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1.6: The Federalist Papers and Constitutional Government

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    Authors of the Federalist Papers Illustaration
    Figure 1.6.1: Authors of the Federalist Papers were (L-R) Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay

    What is Federalism?

    Federalism is the system of government in which sovereignty (the authority and power to govern over a group of people) is constitutionally divided between a central, or national government, and individual regional political units generally referred to as states. It is based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and state governments, creating a federation.

    Debating a Federal System: The Federalist Papers

    The most forceful defense of the new Constitution was The Federalist Papers, a compilation of 85 anonymous essays published in New York City to convince the people of the state to vote for ratification. These articles were written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They examined the benefits of the new Constitution and analyzed the political theory and function behind the various articles of the Constitution. Those opposed to the new Constitution became known as the Anti-Federalists. They generally were local rather than cosmopolitan in perspective, oriented to plantations and farms rather than commerce or finance, and wanted strong state governments and a weak national government. The Anti-Federalists believed that the Legislative Branch had too much power, and that they were unchecked. Also, the Executive Branch had too much power, they believed that there was no check on the President. The final belief was that a Bill of Rights should be coupled with the Constitution to prevent a dictator from exploiting citizens. The Federalists argued that it was impossible to list all the rights and those that were not listed could be easily overlooked because they were not in the official Bill of Rights.

    What Were The Federalist Papers and Why are They Important?

    The Federalist Papers were a series of essays by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison written for the Federalist newspaper.

    The convention in Virginia began its debate before nine states had approved the Constitution, but the contest was so close and bitterly fought that it lasted past the point when the technical number needed to ratify had been reached. Nevertheless, Virginia's decision was crucial to the nation. Who can imagine the early history of the United States if Virginia had not joined the union? What if leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison had not been allowed to hold national political office? In the end Virginia approved the Constitution, with recommended amendments, in an especially close vote (89-79). Only one major state remained; the Constitution was close to getting the broad support that it needed to be effective.

    Perhaps no state was as deeply divided as New York. The nationalist-urban artisan alliance could strongly carry New York City and the surrounding region while more rural upstate areas were strongly Anti-Federalist. The opponents of the Constitution had a strong majority when the convention began and set a tough challenge for Alexander Hamilton, the leading New York Federalist. Hamilton managed a brilliant campaign that narrowly won the issue (30-27) by combining threat and accommodation. On the one hand, he warned that commercial down state areas might separate from upstate New York if it didn't ratify. On the other hand, he accepted the conciliatory path suggested by Massachusetts; amendments would be acceptable after ratification.

    The debate in New York produced perhaps the most famous exploration of American political philosophy, now called The Federalist Papers. Originally they were a series of 85 anonymous letters to newspapers that were co-written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Together, they tried to assure the public of the two key points of the Federalist agenda. First, they explained that a strong government was needed for a variety of reasons, but especially if the United States was to be able to act effectively in foreign affairs. Second, they tried to convince readers that because of the "separation" of powers in the central government, there was little chance of the national government evolving into a tyrannical power. Instead of growing ever stronger, the separate branches would provide a "check and balance" against each other, so that none could rise to complete dominance.

    The influence of these newspaper letters in the New York debate is not entirely known, but their status as a classic of American political thought is beyond doubt. Although Hamilton wrote the majority of the letters, James Madison authored the ones that are most celebrated today, especially Federalist No. 10.

    Here Madison argued that a larger republic would not lead to greater abuse of power (as had traditionally been thought), but actually could work to make a large national republic a defense against tyranny. Madison explained that the large scope of the national republic would prevent local interests from rising to dominance and therefore the larger scale itself limited the potential for abuse of power. By including a diversity of interests (he identified agriculture, manufacturing, merchants, and creditors, as the key ones), the different groups in a larger republic would cancel each other out and prevent a corrupt interest from controlling all the others.

    Madison was one of the first political theorists to offer a profoundly modern vision of self-interest as an aspect of human nature that could be employed to make government better, rather than more corrupt. In this, he represents a key figure in the transition from a traditional Republican vision of America, to a modern Liberal one where self-interest has a necessary role to play in public life.

    A Closer Look at the Federalist Papers

    Let’s closely examine just three of these important documents.

    Federalist #10: In this, the most famous of the Federalist Papers, James Madison begins by stating that one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Constitution is the establishment of a government capable of controlling the violence and damage caused by factions which Madison defines as groups of people who gather together to protect and promote their special economic interests and political opinions (basically political parties and special interests today). Although these factions are at odds with each other, they frequently work against the public interest and infringe upon the rights of others.

    Both sides of the Constitutional debate (federalists AND anti-federalists alike) have been concerned with the political instability that these rival factions may cause. Under the Articles of Confederation, the state governments have not succeeded in solving this problem. As a matter of fact, the situation has become such a problem that people have become disillusioned with all politicians and blame the government for their problems (sound familiar?). Consequently, a form of popular government that can deal successfully with this problem has a great deal to recommend it.

    Federalist #39: This essay was written to explain and defend the new form of Republican government which the Founding Fathers envisioned to be different than any other “Republic” in Europe. In the mind of Madison and the other founders, no other form of government 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 sees a Republican form of government as one which derives its powers either directly or indirectly from the people (which distinguishes this new form of republicanism from others that had been used in Europe). This form is administered by people who hold elected public office for a limited period of time or during good behavior. He goes on to say that no government can be called Republican that derives its power from a few people or from a favored and wealthy class (as many governments in Europe did). The Constitution conforms to these Republican principles by ensuring that the people will directly elect the House of Representatives. Additionally, 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 new Constitution destroyed the federal aspect of the government by taking away too much power from the states. Opponents (anti-federalists) believed that the framers established a national (unitary) form of government where the citizens' are directly acted upon by a central government as citizens of the nation rather than as citizens of the states. But the proposed government (a federal republic) would contain both national and federal characteristics and would allow for a sharing and careful balance of powers between the national government and the states. The principle of federalism (a division of power between the states and the national government) is integrated into the new Constitution and reflected in the suggested method of ratification. The delegates to the ratifying conventions would directly participate (through voting) as citizens of their states, not as citizens of the nation. Madison also points out that this new form of federal republic is also reflected in the structure of the Senate in which the states are equally represented. Since the states would retain certain exclusive and important powers, this is to be considered further proof of the federal nature of the proposed government.

    Madison goes on to concede that the new Constitution does exhibit national (central government) features. Madison finishes by reaching the conclusion that the government would be BOTH national and federal. In the operation of its powers, it is a nation; in the extent of its power, it is federal.

    Federalist # 51: In this essay, James Madison explains and defends the checks and balances system which would prove to be one of the most important protections and limits included in the Constitution. Each branch of government would be constructed so that its power would have checks over the power of the other two branches. Also, each branch of government is to be subject to the authority of the people who are the legitimate source of authority for the United States government and its new Constitution.

    Madison also goes on to discuss the way a republican government can serve as a check on the power of factions, and the tyranny of the majority which would limit the ability of the majority from imposing their will on the minority unjustly (like a tyrant or despot imposing his will over his subjects).

    Madison’s conclusion is that all of the Constitution’s checks and balances would serve to preserve liberty by ensuring justice. Madison explained, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.” Madison’s political theory is based on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws on the Founders.

    The Impact of the Federalist Papers

    The Federalist Papers had an immediate impact on the ratification debate in New York and in the other states. The demand for reprints was so great that one New York newspaper publisher printed the essays together in two volumes entitled The Federalist, A Collection of Essays Written in Favor of the New Constitution, By a Citizen of New York. By this time, the identity of "Publius," never a well-kept secret, was pretty well known. The Federalist, also called The Federalist Papers, has served two very different purposes in American history. The 85 essays succeeded in persuading doubtful New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. Today, The Federalist Papers help us to more clearly understand what the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they drafted that amazing document over 200 years ago.

    From these essays, Americans have received a gift from our Founding Fathers. Whenever we, as a nation, need to consider what the original intent and meaning of the Constitution was more than 200 years ago, we simply can go back to these documents and remind ourselves exactly what our founders were thinking and what was intended without any question as to meaning or design.

    Figure 1.6.2

    Study/Discussion Questions

    For each of the following terms, write a sentence which uses or describes the term in your own words.


    Federalist Papers





    1. Why has federalism been such a major source of conflict throughout the history of the United States?

    2. Why are the Federalist Papers important to our Constitutional system?

    3. Compare the views of the Federalists with those of the Anti-Federalists.

    4. How do Federalist Papers 10, 39 and 51 contribute to our understanding of the Constitution and the issue of federalism?

    5. How would you describe the impact of the Federalist Papers on American government today? What do you think our governmental system would be like without them?

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