The Federalist has played a critical role in American governmental theory over the last half of American history, but are not widely known or understood. This series of articles will shed light on the essays, and their impact, beginning with the context in which they were written.
Fall, 1787. The natal nation of the United States of America stands at a crossroads that will decide her fate. Loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation and virtually independent, states clashed over taxation and regulatory issues. An economic crisis lead to uprisings, notably Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, exposing a desperate need for a strong central government and a new constitution.
In response, the Constitutional Convention was called, and on September 17th, 1787, the Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification. This set the stage for a fierce debate across the nation, torn between two sides. The Anti -Federalists feared the centralization of power in the new Constitution, believing the presidency would devolve into a monarchy and that the newly independent judiciary would become oppressive. They feared a distant and powerful federal government would be out of touch with localities, and unresponsive. They strongly demanded the inclusion of a Bill of Rights to protect the rights of ordinary Americans against the threats of corruption and tyranny. Notable Anti-Federalists included the former radical Samuel Adams, as well as Patrick Henry and George Mason.
The Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, believed that a strong federal government was required to hold the states together and safeguard the liberty and social progress Americans had won during the Revolution. To do this, and protect the people from tyranny, they had developed a new political theory, outlined in the Constitution. According to Madison, it was to be a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”
As the Constitution disseminated to the states, the Federalists were faced with a difficult task. Their views went against prevailing political beliefs of the time. However, they were represented by well-known revolutionary figures, well-organized, and capable of making great use of the printed word. Victory in key states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, would be critical for the new government’s legitimacy. Even if the requisite 9 of 13 states ratified, if the major players refused, the nation may not survive.
In New York, the Federalists Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay launched a media campaign designed to explain and argue for the strong government outlined in the Constitution. Published originally as a series of 84 essays in New York newspapers, The Federalist essays were intended to convince New Yorkers to send delegates to their state convention that would vote in favor of ratification.
In this, The Federalist failed. The essays had little influence at the time, and New York sent 19 Federalist and 46 Anti-Federalist delegates to their convention. Although New York ratified, it was with a bill of rights and amendments affixed, and was preempted by New Hampshire becoming the 9th state to ratify during the debates.
The Federalist did however end up crucial to America in future years, with many essays being extensively cited in judicial opinion and forming the basis of logic behind American government, because the primary authors, Hamilton and Madison, were delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and these essays shed light on their intent. They are currently canonized nearly to the degree of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence themselves.
In the following articles in this series, we will present a down and dirty summary of four of the most cited essays from The Federalist, and discuss their impact on American government and what significance they have in today’s political climate. Stay tuned!