Thursday, October 27, 2016

So what exactly are the “Federalist Papers,” anyway?

Frequently Asked Questions about the “Federalist Papers”

Question: Who wrote the Federalist Papers? (And why are they considered so authoritative?)

Answer: The Federalist Papers were written by three of America's Founding Fathers - Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay; to be specific.

Alexander Hamilton

James Madison

James Madison is sometimes called the "Father of the Constitution," and was later elected as the 4th President of the United States. Both he and Alexander Hamilton were present at the original Constitutional Convention, and were both influential figures on its outcome. John Jay was appointed by President George Washington as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and served for five years in that position. Alexander Hamilton also served for five years as President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, and was President Washington's right-hand man.

John Jay

Out of the 85 essays that later became the Federalist Papers, only a few - five, to be precise - were written by John Jay. The remaining 80 essays were all written by one of the people present at the Constitutional Convention (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, depending on which one you're talking about). The authorship of some is disputed (although these three men are definitely the only candidates), and three of them are believed to have been co-written by both Madison and Hamilton; but at least 51 of them were indisputably authored by Hamilton, and a notable group of others (26 of them, to be precise) were indisputably authored by Madison - the "Father of the Constitution" himself. This is a big part of why they're considered so authoritative.

Question: When were they written? (And what was going on at that time?)

Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, 1787

Answer: They were written in 1787 and 1788, with the first being written just months after the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. The Constitution was not to become the "supreme law of the land" until after it had been ratified by nine of the thirteen states, since there was a part of the text of the Constitution itself that explicitly required this to happen first (specifically, Article 7). Thus, the Constitution could not satisfy its own requirements from this article, without meeting this high standard of popular approval that it had set for itself.

Question: Why were they written? (And did the authors have a specific goal in mind?)

Answer: There was indeed a specific goal that they had in mind; which was to convince the American people to adopt the brand-new Constitution. It had not yet been ratified at this time, and didn't enjoy much popularity when it was still brand-new. (It wasn't going to be ratified, either; unless its supporters convinced the people that adopting it was a good idea.)

Constitution of the United States

Specifically, the states of New York and Virginia were refusing to ratify the Constitution; and as the two largest states, their support was crucial to getting the document adopted. Thus, all of the three authors were from one of these states; with Hamilton and Jay from New York, and Madison from Virginia (the very largest state). Most of the Federalist Papers, though, were written to the people of New York State.

Question: Did the Federalist Papers accomplish their intended goal of influencing the debates?

Answer: They may not have influenced the debates much (at least not directly), because of their scholarly nature making them somewhat inaccessible to the "ordinary people" of the country. However, they may have actually had some influence as a "debater's handbook" for the pro-Constitution side of the debate; since they refined and polished their arguments, and dealt so directly with the arguments of the other side.

Newspaper advertisement for the Federalist Papers, 1787

Question: Why are they called "The Federalist Papers"? Is it all one book, or more of a collection of articles?

Answer: It's more of a collection of articles than a single book. They have been available for many years in book form as a single unified "book," but most of them were actually originally published in American newspapers, one article at a time (with the exception of some of the later ones, which first appeared in the original book edition of the Federalist Papers).

Title page from the first printing of the original book edition of the Federalist Papers

The original title of the book was "The Federalist," incidentally; because the supporters of the Constitution were calling themselves the "Federalists," while the opponents of the Constitution were labeled the "Anti-Federalists" - an unpopular name that they strenuously objected to, but which stuck to them anyway. (But that's a subject for another post.) Because it's more of a collection of essays than a single book (85 essays, to be precise); they are more often referred to in modern times as the "Federalist Papers."

Question: So what's in the "Federalist Papers"? Do they say anything important?

Answer: The Federalist Papers lay out a case for why the Constitution (which was so new at that time) was a better system of government than the document that it eventually replaced (which was called the "Articles of Confederation").

A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

Question: So what was so wrong with the document that the Constitution replaced? (And why do the Federalist Papers spend so much time talking about it?)

Answer: Before the Constitution's adoption, the national government was so weak that it had virtually no power to do anything at all; and virtually half of the Federalist Papers is a clause-by-clause attack on the "Articles of Confederation" (which represented the status quo at that time). The remaining half or so, however, is a clause-by-clause defense of the "proposed constitution" (so controversial at that time), with arguments sprinkled throughout about the reasons it was better than the document it would eventually replace. ("This is why we included this," "this is why the Constitution is an improvement," etc., etc. - a paraphrase of their words, but consistent with the spirit of it.)

Interior of Independence Hall

Question: So what's the big deal about them? (And how have they been used in practice?)

Answer: They have been cited over 300 times in the decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court (more than any other source), which is probably their most important claim to fame now. My source for this estimate comes from the historian Ron Chernow, who said the following in a PBS program on Alexander Hamilton (one of the authors of the Federalist Papers): "The Federalist Papers have become the classic gloss on the U.S. Constitution, cited about three hundred times over the last two centuries by the Supreme Court - more than any other document. The Federalist Papers have almost acquired the authority of the Constitution itself, they're cited so frequently." (Source: Program transcript at PBS website)

U. S. Supreme Court building

Question: Why are they still relevant today?

Answer: Although originally written as a defense of the then-controversial Constitution, they are equally valuable today as an explanation for what they intended certain passages to mean when they wrote them. The doctrine of the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers is as important in keeping the workings of our democracy alive today as it was then; and as a leader of my church once put it, "We should understand the Constitution as the founders meant that it should be understood. We can do this by reading their words about it, such as those contained in the Federalist Papers. Such understanding is essential if we are to preserve what God has given us." (Source; April 1976 General Conference talk)

I concur with these words (which are from Ezra Taft Benson) wholeheartedly, as well as the Federalist Papers themselves - and most importantly, the Constitution that they defend and explain. Although written 200 years ago, this document has been able to keep our democracy alive and working for over two centuries since its adoption. I pray that the influence of this inspired Constitution - and that of the Federalist Papers which so well clarify it - may never die.

Some quotes from the Federalist Papers:

"I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars: The utility of the Union to your political prosperity; the insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union; the necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object; the conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government; its analogy to your own state constitution; and lastly, the additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property." - Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 1

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." - Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 1

"The real wonder [of the Constitutional Convention] is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution." - James Madison, in Federalist No. 37

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Some highlights from the Federalist Papers about checks & balances

The debate over whether or not to ratify the United States Constitution

The Bill of Rights (and its place in some of these debates over ratification)

Part of a series about
The Constitution

The Constitution itself, and the story behind it

Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
States' rights: The conflict between the "several states" and the federal government
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are so important
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks

Debates over the Constitution, then and since

Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education

← Previous page: Debates over ratification - Next page: Debates over checks & balances →

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