The Federalist Essays Brought the U.S. Constitution to Life - The Objective Standard

On October 27, 1787, Alexander Hamilton published the first of eighty-five Federalist essays. For six years, the country had been held together by a weak thread: the Articles of Confederation. Four years after the Revolutionary War had ended, the states still had no means of servicing their wartime debt, of resolving interstate currency and trade disputes, or of formally aligning against new foreign threats. Hamilton (along with many other great founders) had helped to create a solution to these ills: the United States Constitution. Although it had been signed by thirty-eight of the forty-one delegates present at the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution still had to be ratified by at least nine of the thirteen states. The opposition was swift and vocal. In response, Hamilton would launch the Federalist essays to defend the Constitution and secure votes for ratification.

Just ten days after the Constitution was signed, its opponents began publishing Anti-Federalist essays intended to stoke opposition and waylay ratification. They argued that America should remain a loose confederation of thirteen “free and independent states.”1 “Cato I,” the first Anti-Federalist essay, sounded an alarm that sustained throughout the ratification contest: “the influence of a powerful few” and “the exercise of a standing army” are threats to individual liberty.2 Another critic argued that the Constitution would simply replace the British monarchy, so recently thrown off, with a new American one and declared that he would “rather be a free citizen of the small republic of Massachusetts, than an oppressed subject of the great American empire.”3

But Hamilton knew that a “nation without a national government is . . . an awful spectacle.”4 The already tense interstate relationships would likely transition into anarchy and open warfare. The Constitution could provide “the security of liberty” that the nation desperately needed.5 Hamilton conceived a massive project, a point-by-point logical vindication of the Constitution’s principles and purposes. He not only initiated the project, he also penned fifty-one of the essays, with James Madison writing twenty-nine and John Jay the remaining five. Under the pseudonym Publius, and at a fever pitch, these three men wrote what would come to be called The Federalist Papers. The essays originally were published serially in New York newspapers from October 1787 to August 1788. . . .

Endnotes

1. Declaration of Independence; see also, The Articles of Confederation, art. 2, for similar phrasing.
2. Cato I (likely George Clinton), New York Journal, September 27, 1787, accessed online at: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cato-i/. The “powerful few” they had in mind were wealthy bankers and lawyers.
3. A Federalist, “A Dangerous Plan of Benefit only to the ‘Aristocratick Combination’,” Boston Gazette and Country Journal, November 26, 1787, accessed online at: http://www.constitution.org/afp/borden01.htm.
4. Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 85,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1961), 527.
5. Hamilton, “Federalist No. 1,” 35.
6. Hamilton, “Federalist No. 1,” 33.
7. Hamilton, “Federalist No. 1,” 35.
8. Hamilton, “Federalist No. 1,” 35.
9. Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” 81.
10. Hamilton, “Federalist No. 15,” 108.
11. Hamilton, “Federalist No. 15,” 108 and 109.
12. Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to James Madison, November 18, 1788,” National Archives Founders Online, accessed online at: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-11-02-0257.
13. George Washington, “Letter to John Armstrong, April 25, 1788,” National Archives Founders Online, accessed online at: https://founders.archives.gov/GEWN-04-06-02-0201.
14. R. Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 50–68.
15. Buckner F. Melton, Jr. and Carol Willcox Melton, “The Supreme Court and The Federalist: A Supplement, 2001–2006,” Kentucky Law Journal, vol. 95 (2007), 749–64. Through 1984, The Federalist Papers had made an appearance in 206 U.S. Supreme Court cases (James G. Wilson, “The Most Sacred Text: The Supreme Court’s Use of The Federalist Papers,” Brigham Young University Law Review [1985], 65–135), so there has been a more than 50 percent increase over the past three decades.
16. McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819), accessed online at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/17/316.

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