The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Quotes and Analysis

“If these states should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, a man must be far gone in Utopian speculations, who can seriously doubt that the subdivisions into which they might be thrown, would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests, as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties, situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”

No. 6, page 21

This quote explains one of the core arguments defending the union of the thirteen independent states into a single country under a national government. Hamilton argues here that were the states to be independent and completely sovereign, they would inevitably go to war with one another, just as all other neighboring countries throughout the world have done throughout history. Hamilton frequently dismisses his opponents as indulging in “utopian” fantasies and overly idealistic assessments of human nature when they predict that the states will live together in harmony without a national government over them.

“Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed, than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”

No. 10, page 42

One of the core problems facing any political system, according to Madison, is the phenomenon of faction. By faction, Madison refers to any group of people who have a particular interest or ideological point of view. He implies that factions often are willing to sacrifice the public good for the sake of advancing their own position. Madison believes that a united America will be able to avoid the disruptive influence of factions. This is primarily due to the size of the US. The country will be so large that it will be very difficult for a single faction to dominate the political process to the detriment of the union.

“Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment, without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourish faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

No. 10, page. 42

This is one of the most memorable and widely cited quotes of the Federalist Papers. One option for dealing with faction, according to Madison, would be to simply take away liberty. If people are not free to form and express their own points of view, then factions could never take hold. However, this solution is worse than the problem. Instead, Madison advocates designing a system of government that can control and limit the detrimental effects of faction.

“A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”

No. 11, Page 51

This quote occurs in the context of one of Hamilton’s many papers defending the usefulness of the union. He argues that a united America will be strong enough to field a powerful navy to deter foreign powers from bullying the US. Hamilton feared that a disunited America could easily be overwhelmed by greedy foreign powers.

“It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

No. 14, Page 63

Some anti-federalists had argued that America was too large to be governed by a single republican government. However, Madison retorts that the people making this argument have confused democracy, which requires all the people to meet together in person and make decisions on public matters, with republican government, which leaves public matters to be decided on by elected representatives. Since the proposed constitution would create a republican system of government, it could be extended across a country as large as the US. Although it would be impractical for the entire population of the US to gather in a single place to make decisions, it is very possible to have a far smaller number of representatives meet in the capital.

“The great and radical vice, in the construction of the existing confederation, is in the principle of legislation for states or governments, in their corporate or collective capacities, and as contradistinguished from the individuals of whom they consist.”

No. 15, page 71

A major criticism of the Articles of Confederation was that it did not give the national government the power to pass laws directly applicable to individual citizens. Instead, laws could only be passed that required certain action from state governments. It is much easier, according to Hamilton, for a state to resist the decrees of the central government than for an individual citizen to do so. As a result, the government under the Articles was weak and ineffectual. Furthermore, the government was fundamentally unstable and constantly at risk of war, since the only way for the national government to enforce its decrees is through the use or threat of violence. If the national government were to resort to force against states, civil war would be the result.

“The idea of restraining the legislative authority, in the means for providing for the national defence, is one of those refinements, which owe their origin to a zeal for liberty more ardent than enlightened.”

No. 26, page 127

This quote occurs in the context of Hamilton’s defense of Congress’s power to raise standing armies under the proposed constitution. Many anti-federalists feared that the congressional ability to raise and maintain armies could lead to tyranny and abuse. However, Hamilton contends that such a viewpoint is unreasonable. No nation can be strong and independent without the means for national defense.

“…but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness, involves a discretion which may be misapplied an abused.”

No. 41, page 207

This quote, by James Madison, illustrates an important general response to several criticisms levied against the proposed constitution by the anti-federalists. Madison here is calling for political pragmatism and recognition of the fact that no political system can be perfect. The anti-federalists came up with numerous hypothetical scenarios for how the powers granted to the government under the Constitution might be abused. Madison responds to these by saying that any power can be used for good or for evil. The solution cannot be to deny government the power to act in the public interest just because that power might be abused.

“Let the compromising expedient of the constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two-fifths of the man.”

No. 54, page 284

This quote, by Madison, illustrates the greatest moral failing of the US Constitution. It describes the clause in the constitution that stipulated slaves would only be considered three-fifths human for the sake of census taking and determining how many representatives would be apportioned to each state. The phrase “compromising expedient” is key. Clearly, Madison was not comfortable with this clause. It is clear that he felt slavery was an abomination, but, for the sake of preserving the union, he and his allies felt it was necessary to accept this compromise in order to secure the ratification of the Constitution by all the states.

“It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the public good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend, that they always reason right about the means of promoting it.”

No. 71, page 370

This quote by Hamilton occurs in the context of his defense of the powers of the presidency outlined in the proposed constitution. Specifically, Hamilton was defending the length of the presidential term as essential to ensuring the executive branch was strong enough to govern effectively. Anti-federalists had been asserting that it was better to have a weak president who could be easily controlled by the people and their representatives in Congress. Hamilton argues however that, although the people’s intentions are good, they don’t always make the correct policy decisions. They can be influenced by demagogues or “temporary delusion” into making the wrong decision. Therefore, it is critical for the executive to serve as a check on the transient and changing will of the people. It is the role of the president to serve as the national leader and to act wisely in the best interests of the people.