In 1783, the Revolutionary War ended: after seven long, hard years, Americans had won their independence from Great Britain and could begin constructing a new nation. This, however, proved to be no easy feat. The country’s first written constitution, the Articles of Confederation, created a federal government that had little authority over the individual states and no ability to levy taxes or regulate commerce. Many believed this government was inefficient and ineffective, and in May 1787 a Constitutional Convention was called to address these problems. Instead of simply editing the Articles, however, the delegates to the convention wrote an entirely new constitution that outlined a strong central government and established a system of checks and balances.
Before this document could become the new constitution of the country, nine out of the thirteen states had to ratify, or approve, it. The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays that attempted to convince the people of New York to support the proposed Constitution.
The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison that aimed to convince the people of New York to support the new Constitution. They were published under the pseudonym “Publius” in various New York newspapers from 1787 - 1788.
Before the new Constitution could be instituted, nine out of the thirteen states had to ratify it. Americans were split into two main camps: Anti-federalists, who opposed ratification and worried that giving the federal government more power would make it susceptible to tyranny, and Federalists, who supported ratification. New York was a hub of anti-federalist sentiment: many Anti-federalists published articles in New York newspapers arguing that the proposed Constitution gave Congress too much power and would threaten American citizens’ hard-won freedoms.
In the midst of this, New York lawyer and Federalist Alexander Hamilton decided to write a series of anonymous essays defending the Constitution. He recruited fellow Convention delegates John Jay and James Madison to help. Plagued by rheumatism, John Jay wrote only five essays, while Madison penned 29 and Hamilton authored 51.
The overarching argument of the Federalist Papers is that the Articles of Confederation were weak and ineffective, and that the proposed Constitution would remedy these problems by creating a stronger federal government without threatening the rights and freedoms of American citizens.
The first group of essays explains that under the system set by the Articles, the federal government was too decentralized for America to be a strong international presence or effectively address internal rebellions. Subsequent sections defend the proposed Constitution, including a group of essays devoted to the importance of the federal government’s power to levy taxes. Another large portion of the essays provides a comprehensive overview of the new structure of government proposed by the Constitution, including the system of checks and balances.
Some of the essays are more famous than others. One of the most influential was Federalist 10, written by Madison, which argues against the idea that republican governments, or governments in which political authority comes from the people, can only be successful in small countries. Madison argues that, in fact, larger countries are more conducive to successful republican governments because they are more heterogeneous and better able to balance the competing interests of different factions. Another particularly famous essay, Federalist 51, details the importance of checks and balances, arguing that this system protects against tyranny similar to what Americans suffered at the hands of the British. “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself,” Madison wrote, explaining that since both individuals and governments are fallible and prone to mistakes, a government must have checks on its power.
At the time of publication, the Federalist Papers were not enormously influential. Few people outside of New York read them, and they were not successful in convincing a majority of New Yorkers to support the Constitution; the state sent more Anti-federalists than Federalists to the state ratification convention. However, New York did end up voting to support the new document: in July 1788, a small majority of delegates voted for ratification on the condition that a list of amendments detailing additional rights was added to the Constitution. This list became the Bill of Rights, and was drafted by Madison in 1789.
Today, the Federalist Papers are one of the most important resources we have for interpreting and understanding the original meaning of the Constitution. The essays provide a comprehensive explanation of the principles and structure of government laid out in the Constitution, and have been cited in Supreme Court cases for centuries. In 1803, for instance, the Supreme Court cited Federalist 78 in its decision in Marbury v Madison, which affirmed judicial review, or the power of federal courts to determine if a statute is unconstitutional. In the years since, the Court has cited the essays dozens of times in a variety of decisions, and it will undoubtedly continue to do so, demonstrating the importance of the Federalist Papers to the country today.