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The Federalist Papers

The Federalist, or Federalist Papers, was a series of 85 essays written to secure New York State ratification of the U.S. Constitution (text). Appearing under the pseudonym “A Citizen of New York” and “Publius,” most of the essays appeared first in a New York newspaper and later in the papers of other states. Alexander Hamilton is credited with the authorship of 51 of the treatises, James Madison with 14, and John Jay with five. Historians still dispute whether Hamilton or Madison wrote the remaining 15. A two-volume collection of these writings was published in 1788.

The pro-Constitution (narrative) stance taken in the essays took on special urgency because of the perceived threat posed by Shays’ Rebellion, a matter of great concern to the wealthier segments of American society. The Federalist remains the most influential commentary on the fundamentals of republican government and is frequently cited in constitutional arguments today. In Federalist No. 1, Hamilton sets the out the goals of the series:

  • 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.
Plato, in his Republic, offered a solution to the problem of ultimate authority. He recommended that complete power be given to an enlightened despot, who would rule in everyone's best interests. A couple of millenia later, and noting the scarcity of examples, James Madison, in The Federalist No. 10 offered the new U.S. constitution as the best alternative in an imperfect world. He acknowledged that factions will always exist and that the person in charge may not always be wise, so the checks and balances, along with the distribution of responsibilities to different levels of government, gave the best prospect of sound government.