The Federalist Papers
Written by Matt Osborne
Originally published as a series of essays in the Independent Journal, New York Packet, and The Daily Advertiser by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the nom de plume Publius, the Federalist Papers were 85 political essays used as propaganda in response to opposition of ratifying what is now the United States Constitution (Epstein 1984). Ranging in topics from executive power to the size of government, checks and balances to the economy, and taxation for defense, the papers were the central thoughts of the Constitution written with great care and explanation by the framers themselves in an advocacy effort to persuade the states to ratify. As Chief Justice John Marshall explained in writing in the majority opinion in the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, “the opinions expressed by the authors of that work have been justly supposed to be entitled to great respect in expounding the Constitution” (Dillon 1903, 289).
Fresh from victory in the Revolutionary War, delegates from the Colonies met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. The Articles, originally drafted in 1776, and ratified the following year by all 13 states, was the first attempt to create a national government. With great desire to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states, the Articles created a loose wartime confederation of the states with an extremely limited central government. Some attendees of the Philadelphia Convention had the desire to create an entire new government rather than fix the existing one, chief among them were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (Creating the United States). Over the next four months, the delegates agreed on principles, then adopted and modified a plan written by Madison. The Convention came to a close on September 17, 1787 and the Constitution that planted the seeds of a representative republic was sent to the states for ratification (Wood 2016). It was immediately met with opposition.
Ten days after the Constitution was sent to the states, the first of many essays appeared in the New York Journal written in opposition to ratification of the Constitution by Cato, likely a pen name of George Clinton, Governor of New York. The first Cato letter calls the ratification of the Constitution a threat to American’s safety and prosperity. Other letters followed from Cato and other anti-federalist thinkers, one of the most damaging being published on October 18 from the pseudonym Brutus. In his letter, Brutus claims that the federal government will subvert liberty and establish despotism and a tyrannical class of aristocrats (Storing 1981).
Having lived through the tyrannical rule of King George III and winning independence from Britain through revolution a few years earlier, the founders were particularly cautious of criticisms of tyranny. It had only been 11 years since they declared that the “history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” (Declaration of Independence). In response, Madison, Hamilton and Jay launched a defense of the work of the convention through the 85 essays, primarily to encourage New York to ratify a Constitution that created a representative form of government, free of control from factions. Because the government is the will of the people, only certain needs could be met, leaving the more specialized needs of factions unfulfilled. In Federalist No. 1, Hamilton wrote that the series would “endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have claim to your attention” (Hamilton 1961, 92)
Originally an advocacy campaign by leading Federalists to support the ratification of the Constitution, specifically in New York (Carey 1989, xi), the initial influence of the essays is debatable, and many scholars have indeed debated over the essays. The ratification process took place in each of the thirteen states individually and the Federalist essays were not widely printed outside of New York, though they were shared in Madison’s home state of Virginia, and he was critical in assisting in organizing the Federalist delegates. In New York, timing more than writings probably influenced ratification as 10 states had already ratified, including the other large states of Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania (Teaching American History). However, it cannot be left unsaid that the Federalist delegates were greatly outnumbered in New York and still the ratification occurred (Teaching American History); obviously the essays were influential but to what degree can never be known.
The lasting legacy of the Federalist Papers cannot be understated. At no other time in history has there been an accompanying set of essays written by the same individuals who framed the governing documents, giving insight of intent and purpose. As already mentioned, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall, writing for a unanimous majority, gave credence to the thoughts of the papers and approved the documents as an extension of the Constitution, and the courts have used them as appropriate contemporary accounts of the Constitution since.
In addition to being used in judicial review, the Federalist Papers have been the blueprint for the actions and powers of the Executive and Legislative branches. Specifically in Federalist Number 10, James Madison foresees the inevitable partisanship, mainly along the division of property, and argues for a perfect combination of a republic and a democracy with the “great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures” (Hamilton 1961, 135)
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The unequitable division of property described by Madison and the factions he feared are essentially the foundation of the philanthropic sector in the United States. Because the government that was created by the Constitution is a representative republic rather than a total democracy or a social democratic state, there are needs that certain factions have that the government does not have the responsibility to, or because of resources available, cannot meet. Those needs are then met by organizations of the voluntary sector (Anheier 2014). Essentially, any nonprofit organization that provides services that the government does not, from Planned Parenthood to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, have their roots in the Constitution and the supporting essays.
Further, because the Federalist Papers were first written as supporting documents to encourage delegates in New York and other states to ratify the Constitution, an argument can be made that Publius is the first nonprofit advocacy organization supporting the ideas of the Constitutional Convention think tank. Today’s organizations that advocate for the size, scope and responsibilities of government, from the Cato Institute to the Open Society Foundations owe a sum of gratitude to the work of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.
Key Related Ideas
- Anti-Federalist Papers - Though the Anti-Federalist papers are essentially the antithesis of the Federalist Papers, it would be irresponsible to ignore the influence they had on the writings of the Federalist Papers. From the Cato Letters to Brutus to George Mason and Patrick Henry, the debate between factions was incensed and necessary and lead to the creation of the Bill of Rights that the Federalists were opposed to.
- Checks and Balances - In Federalist Number 51, Madison created the need for a system of checks and balances in government by stating, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself” (Hamilton 1961, 356).
- Common Defense - Federalist Number 23 gave birth to the notion of the Common Defense. Hamilton wrote, “The principle purposes to be answered by union are these -- the common defence of the members -- the preservation of the public peace, as well as against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States, the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries” (Hamilton 1961, 199). Even in today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere, most can agree that the Common Defense is a role of the central government.
- Ratification - The Federalist Papers were written to persuade New York, and to a lesser extent, the other States to ratify the Constitution. After the Convention in Philadelphia ended in September, 1787, it took ten months for the first nine states to ratify, starting with Delaware on December 7th and closing with the large states of Virginia and New York the following summer. North Carolina ratified the Constitution in 1788 after the Bill of Rights was proposed. The final state, Rhode Island, ratified it in 1790 under threat of being treated as a foreign government after initially rejecting it in 1788 (National Archives).
Important People Related to the Topic
- George Clinton was the longest serving governor of New York and the vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Clinton was a staunch opponent of ratifying the Constitution and a leading advocate for the inclusion of a bill of rights. Clinton is thought by some to be the author of the first Cato Letter published on September 27, 1787, commencing the need for response by the Federalists (United States Senate).
- Alexander Hamilton was the founder of the nation’s financial system and was a strong supporter of ratification of the Constitution. Originally from the Leeward Islands, Hamilton came to New York and studied at what is now Columbia. After the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton devised a plan to publish a series of essays titled Federalist and is responsible for some of the most important political writings in our history (Chernow 2004).
- Patrick Henry was a statesman who represented Virginia at the First and Second Continental Congress and was elected Governor. Having seen the failures of the Articles of Confederation, Henry was opposed to a strong central government and declined to be involved in the Constitutional Convention. Strongly opposed to the ratification of the Constitution, Henry was a leading voice to include a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties (Bill of Rights Institute).
- John Jay was a proponent of a strong central government and was a leading Federalist statesman. Though he was not a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, he was enlisted by Alexander Hamilton to help author the Federalist essays (PBS Newshour). Jay is responsible for writing essays 2-5 that address the advantages of a unified government against the threat of foreign powers (Hamilton 1961). Jay went on to become the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (PBS Newshour).
- James Madison, commonly known as the Father of the Constitution, was a statesman from Virginia. While waiting on other delegates to arrive in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, Madison and other Virginia delegates wrote the Virginia Plan that became the basis for the Constitution. Madison was a major contributor to the Federalist essays and penned Number 10 that is the framework for a Representative Republic. Madison became the 4th President of the United States (DeRose 2011).
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- Americans for Prosperity is a national organization that advocates for lower taxes, less regulation, and economic prosperity.
- The Cato Institute is a public policy organization based on individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peaceful international relations.
- The Center for American Progress is an independent policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through bold, progressive ideas.
- The Progressive Policy Institute is a catalyst for policy innovation and its mission is to create radically pragmatic ideas for moving America forward beyond ideological and partisan deadlock.
Reflection Question - How did the Federalist essays influence the role of government in our daily lives and invite the development of the nonprofit sector?
- Anheier, Helmut K. Nonprofit Organizations: Theory, Management, Policy. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Bill of Rights Institute. Patrick Henry. https://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/founders/patrick-henry/
- Carey, George W. The Federalist. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989
- Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004
- DeRose, Chris. Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election That Saved the Nation. Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2011
- Dillon, John M. John Marshall: Complete Constitutional Decisions. Chicago: Callaghan &Company, 1903.
- Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of The Federalist. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984
- Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist. Edited by Benjamin Fletcher Wright. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961
- Library of Congress. Road to the Constitution. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/road-to-the-constitution.html
- National Archives. Declaration of Independence. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
- National Archives. Constitution Day. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/constitution-day/ratification.html
- PBS News Hour. What You Should Know About Forgotten Founding Father John Jay. July 4, 2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/forgotten-founding-father
- Storing, Herbert J. The Complete Anti-Federalist. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
- Teaching American History. “Dates of Ratification of the Constitution”. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/dates-of-ratification-of-the-constitution/
- Teaching American History. “Introduction to the New York Ratifying Convention”. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ratification/newyork/
- United States Senate. George Clinton. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Sculpture_22_00004.htm
- Wood, Margaret. “May 1787 the Beginning of the Constitutional Convention”. In Custodia
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.