The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers Summary and Analysis of Essay 39


The purpose of this paper is to determine whether or not the framers established a republican form of government. No other form is suited to the particular genius of the American people; only a republican form of government can carry forward the principles fought for in the Revolution or demonstrate that self-government is both possible and practical.

Madison asks what are the distinctive characteristics of the republican form of government. Unfortunately, Madison continues, one cannot find the answer by reading certain books which purport to describe the constitutions of republican nations. Holland, Venice, and Poland are described by political writers as republics, but the power in all three governments is not derived from the people; it is held by kings, nobles, or a small group of people. Since the term "republic" is loosely used, we must look to the theoretical principles of republicanism as they have been defined.

A republican form of government is one which derives its powers either directly or indirectly from the people and is administered by persons who hold public office for a limited period of time or during good behavior. No government can be called republican that derives its power from a few people or from a favored and wealthy class. The Constitution conforms to these republican principles. The people directly elect the House of Representatives; in addition, the people indirectly select the senators and the president. Even the judges will reflect the choice of the people since the president appoints them, and the senate confirms their appointment. The president, senators, and representatives hold office for a specified and limited term; judges are appointed for life ­but subject to good behavior. The constitutional prohibition against granting titles of nobility and the guarantee to the states that they shall enjoy a republican form of government is further proof that the new government is republican in nature.

These facts do not satisfy all people. Some people claim that the Convention destroyed the federal aspect of the government by taking away too much power from the states. According to these opponents, the framers established a national form of government,­ one in which the citizens' are acted upon directly -- as citizens of the nation instead of citizens of the states. In reality, the proposed government contains both national and federal characteristics. It is true that the national government has authority over individuals as national citizens, but in many important respects the new plan of government is clearly federal in its form. The principle of federalism (division of power between the states and the national government) is reflected in the suggested method of ratification. The delegates to the ratifying conventions will vote as citizens of their states, not as citizens of the nation. The federal form is also reflected in the structure of the Senate in which the states are equally represented. The fact that the states retain certain exclusive and important powers is further proof of the federal nature of the proposed government.

But, Madison says, we are not going to claim that there are no national features. Of course there are. Madison concludes that the government in its structure is both national and federal; in the operation of its powers, it is nation; in the extent of its power, it is federal.


This essay, concerning the republican nature of the Constitution, is one essay that critics point to as having a "split personality" with previous essays that Hamilton had penned. Madison is more conciliatory towards the federal aspects of the government, while Hamilton only expounds on the nationalistic aspects of the new government. The split personality of the Federalist can be considered the root of the dualism that became so characteristic of American constitutional development. The disagreement over the nature of the Union may have contributed to nullification and succession or, for that matter, to the fight against these institutions. Likewise, Hamilton's and Madison's differing opinions on federalism were used when the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution and largely account for that Court's oscillation between dual federalism and nationalism. Also, the authors different conceptions of the separation of powers seem to mark the beginning of a struggle between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, evident throughout American history.

The originality of the Federalist papers, and the Constitution itself, means that these men were confronted with a genuinely democratic problem and succeeded in solving that problem, as Madison denotes here. This alone constitutes enormous progress in the theory and practice of government, as it existed up to their time. Former generations had been concerned largely with the question of how to restrict monarchial absolutism and had been confronted with the choice of monarchy or popular government. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, on the other hand, conceived of popular government as the very premise for their arguments. They did not ask whether popular government should take the place of monarchy, as their predecessors had done. That question had been answered in 1776. Rather, they asked about the degree of democracy and majority rule.

Their answer was that of men who believed in the individualism of the English heritage and their intellectual environment. They bought forth their own concept of free government, under which the popular majority, while governing, was restricted by a constitution for the sake of the freedom of the individual and under which the democratic principle of popular participation in government, as a mere means, was subordinate to the liberal principle of the protection of the individual, as the end of government. Madison's description of the republican form of government is significant because it was such a noteworthy and novel concept in the time. The founders had solved the democratic problem in an ingenious manner, a problem that had plagued the European nations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.