The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Summary and Analysis of Essay 3


John Jay begins by stating that for a number of years, the general consensus among the people has been that the best government for the nation would be a national government, invested with sufficient power "for all general purposes." He then says that as he's further examined this matter, he's only grown more convinced that the people are right. For him, the greatest issue concerning government is the safety of the people. In this essay, he will argue that a "cordial Union under an efficient national Government, affords the best security that can be devised against hostilities from abroad."

Jay argues that wars are proportional to the just causes to go to war; so, by examining whether a united nation of states would have fewer causes than the separated assembly of sovereign states, you can discern which form of government would most likely preserve the peace of the land. Jay then tells his readers that America has already formed treaties with six nations, all of which, except for Prussia, are maritime nations and could readily injure the United States. It is of paramount importance, therefore, to maintain these relationships with these countries, especially considering the importance they hold to commerce in the young nation. To him, it seems that "one national government" could observe the laws of the nation "more perfectly and punctually" than thirteen separate state governments. First, for Jay, one government has available the "best men of the country" because it is effectively able to pool the best men in each state, city, county, etc., and utilize them for one common cause. Thus, the administration, the council, and the judicial decisions will be "more wise" in a united government, thereby creating a "safer" situation for foreign affairs. Next, Jay argues that treaties in the national government will be argued and executed in a singular manner, not in thirteen different ways. In addition, because each state has different desires and wants, persuasion that is not truly for their common good might influence them more than the nation as a whole; a national government, in contrast, is never subject to making treaties based on local circumstances. Jay also believes that empirical evidence proves his point: by his count, not one "Indian" (i.e. Native American) war has been provoked by the national government, but several states have provoked such wars, leading to the "slaughter of many innocent inhabitants."

In sum, "not only fewer just causes of war will be given by the national Government, but it will also be more in their power to accommodate and settle them amicably." Jay concludes by citing an example from history. In 1685, Genoa, a small state, offended Louis XIV and was forced to send their chief magistrate and four of their senators to personally apologize and receive his terms. Jay asks: would Spain, Britain, or "any other powerful nation" have had to undergo the same humiliation?


All of John Jay's essays for The Federalist Papers deal with the international advantages of adopting the Constitution. This essay's basic thrust is that the Constitution is necessary in order to make the United States a powerful force that can defend its people and their liberties from foreign attacks or domination. Jay had been closely involved in the diplomacy of the Confederation: he had acted as ambassador to Spain and as Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Through this work, he knew all the foreign-relations disadvantages to which the Confederation was exposed; it is appropriate, therefore, that Jay was the author of this specific essay.

Many critics and first-time readers of The Federalist Papers argue that Jay had a different agenda and conception of the new Constitution than his co-authors. Jay was not concerned with the same principles of factions and majorities that Hamilton and Madison concerned themselves with, critics argue: rather, they contend, Jay was only concerned with making the country powerful enough to deter foreign attacks. This, however, is far from the case.

At first sight, it may appear as if Jay's mention of the people's rights to safety, life, liberty, and property means only that these rights should be safeguarded against foreign attacks. However, consider the politics of the time in which the challenge of individual rights had its origin. Jay was aware of the oppressive majority rule that existed in some of the states. Jay, when pleading for the prosperity of America and the rights of her citizens, recognized the danger arising from the current democratic despotism, and he wanted the individual protected from that quarter as much as from aggressive foreign nations. He confirms this in this essay when he states that the Union, as established under the Constitution, is securing "the preservation of peace and tranquility" not only "against dangers from foreign arms and influence" but also "from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes."

There is no reason to believe that Jay conceives of a faction in a different way than his co-authors, who obviously have in mind the infringements upon minority rights under the Articles of Confederation. Jay also complains that "the prospect of present loss or advantage may often tempt the governing party in one or two states to swerve from good faith and justice" and is glad that "those temptations, not reaching the other States, and consequently having little or no influence on the national government, the temptation will be fruitless, and good faith and justice be preserver."

Thus, Jay is not arguing for something different than his colleagues: rather, he is applying the forthcoming arguments of Madison (for example, in Federalist #10) and Hamilton (Federalist #9) regarding the dangers of factions to the principles of the safety against foreign powers. Jay is as fearful of majoritarianism as his co-authors are, and he helps their case by offering another reason to be fearful of factions: the risk of factions preventing the country from being safeguarded against foreign attack.