The first Federalist essay appeared in The Independent Journal in October 1787, just 4 weeks after the Constitutional Convention presented the U.S. Constitution to the states for ratification. It was one of an eventual 85 such essays, which argued in strong support of the Constitution, and which were published serially in New York newspapers during the next 6 months. Later compiled into a single volume entitled The Federalist, the collection of essays is considered to be one of the most important articulations of American political philosophy to this date.
The political philosophy contained in The Federalist is based on the theories of the European philosophes of the Enlightenment, historical examples, and the experience of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The essays not only provided historical arguments and philosophical theories about the nature of individuals and government, but also strong criticisms of the weaknesses inherent in the Articles of Confederation The overall purpose of the essays was to convince the people that a more energetic and stronger centralized government would be more protective of their liberty.
The European philosophers influencing the statement of political philosophy in The Federalist included John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Thomas Hobbes. These philosophes thought in terms of natural rights, and described the forms of government best suited to protect these rights. They acknowledged that an individual's impulse towards self-preservation, liberty, and self-interest would fundamentally come into conflict with the competing needs of other individuals. Therefore, the best form of government balanced the selfish needs of the individual with the need to protect the whole community.
The theoretical idea that too much liberty can be bad for an orderly society was evidenced by the U.S government during the years of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles provided for only a loose confederation of independent states, and the national government rested in a single legislative body called Congress that was vested only with the authority to legislate on matters related to mutual defense. Fearful of creating a strong central government similar to Great Britain, delegates placed significant power with the state governments and greatly restricted the powers of the national government. Congress was hampered by its own lack of power to enforce its laws, collect funds, regulate trade, or to provide uniform and binding judgment upon each of the member states.
Many far-sighted leaders realized that the self-interests of the states would eventually tear the union apart, and that the Articles of Confederation provided no legal or political means to stop it. States quarreled with one another over land claims, commerce regulations, and frequently erected imposts against neighboring states. Although strictly forbidden by the Articles, states established relations and treaties with foreign nations and refused to send much needed tax money to Congress. Due to the difficult amendment process, attempts to endow congress with greater authority to tax and to regulate commerce could be stopped by the refusal of a single state.
Interested in bringing a degree of unity to at least trade and commerce, the Virginia legislature called a meeting of delegates from states interested in devising uniform trade regulations. Despite the sparse attendance of states at the Annapolis Convention in 1786, this meeting inspired another meeting for the express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.
Leaders' worries about the chaos that results from too much liberty came to fruition with Shays' Rebellion in the winter of 1787. A disgruntled farmer named Daniel Shays demonstrated the inability of a weak central government to stand in the way of personal liberty and self-interest. When he staged a rebellion against unfair tax laws in Massachusetts, he provided all the incentive needed for 12 of the 13 states to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that following May. The state could barely stop the rebellion, and the national government had no power to do so.
The experience during the Articles of Confederation led delegates to believe that a weak central government did not have enough authority to provide order and security or to protect the rights of individuals. They agreed to do away with the old system completely, and at the end of the summer of 1787, the convention presented a new plan of government entitled the U.S. Constitution. This document called for a strong central government, one that would be the authority over all the state governments and that would provide a unified authority on legislating, enforcing and judging laws. The Federalists applauded the document for bringing such energy to a centralized body. The Anti-federalists feared what the new plan would do to encroach upon individual rights and liberty.
The federalist papers provided strong and rational justifications for each choice made by the Constitutional Convention, and also persuaded citizens that by placing less power in the hands of the people, the government could provide greater protection for the people. The authors of the federalist essays, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, sought to explain the superiority of the new plan through the use of historical examples, references to the natural rights and behaviors of man, and by appealing to the reader's sense of patriotism.
Although the document originated with Alexander Hamilton's concern about ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the state of New York, leaders in many states used the arguments constructed in the essays to support ratification of the Constitution. Since both Hamilton and Madison had served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the essays were all published under the name Publius. They felt their arguments would be criticized as subjective because they took a large part in crafting the very document they defended. The struggle for ratification in New York and Virginia, two of the most powerful states, continued even after the Constitution received the required 9 of 13 state approvals. Technically, the Constitution would have gone into effect whether New York or Virginia ratified or not.
But the composing of the federalist essays was not a pointless exercise, despite the fact that the Constitution became effective without New York's support. In attempting to convince the American audience that they had the unique opportunity to be a part of the first experiment with a federal republic, Publius succeeded in articulating a uniquely American political philosophy, practical in nature, yet founded on solid historical examples, philosophical theories, and most importantly on the experience of a nation that had actually struggled to achieve the much theorized balance between liberty and order.
The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five essays urging the citizens of New York to ratify the new United States Constitution. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the essays originally appeared anonymously in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the pen name "Publius." The Federalist Papers are considered one of the most important sources for interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution.
Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875
This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.
- Elliot's Debates is a five-volume collection compiled by Jonathan Elliot in the mid-nineteenth century. The volumes remain the best source for materials about the national government's transitional period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and the opening of the First Federal Congress in March 1789.
- Farrand's Records gathered the documentary records of the Constitutional Convention into four volumes, three of which are included in this online collection, containing the materials necessary to study the workings of the Constitutional Convention. The notes taken at that time by James Madison, and later revised by him, form the largest single block of material other than the official proceedings. The three volumes also include notes and letters by many other participants, as well as the various constitutional plans proposed during the convention.
- The Making of the U.S. Constitution is a special presentation that provides a brief history of the making of the Constitution followed by the text of the Constitution itself.
Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789
This collection contains 277 documents relating to the work of Congress and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.
George Washington Papers
The complete George Washington Papers collection from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 65,000 documents.
The Washington Papers include the following references to the Federalist Papers:
- George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, November 10, 1787, "I thank you for the Pamphlet and for the Gazette contained in your letter of the 30th Ult. For the remaining numbers of Publius, I shall acknowledge myself obliged, as I am persuaded the subject will be well handled by the Author."
- George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, August 28, 1788, "As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my Library."
Search Washington's papers using the word "Publius" to locate additional documents related to the Federalist Papers.
James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859
James Madison (1751-1836) is one of 23 presidents whose papers are held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. The Madison Papers consist of approximately 12,000 items.
- James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, August 10, 1788. Partly in Cipher, "I believe I never have yet mentioned to you that publication. It was undertaken last fall by Jay, Hamilton, and myself. The proposal came from the two former. The execution was thrown, by the sickness of Jay, mostly on the two others. Though carried on in concert, the writers are not mutually answerable for all the ideas of each other, there being seldom time for even a perusal of the pieces by any but the writer before they were wanted at the press, and sometimes hardly by the writer himself."
- James Madison to Jacob Gideon, Jr., January 28, 1818, "I send you a Copy of the 1st. Edition of the “Federalist,” with the names of the writers prefixed to their respective numbers."
Search the Madison papers using terms such as "Publius" or "Federalist" to locate additional documents related to this topic.
Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827
The complete Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 27,000 documents.
- Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, November 18, 1788, Sent with Two Plans for Funding Foreign Debt, "With respect to the Federalist, the three authors had been named to me. I read it with care, pleasure & improvement, and was satisfied there was nothing in it by one of those hands, & not a great deal by a second. It does the highest honor to the third, as being, in my opinion, the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written." [transcription]
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years
In honor of the Manuscript Division's centennial, its staff has selected for online display approximately ninety representative documents spanning from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress - The Federalist
James Madison's Federalist no. 10 is one of the most important and enduring statements of American political theory. Its reasoned statement explains what an expanding nation might do if it accepted the basic premise of majority rule, a balanced government of three separate branches, and a commitment to balance all the diverse interests through a system of checks and balances.
Creating the United States
This online exhibition offers insights into how the nation’s founding documents were forged and the role that imagination and vision played in the unprecedented creative act of forming a self–governing country. The exhibition includes a section on Creating the United States Constitution that contains images from Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Federalist Papers.
Includes Thomas Jefferson's annotated copy of the Federalist Papers.
The federalist: a collection of essays, written in favour of the new Constitution, as agreed upon by the Federal convention, September 17, 1787, in two volumes. New-York: Printed and sold by J. and A. M'Lean ..., 1788.
December 12, 1745
John Jay, one of the nation's founding fathers, was born on December 12, 1745, to a prominent and wealthy family in the Province of New York.
March 16, 1751
James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" and fourth president of the United States, was born on March 16, 1751.
September 17, 1787
Members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the Constitution on September 17, 1787.
October 27, 1787
Known as the Federalist Papers, the first in a series of eighty-five essays by "Publius," the pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, appeared in the New York Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.
December 15, 1791
The new United States of America adopted the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, confirming the fundamental rights of its citizens on December 15, 1791.
July 11, 1804
On July 11, 1804, political antagonists and personal enemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey to settle their longstanding differences with a duel. The participants fired their pistols in close succession. Burr's shot met its target immediately, fatally wounding Hamilton and leading to his death the following day. Burr escaped unharmed.
The Federalist Papers, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School
The Founders' Constitution, University of Chicago Press and the Liberty Fund
Our Documents, Federalist Papers, No. 10 & No. 51, National Archives and Records Administration
Adair, Douglass. "The Authorship of the Disputed Federalist Papers." William & Mary Quarterly 1, no. 2 (April 1944): 97-122.
-----. "The Authorship of the Disputed Federalist Papers: Part II." William & Mary Quarterly 1, no. 3 (July 1944): 235-264.
Cooke, Jacob E., ed. The Federalist. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. [Catalog Record] [Full Text]
Dietze, Gottfried. The Federalist: A Classic on Federalism and Free Government. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. [Catalog Record]
Duvall, Edward D. The Federalist Companion: A Guide to Understanding the Federalist Papers. Gilbert, Ariz.: Fremont Valley Books, 2011. [Catalog Record]
Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985. [Catalog Record]
Rossiter, Clinton L., ed. The Federalist Papers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay. New York: Mentor, 1999. [Catalog Record]
Taylor, Quentin P., ed. The Essential Federalist: A New Reading of the Federalist Papers. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1998. [Catalog Record]
Ball, Lea. The Federalist--Anti-Federalist Debate over States' Rights: A Primary Source Investigation. New York: Rosen Central Primary Source, 2005. [Catalog Record]