The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Study Guide

The Federalist Papers is a treatise on free government in peace and security. It is the outstanding American contribution to the literature on constitutional democracy and federalism, and a classic of Western political thought.

The Federalist Papers were written in support of the ratification of the Constitution. While modern day readers might see it as inevitable, the Constitution was a revolutionary step. In Philadelphia, the delegates rebelled against the existing Articles of Confederation and looked to the states, not the existing government, for ratification and approval of the new government. Because of the revolutionary nature of the new constitution, arguments were necessary to rationalize the response to the new emergencies. After the convention, therefore, Tench Coxe became the coordinator in Philadelphia for those who supported the constitution while George Mason became the coordinator for New York for those who opposed it. Hundreds and hundreds of letters were written regarding the constitution, "Cato" and "The Federal Farmer" attacked while "Caeser" replied. Both George Washington and Ben Franklin, probably the two most influential men in the country, supported the Constitution.

Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York were the states critical to the success or failure of the Constitution. Of these four states, New York by far was the state where the success of the constitution was in the most doubt. The state's delegation did not approve the draft in Philadelphia because two of its three delegates left during the protest and abandoned Alexander Hamilton without a vote. Governor Clinton, the leading figure in New York politics, opposed the new government: New York had become an independent nation under the Articles of Confederation, making itself rich through tariffs on trade with its neighboring states.

Quickly, Alexander Hamilton decided that a massive propaganda campaign was necessary in New York, more than in any other state. This new plan entailed a saturation theory, a sustained barrage of arguments appearing in newspapers four times a week. Because of the massive amounts of work, he decided that he needed two co-authors to help him write under the pseudonym of "Publius." He originally had asked others to assist him in the project but, luckily for him and future generations, James Madison, a Virginia citizen, was available because the Continental Congress was sitting in New York during that period. John Jay was also asked because of his vast foreign diplomatic service. Unfortunately, John Jay was injured shortly after the project commenced and was able to only complete six different papers. That left Hamilton and Madison to finish the rest, a task they were able to complete only because they relied heavily on notes they had used in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia earlier.

Eventually, the books were published serially in different newspapers in New York (four out of five of the major newspapers of the time) as well as republished in book form near the end of the run. Unfortunately, the ratification vote in New York failed and New Yorkers' only ratified the constitution later as the 11th state. James Madison, however, took the published books to assist in the ratification debate in Virginia and the papers survived for a far greater purpose than merely propaganda. The Federalist Papers are the single greatest interpretive source of the Constitution of the United States, the best insight and explanation of what the Founding Fathers purpose was in the passage of the document that governs the United States of America.

Philosophically, The Federalist Papers should also be considered in the context in which they were written. The revolutionary era was characterized by a quest for security from foreign nations, for peace in America, and for individual freedom. These values, it was hoped, could be achieved by united action. And whereas earlier plans of union were largely motivated by a desire for security and peace, those of the period under consideration were the first appearance of the freedom motif. That motif came to the fore during the colonists' struggle with England and was recognized by the Articles of Confederation. In the arguments in Philadelphia and the subsequent Federalist Papers this same motif held force and arguments of unity and security, while seeming almost absurd to readers familiar with the power of the modern United States, were sincere concerns and problems.