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Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay

Within the pages of The Federalist is the whole theory of American constitutional government. Here Publius explains the structure upon which the Constitution is built and the rationale of the Framers in constructing a republican form of government based on a separation and division of powers.


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Why did the Framers favor two legislative chambers a bicameral system over a single one a unicameral system? What interests were to be represented in these assemblies? Why did they provide for a single instead of a plural executive? Why did they grant certain powers to the central government and reserve others to the States? More fundamentally, why did they fear a concentration of power and prefer limited government? The answers to these and other important questions about the nature and purpose of the constitutional design, and the meaning of virtually every political principle and clause in the Constitution, will be found in these essays.

The Federalist is thus a window through which we may view the proceedings Edition: current; Page: [ xlvii ] of the Philadelphia Convention and see how the system is supposed to work. It sheds light on the deliberations of the Framers, helping us know and understand and appreciate their reasoning and political theories and the original intentions behind the Constitution they created.

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It is not too much to say that a reading of The Federalist is indispensable to an understanding of the American Constitution. At the same time, we should be mindful that The Federalist does not tell the complete story or provide all the answers. It is not a treatise on political philosophy concerned with natural law, the origin and nature of the state, or the best form of government in the abstract.


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  5. Although it is timeless in the sense that it rests on fixed principles and enduring truths concerning such matters as the threat to liberty that is created by a consolidated government, The Federalist is a commentary on the American Constitution, a collection of essays on the theory of American government that is in many respects inapplicable to other political systems. Moreover, the essays of Publius are only one of many original sources on the thinking of those who participated in the formation and adoption of the Edition: current; Page: [ xlviii ] Constitution.

    There are the debates in the Philadelphia Convention, dutifully recorded by James Madison and other delegates; 46 the voluminous debates in the State ratifying conventions; 47 and the various essays, newspaper accounts, and correspondence of other participants who took a stand on the new Constitution. Among these would be the State constitutions previously discussed; 50 the practices, institutions, and ordering documents of Anglo-Americans during the colonial period; 51 many political Edition: current; Page: [ xlix ] writings and sermons of earlier periods, particularly those dealing with the legitimate functions and ends of government; the character, rights and duties of the English people, and their relation as British citizens to the sovereign; as well as the dangers to be avoided in constructing governments.

    During the first half-century of the American republic, however, The Federalist was clearly the most significant, if not the only meaningful, resource for understanding the intent of the Framers other than the words of the Constitution itself. It is true, of course, that The Federalist is polemical. It is forthrightly a campaign tract intended to persuade the electorate to support the Constitution. As such it occasionally exaggerates the perceived strengths of the Constitution and downplays or ignores its weaknesses.

    But this bias hardly detracts from its great merit as a faithful expositor of the meaning of the Constitution from the perspective of those who made it. Immediately recognized as authoritative, The Federalist became a classic even before it was completed. The first thirty-six essays were published in New York by J. The remainder appeared in a second volume on May In a French edition, which appeared in Paris, became the first to reveal the true identity of the authors.

    Since then The Federalist has been translated into more than twenty foreign languages, and nearly a hundred editions and reprintings of it in English have appeared over the past two hundred years. Between and the McLean edition was reprinted on four occasions, the first being a edition published by John Tiebout in New York. Hopkins to undertake a new edition in The first two—the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution—were intended to facilitate a reading of The Federalist in that they are the texts upon which The Federalist is a commentary.

    Writing as Pacificus, Alexander Hamilton defended the Declaration against the charge that the President had exceeded his powers. This particular edition proved to be most unsatisfactory, because it was published not as a separate work but as the second and third volumes of the collected Works of Hamilton. The great turning point in the publishing history of The Federalist was the appearance of the Jacob Gideon edition in Printed in Washington, D.

    Hamilton and Mr. Jay, but the numbers written by Mr. Madison still remained in the state in which they originally issued from the press and contained many inaccuracies. The Gideon edition, upon which this Liberty Fund edition is based, was reprinted ten times, the last appearing in In , Henry B. For reasons of space, and because the letters of Pacificus and Helvidius are now readily available from other sources, 58 the editors of this new Gideon edition have also elected to exclude these essays.

    Moreover, it should be kept in mind that there are many other writings of Hamilton and Madison that might appropriately be included in an appendix on the ground that they modify in one way or another the views expressed in The Federalist. The inclusion of all this extraneous material would, quite obviously, render this edition unwieldy, particularly since it already contains headnotes, an appendix, a glossary, and an extensive index.

    We should be mindful, too, that The Federalist does not represent the final thoughts on the American Constitution of the men who wrote in the name of Publius. During the course of American history, then, various provisions of the Constitution have been amplified, altered, or even nullified by different generations as a result of Supreme Court interpretations, laws and amendments, Edition: current; Page: [ liv ] and political custom.

    When read against the backdrop of these changes, The Federalist often provides an important standard by which to evaluate them and determine their merit. In this regard, The Federalist, like a political compass, helps each generation steer the ship of state in the intended direction. This is what gives The Federalist its enduring strength and continued relevance, and explains why American political leaders, especially members of the Supreme Court, have traditionally turned to The Federalist for guidance when interpreting the Constitution and trying to ascertain the intentions of the Framers.

    The high esteem accorded The Federalist is not attributable, however, solely to its explanation of the Constitution. Many observers give it a high ranking among the classics of political thought, despite its limited application outside the United States, because it identifies and speaks frankly to the problems and difficulties associated with the establishment of a popular or republican government. I know not of any work on the principles of free government that is to be compared in instruction and in intrinsic value.

    In this respect The Federalist is a unique document, unparalleled in the literature of the Western political tradition. In Federalist No. Publius warns his readers that those who would seek to persuade them one way or the other with regard to ratification may be motivated by ambition, greed, partisanship, or simply mistaken judgment.

    In particular, he cautions, the people should be on guard against demagogues who preach against the proposed Constitution in the name of the people. They speak zealously of the need to protect rights but forget that weak government can be just as much a threat to liberty as one that is too strong. History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people.

    Persuaded that it would be in the best interests of the American people to Edition: current; Page: [ lviii ] adopt the Constitution, Publius promises that he will be candid and truthful in presenting his arguments. He discloses the subjects he will cover, beginning first with a discussion of the advantages to be gained by forming a more perfect union. To this end, in Federalist No. Publius argues in essays 3 and 4 that one clear and obvious advantage of having closer ties among the States is greater national security.

    It is not unrealistic to suppose, he suggests in Federalist No. The present circumstances are such, Publius concludes in Federalist No. Of particular importance in these early essays are Nos. In No. He explains how the conditions associated with extensiveness will operate to cure the disease of majority factions—i.

    A loose confederation of wholly independent States, he suggests, invites commercial weakness, European control of American markets, and domestic jealousies. A strong Union, he adds, would also make it possible for the American people to create a navy and a merchant marine and improve navigation for the protection of American commercial interests. Likewise, he contends in No. One national government, he observes in Federalist No. Federalist No. Publius concludes by noting the continuity between the ideals and spirit of the American Revolution and the present struggle for a new government. The Framers of the new Constitutions are, he suggests, simply improving and perpetuating the goals of the American Revolution and the early constitutional systems that arose from it.

    There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride, or degrade the character, of an independent people, which we do not experience. Publius explains why the situation is so desperate. Understandably, Publius has to turn his attention to answering the charges of the Anti-Federalists that such a powerful national government will swallow up the States.

    This he does in Federalist No. Those in charge of the broad and general responsibilities of the national government, he argues, will have no need or desire to encroach upon the residual powers of the states. Thus, there is unlikely to be any clash of basic interests between the two levels of government. In the first of these essays, he surveys the structure, workings, and eventual disintegration of the major confederacies of ancient Greece.

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    He suggests there are parallels between these Edition: current; Page: [ lxii ] confederacies and the condition of the States under the Articles of Confederation, and sees a lesson to be learned from the fact that foreign intervention and internal dissensions among the member States, rather than oppression on the part of the central governments, were primarily responsible for their demise.

    Here again he finds a weakness and disunity fostered by a lack of central authority over the member states. Continuing with his analysis of modern confederacies in Federalist No. In the final two essays of this section Nos. He then concentrates on both the structural and the procedural defects of the Articles. Equality of State suffrage in the Congress, coupled with the need to secure the approval of nine States for the passage of a law has, he asserts, created a situation that allows for a minority veto, contrary to the republican principle of majority rule.

    To do so would either cause its breakdown or, if not that, an accumulation of power in one body that would amount to tyranny. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of having a popularly based Constitution, noting that, under the proposed Constitution, the new government, unlike the Articles, will rest on the consent of the people. Federalist essays 23 through 36 are devoted to showing that the powers delegated to the national government by the proposed Constitution are necessary for a government that is to overcome the difficulties inherent in the Articles and to preserve the Union.

    At various places, Publius also endeavors to show that the powers delegated to the national government, particularly those relating to the national defense and taxation, will pose no dangers to the existence of the States or the liberties of the people. In paper No. In the case of the national defense, he concludes that the powers of the national government must be virtually unlimited, because the means of defense depends upon factors and circumstances that cannot be fully anticipated.

    Publius applies this reasoning in Federalist No. But his response to the Anti-Federalists does not rest upon this ground alone. He notes that only two States have such provisions against standing armies in their constitutions Edition: current; Page: [ lxiv ] and that, moreover, there is no such provision to be found in the Articles. Beyond this, he can see no need for any such provision, given that the proposed Constitution places the authority for raising armies in the hands of the representatives of the people, thereby providing a check on the military establishment.

    In essay No. In Federalist Nos. In a more philosophical vein, he touches upon a basic theme that recurs throughout the essays: that the concern for private rights and liberty must always be balanced against the imperative need for an energetic government, one capable of defending the nation against foreign and domestic enemies. In addition, he emphasizes that any successful conspiracy or scheme to usurp the liberty and rights of the people through force of arms would require time to develop and mature, a virtual impossibility given the accountability of the members of Congress and the anticipated vigilance of the States.

    Publius makes clear No. Indeed, he believes, force will rarely be required once the proposed Edition: current; Page: [ lxv ] system is put into operation. As soon as the operations of the national government become part of the ordinary life of its citizens, their attachment to it will grow.

    Even State officers will find themselves integrated into the national system through their obligation to uphold legitimate national laws. Nevertheless, Publius does acknowledge No. Among the reasons for this, he maintains, is that the vast majority of the militia will consist of ordinary citizens whose attachment to the community will not allow them to participate in any plot to subvert popular rights and liberties. Starting with Federalist No. At the outset, he makes it clear that the national government must possess unfettered authority to raise revenue in order to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities.

    Repeating the line of argument used in No. Thus, he shows that, save for duties on imports, the States possess a concurrent and discretionary power to tax the same sources as the national government. He demonstrates No. Such a division, he warns, might prevent the national government from fulfilling its critical responsibilities. In the final two essays Nos. While he holds No. In addition, he rejects No. He notes that the information needed for this purpose can easily be obtained with respect to the imposition of indirect taxes, such as import duties and excise taxes.

    Federalist Nos. Here Publius Madison provides an overview of the complexity and enormity of the task confronting the Founding Fathers at the Philadelphia Convention. After stressing the enormous obstacles that must be faced in establishing a new government by pointing to examples from ancient history No. He notes the lack of consensus among them about what is wrong with the proposed system and their clamor for amendments before the proposed system has even had a chance to operate.

    He faults them for quibbling over supposed defects in the proposed Constitution while ignoring the highly dangerous and unbearable political situation under the Articles. Finally, in Federalist No. He answers by arguing that the delegates appropriately accorded priority to that part of their mandate which instructed them to provide for a government capable of preserving the Union and meeting its needs.

    Such a government, he maintains, simply could not be fashioned through any conceivable revision of the Articles. To answer the first question he surveys Nos. He answers the second of these questions, regarding foreign commerce, in the last two essays Nos. In his discussion of the common defense No. They will in fact be ever determined by these rules and by no others. Likewise, in No. Relatively little controversy surrounds the powers Publius surveys in Federalist Nos. Publius turns his attention to this clause in No.

    In both Nos. He does concede No. The first sentence of Federalist No. Thus, he believes that for the proposed Constitution to succeed it is imperative that no one branch be able to exercise the whole power of another. In the remaining papers in this group, Publius sets out to canvass the means by which the departments can be kept separate in order to prevent tyranny. In the first of these No. He next turns his attention No. The Jefferson plan called for appeals to the people whenever two-thirds of the membership of two branches of government so requested.

    Upon such an appeal a popularly elected convention would meet to resolve the conflict. Aside from certain technical difficulties that he notes, Publius finds the plan seriously Edition: current; Page: [ lxxi ] deficient from a theoretical point of view. The favorable opinion of the people upon which the authority of government ultimately rests would then, he maintains, suffer a serious, if not complete, erosion.

    Consequently, the legislators would be the judge of their own cause. Publius then considers No. Again he sees fatal flaws in any such scheme. He notes that the experience of Pennsylvania with its Council of Censors bears out his observations concerning the ineffectiveness of this barrier. Having rejected paper barricades, and occasional and periodic appeals, Publius proceeds in Federalist No. With Federalist No. This survey runs through No. Essay No. In this particular paper, Publius remarks on the propriety of the constitutional provisions relating to the qualifications for voting for members of the House and the qualifications for membership in this chamber.

    He then takes up the more controversial matter of whether the two-year term for members of the House will endanger the liberties of the people. Publius resumes his discussion of the appropriateness of a two-year term No.


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    The major portion of the essay deals with the necessity and utility of two-year terms. Publius next No. Among those he cites are that the laws regard slaves as both property and persons; that the Southern States would regard it as inequitable to count slaves for purposes of taxation but not for representation; and that there should be some allowance for the comparative wealth of the States in apportioning seats.

    That is, the disposition to reduce the number of inhabitants for purposes of taxation will be counteracted by the potential loss of representatives. Moreover, he cannot conceive of this body, subject to election every two years, as betraying the trust of the people. The essay concludes with one of his few statements concerning the relationship between virtue and republican government.

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    In answering the second charge No. The major task of representatives, as he views it, will be to assimilate the information they acquire from other representatives concerning conditions in other States and locales. Over time, however, he sees the interests within the States as becoming more numerous and diverse, while the differences between them in terms of interests will diminish. Beyond this, he sees various circumstances—chief among them frequent elections, along with the fact that representatives cannot pass laws that will not apply to themselves, their family, and friends, as well as their constituents—as forging a genuine bond of affection between the representatives and their constituents.

    Moreover, he does not foresee how a coalition of the small States would be able to prevent periodic augmentations in the size of the House. Among the reasons he cites is that the House, with the people on its side, and vested with the power of the purse, will be more than a match for the Senate or president should they attempt to thwart any increase.

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    However, Publius takes pains to repeat his earlier concerns about an excessively large representative assembly. The final three essays devoted to the House of Representatives deal with the necessity and desirability of national control over elections for national Edition: current; Page: [ lxxv ] offices as set forth in Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution. These essays constitute a break between his survey of the House and his examination of the Senate. Publius begins No. He maintains that if this function were to be exercised by the States, it would leave the national government at their mercy.

    While recognizing that the State legislatures can refuse to elect senators, he does not regard this a warrant for more extensive State control. However, he does believe that State control over House elections could lead to a crisis. He answers by pointing out that neither the New York nor any of the other State constitutions contain such specifications, and that there have been no ill effects. Most importantly, he argues, it will ensure that the entire membership of the House will simultaneously be subject to control by the people.

    The Anti-Federalists viewed the Senate with mixed emotions. The vast majority favored a second chamber, and most were pleased that the States were accorded equality of representation. Yet many voiced strong criticisms of its powers, composition, and relationship to the executive branch.

    Beginning with essay No. In this first paper, Publius deals with the qualifications for election to this chamber, the mode of election, and equality of State representation. He observes that the Senate, because of its stability and continuity, will also be more inclined than the House to take the successive steps sometimes necessary for the implementation of long-range goals and policies. But the bulk of the essay is devoted to a discussion of the Senate as an institution that can prevent oppressive and unjust majorities from ruling.

    Publius next examines No. He emphasizes its stability, as well as the intelligence, knowledge, and character of its members, that render the body suitable for this purpose. However, the essay is most notable for delineating a significant and distinct role for the president in the area of treaty negotiations. The final two essays of the next twenty by Hamilton dealing with the Senate are concerned with its role in the impeachment process. The main issue discussed in No. The constitutional provisions, he argues, do not violate the separation of powers principles.

    In the opening essay, he strives to dispel the charge leveled by many Anti-Federalists that under the proposed Constitution the president will have an authority and status akin to that of the most powerful monarchs. Such a depiction he regards as utterly without foundation. After setting forth in No. Nevertheless, Publius does emphasize the need for energy in the executive to secure the blessings of good government and liberty. He argues strenuously and at length against the idea of a council whose concurrence would be required for the exercise of executive functions.

    Such an arrangement, he observes, would make it difficult, if not impossible, for citizens to fix responsibility for fraud, misconduct, and incompetence. Moreover, he concludes, this lack of accountability would render any such council a greater threat to liberty than would a single executive. He notes the imperative need for such a power to prevent legislative encroachment on the executive branch in order to preserve the separation of powers.

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    He looks upon the qualified veto as an encouragement for an otherwise reluctant chief executive to exercise this prerogative in questionable cases, because it lacks the finality of an absolute veto. On balance, he concludes, the need for flexibility and dispatch justifies vesting this authority solely with the executive. To the charge that the participation of the Senate in this process involves an undesirable mixture of legislative and executive powers he responds that the treaty-making power does not fit neatly into either the executive or the legislative branches, that it partakes of both.

    On the other hand, he observes, the Senate is not as suited as is the president for conducting treaty negotiations. Nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate, he contends in No. Nomination by the president, he believes, will be tantamount to appointment.

    Though he recognizes that the Senate may reject the nomination—something he believes it would do infrequently in the absence of compelling reasons—the subsequent nominee would still be the preference of the president, not the Senate. Publius opens Federalist No. The remainder of this paper, however, is devoted to defending the mode of appointment set forth in the proposed Constitution. The Constitution, he insists, must be viewed as fundamental law, the embodiment of the constituent will of the people. This does not mean, he adds, that the judiciary is superior to the legislature, but only that the will of the people expressed in the Constitution is superior to both.

    I wish the constitution which is offered had been more perfect; but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time. And as a constitutional door is opened for amendments hereafter, the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable. Patrick Henry, also in a friendly tone, wrote back to say that he could not bring his "mind to accord with the proposed Constitution.

    The concern I feel on this account is really greater than I am able to express. Benjamin Franklin, a member of the Philadelphia convention, also had his reservations, taking a very ambiguous and ambivalent attitude: "I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such,. Writing from Paris, Jefferson asked why the Philadelphia convention had assumed the authority — which it did not have — to scrap the Confederation and set out on the uncharted course of writing a whole new constitution for the struggling infant republic.

    As much good could have been done, be said, if three or four provisions had been added to the Articles of Confederation, "the good old and venerable fabric which should have been preserved, even as a religious relic. And why the great hurry on the part of some in pushing for immediate ratification, asked Jefferson. The country was at peace and getting along reasonably well; there was no sudden emergency. If it were thought desirable to make a massive shift in the nation's foundations on which to build a whole new framework of government, why not spend a little time in examining the design of the framework, considering alternatives, exploring all possibilities?

    After this question had been explored and thoroughly discussed throughout the country, why not hold another constitutional convention to review and improve the work done in Philadelphia? No one held a lower opinion of the proposed constitution than Alexander Hamilton. As a delegate from New York, he had been very active in the Philadelphia convention at first, but his interest soon subsided.

    Few were interested in his ideas, which were very anti-democratic and, fundamentally, even anti-republican. His notion of the best system of government was that of the British as practiced under king, ministers, and Parliament. The American colonies had successfully revolted against the perversions of this system under George III and his ministers. For the new American constitution, Hamilton had some very definite ideas: he wanted a very strong executive, an elected president, who was to serve for life, practically as a monarch; this officer would have an absolute veto on any measures passed by the national legislature.

    He would also have the power to appoint all state governors who would have an absolute veto on all state legislation. There should be two houses in the national legislature. Members in the upper house the senate should be chosen on a property basis, to serve for life. In a bow to "the people," whom he always thoroughly distrusted and disliked "The people," he once said, "is a great beast" Hamilton conceded the need of a lower house elected by popular vote, but with the vote restricted as narrowly as possible. In his desire for an all-powerful central government, Hamilton would have liked to abolish completely the jurisdictions of the states, reducing them to the status of counties in England.

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    But he did not push this idea, realizing that it was not only impractical but impossible. Of the new constitution proposed by the Philadelphia convention, Hamilton said: "No man's ideas are more remote from the plan than my own are known to be," and forthwith threw himself into the forefront of those advocating immediate adoption of the proposed plan. He would take what he could get. Anything was better than the Articles of Confederation. It was Hamilton, as noted before, who conceived the idea of writing a series of newspaper articles arguing for immediate ratification of the plan proposed.

    He had no difficulty in persuading Madison and Jay to collaborate, but Hamilton did most of the writing, contributing two-thirds of the articles. The trio worked fast. The first of the long series appeared in the New York City Independent journal late in October, , little more than a month after the Philadelphia convention adjourned. It was Hamilton who arranged to have the articles collected and quickly published in book form as The Federalist , in two volumes. The first volume, containing approximately half the articles, was rushed through the press and appeared in March, The second volume, containing the remainder of the 85 articles, appeared in May.

    The Federalist could well have stood some good editing and pruning: It is often repetitious; main themes could have been brought together and better organized. But the authors obviously decided the decision was probably Hamilton's alone that there was no time for editing. The book had to be put out and given the widest possible circulation with all speed if it was to have any influence in shaping public opinion as the "Great Debate" on ratification was about to begin.

    Consequently, the short newspaper articles were put into the book as originally published. Each short article was numbered as a chapter, with the result that there were 85 chapters of varying lengths — a formidable number. Many a chapter was merely a continuation of an argument begun in the immediately preceding chapters. Such chapters might well have been reworked, revised, and brought together in a single chapter or section.

    But, as just remarked, "Publius" decided there was no time for that. Speed of publication was the prime essential. Whatever its faults, The Federalist was a masterpiece of its kind. It was closely and cogently reasoned. It met the main issues head-on, with no evasion. It did not deal in invective and personalities, contrary to the fashion of the day; the argument, almost always, was kept on a high, cool level.

    The writing was strong and good, though it had nothing of the dazzling sparkle of Tom Paine's Common Sense that, almost overnight, fired Americans to strike for independence, a subject which up to that time, as John Adams wrote, had been a "Hobgoblin of so frightful a Mien that it would throw a delicate Person into Fits to look it in the Face. The impact of The Federalist on ratification cannot be measured. Section 1. Suggested Readings. He both puts the Federalist Papers in historical context and demonstrates their timelessness. Students are sure to benefit from Scott's organized overview of the Federalist arguments, and those already familiar with the Federalist Papers are sure to learn something new.

    The book's comprehensive coverage of key figures, themes, and issues makes it appealing as both a textbook and as a source for the general reader. You can unsubscribe from newsletters at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in any newsletter. For information on how we process your data, read our Privacy Policy.