The Federalist Papers: A Brief Introduction

The Federalist Papers are perhaps the most cited source when writing about the Constitution. Often, they are simply referred to as the Federalist. In this essay, we will look at what the Federalist is. We will also describe its historical context and purpose.

The Revolution

In July, 1776, the Continental Congress declared independence from England. The American states then needed a new government. The Continental Congress became that government.

A committee was appointed to draft a constitution for the American states even before independence was declared. Congress sent a plan for a new government to the states for approval in November, 1777. This was the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.”

By 1781, all thirteen states approved the Articles. The Articles then became the governing document of the United States. The Confederation replaced the Continental Congress.

In September, 1783, the Revolutionary War formally came to an end with the Treaty of Paris. With this treaty, Great Britain recognized the independence of the former American colonies.

The Need For Reform

The Revolutionary War had revealed problems with the Articles of Confederation. Over the next few years, various conflicts and events revealed more.

By 1786, problems with the Articles of Confederation were clear. The Annapolis Convention met in September of that year to discuss trade between the states. Delegates attended from only five states. The low attendance meant that real work of fixing the Articles could not be done. The Annapolis Convention sent out a call for a new convention in 1787.

From May to September, 1787, delegates from the 13 American states gathered in Philadelphia. Their task was to consider changes to the Articles of Confederation. They did more. The convention started over. They wrote a new Constitution. On September 17, the delegates signed the Constitution. The convention then sent it to the states for ratification.

Establishing A New Constitution

Under the terms of Article VII of the Constitution, it would be in force once nine states had approved it. Ratification would be by special conventions in each state. This would provide the new government a basis for authority apart from the states. The states would not create the new government; the people would in each state.

Ratification by nine states would put the Constitution in place, but no states were forced in. The Constitution would only be in force among the states that ratified it. For the new government to work, it was essential to have all of the major states all ratify the Constitution. Because of this, approval by New York was very important. Without New York, or some other key states, it was unlikely the new government would work.

The Struggle for Ratification in New York

By late September, 1787, critics of the Constitution were writing essays against it. They were trying to prevent ratification of the Constitution in New York. These essays were printed in New York newspapers. Think of these as extended letters to the editor. We now know the essays against ratification as the Anti-Federalist. The Anti-Federalist posed a major threat to adoption of the new Constitution.

Alexander Hamilton, a strong proponent of the new Constitution, planned to defend it, countering the Anti-Federalist. He recruited two others to assist him, John Jay and James Madison. Together, these men authored 85 essays defending the Constitution and urging its adoption.

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison addressed the essays “To the People of the State of New York.” They signed the essays “Publius.” The Anti-Federalist authors had signed their essays with names like “Cato,” “Brutus,” and “The Farmer.” Today, we know who wrote the Federalist. Only a few of the individual essays now have disputes about who wrote them.

At the time, pen names hid who the authors were. This was an attempt to keep the focus on the ideas, rather than on the people writing them. This was important, since the authors on both sides were most concerned with the ideas. By focusing on the ideas, public opinions about the individual authors would not influence public acceptance of the arguments.

The Plan For The Federalist

Alexander Hamilton opens the series of essays in this way:

. . . [Y]ou are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks to its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the Union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world. 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.

Hamilton here notes how important the decision about approving the Constitution is. He also describes the core of the “American Experiment” — an attempt to create and preserve a free government, not just for a generation but for many generations.

At the end of the first essay, Hamilton lays out his plan. The Federalist will show how important the union is to the people. He promises to explain why the Articles of Confederation are weak. Hamilton and his partners will explain the need for a more “energetic” central government. They will explain what a republic is and what federalism is. They will explain the security the new Constitution offers to republican government, liberty, and property. The Federalist will explain the design of the new government, how it should work, and why it should be adopted.

The Enduring Importance of The Federalist

The Federalist is one of the most important sources for understanding the Constitution. James Madison is widely recognized as the main architect of the Constitution. Including Madison in Hamilton’s project adds greatly to its credibility for understanding the Constitution.

In explaining the workings and ideas of the Constitution, the Federalist is very valuable. Together with the Anti-Federalist, the Federalist provides a look into many lasting political tensions in the American Republic. We should often turn often to the Federalist. At times, we should turn to the Anti-Federalist. Often, consideration of the two will help to deepen our understanding of an issue.