focus on civil rights, quoting them now in more than 1700 opinions.

What they are not, today, is common reading outside of academic and legal circles. Civics classes subject students to Federalist 10 and 51 as if they represented the whole. In our view Federalist 10, a critical essay to be sure, is largely misrepresented and misunderstood. We spend time on it in later sections of this web site. But what more likely accounts for their obscurity is their length, the way they are written, and the fact that some of what they say has been eclipsed by time and some of what they say has clearly turned out to be wrong. The style issue may be the greatest barrier to easy acceptance—they are very hard to read, and sometimes the language makes the argument so obscure that no amount of head scratching yields a luminous outcome.

As far as we know, they have not been subjected to the kind of treatment we offer here, of taking just those sections that feel material to today and excising the rest for all practical purposes. Unhappily, the papers do not admit excision by blocks; the principles we have extracted required gluing pieces from many papers together. Even papers that are not relevant anymore have a line or two that matter. This condition also explains why we do not offer a protocol for reading just those papers you need to know to absorb the important positions. The philosophical core does extend from 37 to 51, inclusive, but they do not state the critical and necessary input from 9 and 10, or the one line from 2 that says we have to give up rights to have government at all, a seemingly flat contradiction with the statement in the Declaration of Independence that governments were formed to secure our rights. So, we advise reading them all.

The Nature of a Polemic

The Federalist Papers are a polemic, a special and generally aggressive form of essay that presents itself as if its assertions are above reproach or criticism. The Bible is polemical in this sense. Paine’s Common Sense was a transparent polemic. Almost nowhere do the papers suggest that the Constitution would be better with some changes, or that their arguments are subject to dispute. As legal briefs have the same general tone, within an assumed adversarial context, Hamilton wrote this way by nature. Madison’s adoption of the style may have felt more awkward to his self-critical nature, but he must have known that any hint of a felt flaw in the Constitution or their claims for its necessity would weaken their case. What gets lost in this form is what Hamilton and Madison actually believed. It must have pained both of them to defend provisions in the new constitution they felt should have been otherwise, or omissions that would have repaired its felt defects.

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However, a blessing comes to us from this condition. We are spared the trouble of searching through all the other voluminous writings of Madison and Hamilton to discover what they really meant by sections that need elaboration or clarification. For all of their words, the Papers are strewn with one-liners with import but no explanation or justification. In Federalist 37 Madison throws out this one: “All new laws, though penned with the greatest technical skill, and passed on the fullest and most mature deliberation, are considered as more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning be liquidated and ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications.” (“Liquidate” here means “clarify”.) Does this apply to the Constitution, the law of the land? If so, does that make the entire enterprise of the papers, of making it clear before any actual experience, a waste of time?

A further virtue of this style is that we may import it more easily to today knowing that it was somewhat artificial at the time. The Bible has been re-engineered many times, or in several ways at one time, to satisfy various interests or changes in the reading society. For example, we know that both Hamilton and Madison felt with varying degrees of strength that “federalism” meant in the sense of substantial, absolute sovereignty being retained by the states was a bad idea, but necessary to get the Constitution through the Convention and ratification afterward. We are entitled then to view the several instances in which both insist that states have all powers not specifically allotted the federal order in the Constitution as more rhetorical—meant to persuade—than a corporate part of their structure. Indeed, we are quietly alerted to this by both authors taking the trouble to say, almost soto voce, that states retained their “residuary powers,” those held under the Articles, suggesting that future needs requiring new powers may lodge those powers at the most logical place for their management. As the distribution of sovereignty in the United States today is an enormously complex tapestry in which every level seems to have their fingers in every domestic pie, to radically varying degrees from federal to state to cities, we may take this observation as license to apply the Federalist Papers selectively rather than harness them to some sentiment that insists upon every word as part of the lens. Any such demand of course would make the Papers irrelevant to today.

The Authorship Question

It is generally agreed now that Hamilton wrote 51 of the essays, Madison wrote 29, and Jay wrote 5. But that agreement was not reached until 1964. The problem goes back to a hand-written note Hamilton left in the office of a lawyer friend, Ebgert Benson, two days before he was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr (then Vice President of the United States) which took place on 12 July 1804. In that note Hamilton took credit for 64 of the essays, giving Madison only credit for 16. As he died two days later, he was not able to explain his note or its one obvious error, that of attributing 54 to Jay when Jay clearly wrote 64, not 54. Indeed, the note attributed 37 to 48 to Madison when Madison actually wrote 37 to 58 (the other three in dispute were 18, 19, and 20). Some writers in the nineteenth century observed the connection between the two errors and gave Madison at least ten more. Douglas Adair wrote two lengthy essays in the 1950s explaining his reasoning for the current attribution, but the final word was based on computer analysis by Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace in 1964.

The authorship question may have been the most discussed issue around the Federalist Papers until Beard’s book in 1913; it occupied ink in almost all (all that we have read) introductions to the Federalist Papers until the edition by Benjamin Wright gave it but a paragraph, less than what we say here. It seems to us to be a strange concern. As neither Madison nor Hamilton was defending a document which they wholly supported in fact, but supported wholly in print, and therefore separated themselves from what they really believed from what they said in print, the question of who said what does not seem like a compelling question.

Articles of Confederation

It is worth a glimpse at the Articles of Confederation to see the actual differences between the new constitution and the Articles that served as our constitution before. The Articles were started at the same time as the Declaration of Independence, were finished towards the end of 1777, were approved by the legislatures of eleven states within a year, bur Maryland held out until February of 1781 to pressure states like Virginia to cede western lands to the country. (Every state had its own constitution by then, each republican in nature with separated and balanced powers, although no two were alike.) Of course they meant nothing if the war was lost, but the war was officially won with the Treaty of Paris in September of 1783. However, what there was of a government of the United States during the war operated as if under the Articles. This meant among other things the nasty business of demanding money from the states for the war effort with no enforcement power. Alexander Hamilton learned to hate the states as he had the duty as secretary to Washington to solicit funds from this “governing” body for the war effort, which funds were often hard to find. Only by borrowing heavily from foreign powers, largely France, was the country able to hold its military together long enough for the British to collapse.

The Articles only provided for a legislature—no judiciary, no executive branch. Its members were appointed by state legislatures each year. One of them was elected President for a one-year term, who could not repeat for another two years. The ambit of its powers was similar to the new constitution, but omitted the regulation of interstate commerce and the means of adding states to the union. But the most serious problem with the Articles was reliance upon the states for revenue—it excluded a power to tax. The states never provided what was asked; between 1781 and 1784 the state provided less than 25% of what the Congress requested. During the heavy parts of the war Jay asked the states for $45 million at Washington’s request; they got not a dime.

It is this region of government operations that the new constitution may have it most important power; the very first power enumerated therein is the power to tax for the common defense and the general welfare, with no limit on the amount stipulated. It is also not surprising that this power is the one still most contested, not in absolute terms, but in amounts. Deep in the American political DNA is an aversion to taxation, regardless of representation. In the play Hamilton the eponymous character virtually attributes the war to taxes. The pamphlet war against England before the war was largely about English taxes, applied to pay for the Seven Years War that spared the British colonies from becoming French colonies. The Boston Tea Party, arguably the event most responsible for the war beginning, was about the British government reducing taxes on the East India Company that throttled the domestic tea trade (which was largely illegal at the time). Even today, with more than 40% of the American GDP supplied by government spending, the preponderance of which goes to medical care, education, social security, defense, infrastructure, and payment for debt, each of which except dept are felt by many to be underfunded, lowering taxes for the general public is a felt demand, ones our four most recent Republican Presidents have often obliged while increasing spending for programs established by law.

Here is a summary of the Articles of Confederation:

Preamble. Confederation and perpetual union of listed thirteen states.

Article I. Names country United States of America

Article II. States retain all powers not “expressly delegated” to union.

Article III. “League of Friendship” for “common defense, the security of their liberties, and their general welfare” by “assisting each other by any attacks or forces against them.

Article IV. All free citizens have same privileges and immunities, may travel without restriction among the states, enjoy all privileges of trade and commerce, with same duties, impositions, and restrictions, but no state can duties or restrictions of property of United States. Persons guilty of crime fleeing to another state shall be returned. Records, acts, and judicial proceedings of any state shall be freely available to any other state.

Article V. From 2 to 7 delegates from each state to Congress, appointed by legislatures thereof, for one-year terms, with no more than three in any six years, but recalls and substitutions by any state. Delegates cannot hold any other federal office. States will maintain their own delegates. Each state gets one vote for matters before the Congress. Delegates enjoy freedom of speech relative to any court, and cannot be arrested while in, going to or from Congress, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace.

Article VI. A long section limiting states from international relations “without consent of Congress,” including treaties, embassies, agreements, imposts, duties, a navy, military forces, war unless attached and no time for federal response. Also, no titles of nobility.

Article VII. All officers of state militias at colonel or below shall be appointed by the legislatures of the states.

Article VIII. Federal expense shall be defrayed from a common treasury supplied by each state in proportion to their value of land and such improvements, the value of which will be determined periodically by Congress. State legislatures lay and levy the taxes required for this purpose.

Article IX. Longest by far. Essentially a list of powers: declaring peace or war, sending and receiving ambassadors, treaties and alliances, prizes and other benefits from war, letters of marque and reprisals, appointing courts for trials on piracies and felonies on the high seas, including final appeals, disputes between states relative to boundaries, or whatever, with a complex page-long protocol for ad hoc establishment of suitable courts, which also apply to disputes over private land claimed by more than one state, establishing alloy and value of coin, standards of weights and measures, regulating Indian affairs, regulating post office, appointing various military officers and making rules for land and naval forces. Congress may also convene a ”Committee of the State” to sit when Congress in recess, consisting of one delegate per state, appointing a president with one year term with no succession for two years after service, which committee ascertains monies needed by Congress and the means of securing it, including debt, provide an accounting of use, build a naval force, decide on necessary land forces and see that states maintain them, whose costs will be absorbed by the United States, with some wiggle room for states who have not enough or too much. All important decisions by Congress assembled require nine ayes; less important decisions require a majority. Congress can meet anywhere, cannot adjourn for more than six months, must publish its proceedings, including ayes and nays for access by any state except matters of war that per force must be kept secret.

Article X. The Committee of States can perform the duties of the Congress except those requiring nine votes when Congress is in recess.

Article XI. If Canada (Quebec, actually) desires they will be admitted to the Union; all others require approval of nine states.

Article XII. Assigns all prior debts to United States

Article XIII. State shall abide by all relevant decisions of Congress. Amendments require approval by Congress and legislatures of every state.

Why Read the Papers Today?

You may at this moment wonder why one should read the Federalist Papers today given all the work we have done to distill what seems relevant to today and presented it for the most part in language more readable than the Papers tend to be. We have three reasons. One is that the distillation was the work of one person. It will no doubt improve as this website attracts commentary that will point out the errors and misunderstandings any such enterprise is a natural heir to. But it will never be free of contention from one source or another. The best test of its fidelity is in the Papers themselves. This is particularly true given the Paper’s apparent admission that principles can never fully describe the real world, and our experiences within the real world are never enough to fully justify principles. Human behavior is an intellectual clutter. This does not mean that what we say is nothing more than opinion. There are reasons, and there are good reasons and bad reasons, right reasons and wrong reasons. But for something as complex as the political sense of the Federalist Papers, two views are better than one.

Two, the Papers are saturated with little gems of thinking, with occasional great lines. “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.” You have to get to number 85 to find this one. Of course, this line begs all the good questions: how can we make such a statement as it seems to deny our understanding of what “perfect” means; is not our imperfection in degrees that can be measured, so some ideas are less imperfect than others; are we not obliged to speak and act as if this is not true, else we sink into a sea of contingencies and doubts that preclude action; can a moral order be realistically built on such an assertion; is “perfect” equivalent to “certainty”; is “perfect” like “justice,” decided by the stronger? Many of these gems spark thinking. When Jay writes that we have to give up some rights to have government at all, but does not honor us with a list, we have to start making one of our own.

Three, our digest has focused on the theory and apparatus of our current form of government. It has tucked into a corner one of the most important positions of the Papers, namely, the role of the people. This comes about in part because they say nothing about the role of the people beyond voting. But, while they make it clear that the people are not sufficient to ensure liberty, the people are still the bedrock on which liberty stands or falls. The Papers imply a call to action. VOTE. Then read the First Amendment, our rights to speak, print, gather, and petition the government for our grievances. In Federalist 85 Hamilton quotes David Hume:

To balance a large state or society [says he], whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able, by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite in the work; EXPERIENCE must guide their labor; TIME must bring it to perfection, and the FEELING of inconveniences must correct the mistakes which they inevitably fall into in their first trials and experiments.

“The judgment of many must unite in the work.” The action of many must unite in the work. The Papers taken as a whole scream this demand of us, we the people, who formed this union and must take responsibility for returning it to health.


The summaries were prepared by Federalist Ten.  They are not original with the Federalist Papers themselves.  They are not a substitute for reading the papers, but rather a means by which one might decide to read or not read a particular paper.  However, they do provide a useful digest to get the flavor of the Papers in general.  It would not be intellectually offensive to read through them first to decide where to apply one’s attention to the real thing.  They are also useful reminders of what was said in any particular essay.  Few minds have the capacity to remember all the details or where any one detail might have actually been written.

Table of contents

The division of the Papers into ten sections and most of the titles found below are not original with the Papers, but added or altered by this site’s curator. Most original titles were general topics rather than a hint as to what was being said in that particular essay, and often repeated with the inoffensive word, “continued.” Furthermore, a significant number of essays have almost no meaning today as the world and the United States have changed so much. We denominate in black those essays still clearly relevant, in green those with some interesting ideas but little factual relevance, and in blue those that can be safely ignored without losing much in the process. We readily admit that others close to these papers would make other allocations, but these seem right to us.