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Written to persuade New York voters of the merits of ratifying the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers are a collection of eighty-five articles that seek to explain and justify key features of the Constitution and to respond to the objections of its critics. The Federalist Papers are typically regarded as one of the most important works of American political thought and are a critical record of both the principles and the debates that informed the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers were written principally by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (due to illness and other obligations, John Jay wrote only five articles). Published under the pseudonym “Publius,” The Federalist Papers appeared three to four times a week in New York newspapers between October 27, 1787, and April 2, 1788. Advocating a more powerful, central government, The Federalist Papers reflect the Framers’ concern that the Articles of Confederation were unable to ensure political stability and resolve conflicts between the states as enforcement of the acts of Congress under the articles was left to the state governments. Publius argued that a more energetic national government that would both represent and act directly on citizens without being mediated by state governments would foster the United States’s political and economic development, curb the potential excesses of popular government, and better secure the rights of citizens. For Publius, the Constitution embodied the progress of the “science of politics” and proved that people could establish government through reflection and choice rather than depending on accident and force.
Republicanism And Representation
Publics described the form of government created by the Constitution as republican, although Madison’s use of this term departed from its traditional association with civic virtue and small, culturally homogeneous nations. Madison described a republic as “a government deriving power directly or indirectly from the great body of people, administered by people holding office for specific term or good behavior.” By emphasizing representative government and the indirect power of citizens, Publius insisted that applying the “republican principle” to the more expansive territory of the United States would render the principle more effective and the government more stable. A large republic would enable a scheme of representation that could insulate officeholders from the transient passions of the public while retaining a sense of the people’s will. Because representatives would be elected from relatively large districts and senators chosen by state legislatures, they would more likely be selected on the basis of their reputation and public standing; less animated by merely local attachments, they would filter rather than simply mirror their constituents’ interests. Moreover, as Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, a large republic could more effectively address the problem of faction, which he defined as any number of citizens, whether a majority or a minority, “who are united and actuated by some common impulse or passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” The republican principle itself could solve the problem of minority faction—minorities would be diluted through the process of representation—but a large republic would guard against majority faction by taking in such a large number of interests that no single one would be able to form a majority.
Checks And Balances
The U.S. Constitution sought to mitigate the threat that an energetic national government might pose to individual rights through the separation of powers (the justification that Publius credits Montesquieu with having provided). However, given the tendency of power to extend beyond its limits, the mere delineation of specific powers to each branch would provide only “parchment barriers” to the concentration of power in any single branch. These powers therefore had to be not only separated but also blended; Publius insisted that each branch must be given partial agency in the others as a way of checking their actions. The limitation of government through an adversarial institutional arrangement thus reflected Madison’s belief that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. ”The idea of checks and balances rested on the fundamental assumption that individuals are driven at worst by passion and at best by self-interest. Because the ambition of officeholders would lead them to increase the share of power that they exercised, their interests must be carefully attached to the preservation of the rights and powers of their office. By carefully blending the powers of each branch (e.g., the veto power of the president, the Senate’s power to try impeachments), Publius argued that each could check the actions of the others and thus resist their encroachments.
Despite Madison’s claim that the division of power into national and state governments would provide a “double security” for citizens’ rights, Publius typically envisions the national government as a brake on the excesses of the state governments, not vice versa. While opponents of the newly proposed Constitution largely agreed that the national government created by the Articles of Confederation was too weak, they nonetheless believed that states were better suited to protect citizens’ freedom; because state governments were more responsive to the popular will, the states would be a more reliable check on the power of the federal government. By contrast, Publius believed that without a powerful national government the states were likely to fall into dissension among themselves, and Hamilton framed the ratification debate in The Federalist Papers as a choice between union or disintegration into “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths.” Precisely because states were more responsive to the popular will, they were more susceptible to faction, and Publius therefore believed that the threat to liberty posed by state governments was at least as great as that posed by the national government. Given people’s natural attachments to what is local and close at hand, Publius—Hamilton in particular—worried that the national government might not be powerful enough and repeatedly argued that the energy of the national government must be commensurate with the importance of the powers granted to it. By giving it authority over matters of national and international importance, Publius hoped that the national government would attract more ambitious individuals and gradually garner the attachments and confidence of the people.
The Federalist Papers are often taken as a guide to the Framers’ intent, and while they are an indispensable exposition of the principles underlying the Constitution, there are limitations to using them in this manner. In the first place, they were written to secure the ratification of the Constitution. As such, they were carefully tailored to their readers and sought to put the document in the best possible light. Second, the Framers’ sense of the compromises that would be necessary to secure ratification constrained the drafting of the Constitution itself, and The Federalist Papers’ discussion of some of the Constitution’s features presents necessities as virtues. Finally, Hamilton and Madison were only two of the individuals involved in drafting the Constitution, and in subsequent years even they would construe the document differently; for Hamilton the national government it created might have its own will and ends, while for Madison it was charged with protecting private rights and serving as a neutral arbiter of conflicting interests. The single voice of Publius therefore masked significant differences of opinion among participants in the constitutional convention, who ultimately agreed on the text but not necessarily the meaning of the Constitution.
- Carey, George W. The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
- Cooke, Jacob E., ed. The Federalist. Middletown, Conn.:Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
- Dietze, Gottfried. The Federalist: A Classic on Federalism and Free Government. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.
- Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of the Federalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
- Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of the Federalist Papers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.
- Mason, Alpheus Thomas. “The Federalist—A Split Personality.” American Historical Review 57, no. 3 (April 1952): 625–643.
- Storing, Herbert J. What the Anti-Federalists Were For:The Political Thought of the Opponents of the Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
- White, Morton. Philosophy, the Federalist, and the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Wills, Gary. Explaining America:The Federalist. New York: Penguin, 2001.
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