The document now known as the Constitution of the United States was composed in 1787 by the fifty-five delegates of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. A declared compromise of divergent interests, its authority in the new nation at the time was by no means assured. A national debate on its legitimacy ensued. To the federal Constitution’s defense came James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay; sharing the pen name Publius, the three men argued the new Constitution’s merits in a series of essays that became known as The Federalist.

In the eyes of many Americans, the proposed Constitution was an invitation to tyranny that neglected individual liberties even as it closed gaping holes in the nation’s existing system of governance. The new document seemed most threatened in Hamilton’s state of New York. In response, Hamilton conceived a public relations effort to promote the Constitution, by publishing pro-ratification treatises in the major newspapers. In all, eighty-five essays by the three authors appeared: John Jay authored five, Madison twenty-nine, and Hamilton fifty-one.

Alexander Hamilton (c.1755-1804) was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, the illegitimate son of a married woman and a struggling Scottish businessman. After the death of his mother, Hamilton left the West Indies for New York, where he settled in 1772. Bright and ambitious, he enrolled in King’s College (now Columbia University), intending to become a doctor. Serving as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, he became a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Hamilton, who believed economic prosperity required a strong government, was an outspoken proponent of centralized government and the architect of the country’s financial institutions. He later served as the first secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795), exerted significant influence over foreign policy, and played a crucial role in shaping the government. His caustic wit earned him many enemies, including Aaron Burr, whose political career suffered under Hamilton’s criticism. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and on July 11, 1804, delivered a mortal wound. Hamilton died the next day.

James Madison ( 1751-1836) was the son of a Virginia planter and a member of the southern aristocracy. Though his health kept him from military service, he was active in revolutionary politics in his home state and was chosen for the Continental Congress (1780) and then the Constitutional Convention. Because of his efforts and influence at the convention, he is sometimes called the “father of the Constitution.” Madison served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1789 to 1797 and was secretary of state for eight years under Thomas Jefferson, whom he helped in engineering the Louisiana Purchase. In 1809 Madison succeeded Jefferson and was elected the nation’s fourth president; he won a second term in 1812 and, although a proponent of peace, led the United States to victory in that year’s war with Britain. Madison was the last of the leading founders to die when he passed away on June 28, 1836.

John Jay (1745-1829) was born in New York City. He became an attorney in 1768 and gained early fame with The Address to the People of Great Britain (1774), a tract outlining colonial demands on the mother country, which Jay wrote while representing New York in the First Continental Congress. He drafted New York’s earliest constitution and in 1777 was made the state’s first chief justice. Minister to Spain from 1779 to 1782, he spent much of the Revolutionary War on diplomatic service in Europe, where, along with Benjamin Franklin, he negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which was signed in 1783. Jay did not attend the Constitutional Convention, but his work in foreign affairs in the late 1780s under the encumbering Articles of Confederation shaped his support for a new U.S. Constitution; his five Federalist essays primarily concern foreign affairs. In 1789 President Washington appointed Jay the country’s first chief justice of the Supreme Court, and his measured stewardship helped cement the court’s reputation for impartiality. The unpopular Jay Treaty of 1794 with Great Britain spoiled Jay’s hopes to succeed Washington as president, although he was elected governor of New York the following year. John Jay died on May 17, 1829.



On April 19, the American Revolution begins with battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.


On January 10, Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense as an anonymous fifty-page pamphlet denouncing the British monarch and monarchy in general. Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations. In May, George Mason drafts Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. Members of the Second Continental Congress sign the Declaration of Independence, which draws heavily from its Virginian counterpart. In July, George Washington takes command of the Continental Army.


On November 15, the Articles of Confederation are formally endorsed by the Continental Congress; they are sent to the thirteen colonies for ratification. The Articles provide a system of governance during the upheaval of the Revolution.


On March 1, the Articles of Confederation are ratified. In October, British General Charles Cornwallis surrenders to General Washington, ending military conflict.


Jay is appointed secretary for foreign affairs.


The Treaty of Paris, negotiated by John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, formally ends the Revolutionary War.


In September, at the Annapolis Convention, which brings together delegates from five states, Alexander Hamilton promotes new laws governing interstate commerce; the meeting increases momentum in favor of a national convention to strengthen the Articles of Confederation.


Congress agrees to amend the flawed Articles of Confederation. In May, the Constitutional Convention convenes in Philadelphia; the delegation drafts the U.S. Constitution, which is signed on September 17 and sent to the states for ratification. Amid widespread anxiety that the proposed government insufficiently protects individual liberty, the first Federalist paper is published in New York on October 27. Written by Hamilton, it appears under the pseudonym “Publius,” a pen name shared by Hamilton, James Madison,and Jay. By the end of the year, thirty Publius essays are in print. In December, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey ratify the Constitution.


The promotional campaign continues until the final Federalist essay is published on August 16. In January, Georgia and Connecticut ratify the Constitution.Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire follow. In May, a collection of the Publius essays is published and becomes known as The Federalist. Virginia ratifies the Constitution, and New York follows suit but recommends that a bill of rights be added. By August, all eighty-five Federalist essays are in print. In France, the Marquis de Lafayette drafts “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”


In March, the U.S. Constitution takes effect and the first Congress of the United States is convened. On April 30, President George Washington delivers his first inaugural address. On June 8, Madison introduces the Bill of Rights amendments to the Constitution. North Carolina ratifies the Constitution. Washington appoints Jay the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Hamilton is appointed secretary of the Treasury. Madison serves as congressman from Virginia in the House of Representatives. On July 14, the French Revolution begins with the storming of the Bastille in Paris.


On April 17, Benjamin Franklin dies at the age of eighty-four.


In England, Thomas Paine publishes the first part of Rights of Man, in part a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). On December 15, the Bill of Rights, the name given the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, is adopted into law. These individual rights, established in George Washington’s first term, address many of the concerns articulated by the Anti-Federalists


George Mason, an Anti-Federalist, dies.


On March 4, George Washington, elected to a second term, delivers his second inaugural address. A Proclamation of Neutrality, issued in April, codifies American foreign policy.


Washington sends Jay on a diplomatic mission to quell tensions with Britain; the resulting understanding becomes known as Jay’s Treaty.


During his absence Jay is elected governor of his home state of New York; he must retire from his seat on the Supreme Court in order to fill his new appointment.


On September 17, George Washington delivers his farewell address. John Adams is elected the second president of the United States.


Madison retires from Congress, returning to his estate, Montpelier, in Virginia.


Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restrict immigration and curtail press freedoms. The four laws are widely condemned as unconstitutional; Madison writes the Virginia Resolution, denouncing the laws.


On December 14, George Washington dies.


Thomas Jefferson is sworn in as the third U.S. president; he appoints Madison secretary of state.


On July 11, Aaron Burr mortally wounds Alexander Hamilton in a duel on the cliffs at Weehawken, New Jersey; Hamilton dies the next day.


Madison becomes the fourth president of the United States.


The War of 1812 against Britain tests the resolve and abilities of the new U.S. government.


The United States and Great Britain sign the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium, ending the War of 1812.


Ignorant of the Treaty of Ghent, Andrew Jackson wins a decisive victory at the Battle of New Orleans


On July 4, Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson die.


On May 17, John Jay dies at his home in New York.


On June 28, the last of the founding fathers, James Madison, dies.


The greatest American contribution to world literature has come through the country’s originating: claims. Between 1776 and 1820, the most intense philosophical period of civic discourse ever known, a literature of public documents dominates intellectual creativity in the United States. It consists of pamphlets, orations, declarations, ordinances of expansion, bills of rights, petitions of toleration, constitutions of all kinds. and a handful of judicial opinions. The best of these works reach for national identity through claims of universal rights and faith in the dignity of humankind. The words they contain are the aspirations that have attracted so many to American shores. More concretely, the same writings create representative government as we know it and a continental republicanism previously unimaginable. The obvious capstones of this literature are the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution of the United States in 1787. official texts honored throughout the world. Not far behind them. however, and a commentary on both, comes a collaboration of essays known as The Federalist. Printed first as ephemeral newspaper articles amid factional clamor but then as a two-volume book, it stands alone today as a practical guide to political theory and a sourcebook of civic understanding.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were the three very different and mostly separate authors of the eighty-five papers that make up The Federalist. They proceeded under a general plan set by Hamilton. but they worked independently on individual assignments. The loose partnership would last ten months, from October 27, 1787, until August 16, 1788, and when it was done, the result, better than any other writing of the time, would come closest to articulating what the new and struggling United States might become. The Federalist took its direction and tone from the most vital dispute in American history. At issue was acceptance or rejection of the newly proposed Federal Constitution of 1787, and the debate over it was an acrimonious one. Citizens were being forced to make a choice between radically different conceptions of their country at a time when few observers could predict with confidence that the states would survive for long as one nation.

We forget how controversial the Constitution was in the moment of its birth. The document that now governs the United States was drafted in secrecy by men who knew that they had acted beyond the mandate given to them. Sent as state delegates to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to discuss problems in the new union, they had been told to make any adjustments within the Articles of Confederation as the official compact of union. The Articles had been drafted in the anti-authoritarian moment and spirit of 1776. It was a companion document to the Declaration of Independence, and it left autonomy in the hands of the individual states. Nonetheless, five years would pass before the apprehensive states approved even this loose coalition, and they did so in 1781 only after many revisions by Revolutionary leaders who feared centralized authority. The framers of the Constitution in Philadelphia basically ignored these fears. Instead of tinkering with the arrangement, they junked the Articles of Confederation altogether and wrote out their own document of fundamental principles. When they were done, they had substituted a much stronger ideal of union than the suspicious compromisers of the original Confederation had contemplated or would have allowed.

Nor was that all. When the framers in Philadelphia made their document public on September 17, 1787, after four long months of closed deliberation, they tacked on a string of non-negotiable demands. They insisted that their document, the new Constitution, be submitted unchanged by Confederation authorities to the states for ratification, that it be approved through state conventions for that purpose rather than through the existing state legislatures, that ratification require only a strong majority of the states rather than the unanimity stipulated under the original compact, and that their own deliberations remain secret and inviolable during debate over the document that they had written. Finally, the framers resisted any reconsideration by a comparable deliberative body of the kind that they had just conducted among themselves. When asked toward the end of the Convention about possible amendments through another general conclave because “it was improper to say to the people, take this or nothing,” Charles Pinckney answered for all of the framers when he replied, “Conventions are serious things, and ought not to be repeated.”1

The early responses to the framers’ proposals ranged from uncertainty to outrage. If the Constitution was to be accepted, clearly much would have to be explained and quickly. The essays that make up The Federalist sought to be that explanation. They began to appear almost immediately. The first two anonymous newspaper essays were in print the month after the Constitution became public. The Federalist, in this sense, must be read as a partisan response to the anxiety that most early republicans felt as they tried to absorb the altered plan of union offered to them. The initial articles were treated, in fact, as political bluster for the popular press. When they continued to appear and accumulate, they won another dubious distinction: The eighty-five assembled papers would be the most protracted and prolix pamphlet series Americans had seen in an age of obsessive pamphleteering. Beleaguered opponents dubbed them the most tiresome production they had ever encountered. Supporters, of course, found higher qualities; a few even saw what the essays would become. When Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France, read his own copy of The Federalist in Paris in late 1788, he called it “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written,” a claim that holds up well today.2There is no other book in constitutional thought in any language quite like The Federalist for its careful and thorough blend of range, penetration, principle, structure, and practical implication.

These minimal facts are important because they contain the puzzles that a reader today must solve to understand The Federalist. The first puzzle involves the original anonymity of the essays. Throughout their collaboration, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison hid behind the shared pen name Publius, after Publius Valerius, a founder of the Roman Republic. Resort to a pseudonym was a convention of the period among gentlemen of letters appearing in print, and classical reference was common in this regard. Even so, there was more to the choice of a name in this case than meets the eye. Why was this figure selected from the host of admired and better-known figures of antiquity?

The original Publius was also known as Publicola—literally, “pleaser of the people”—and the Publius of 1787 ardently sought this identification for himself. The three authors belonged to the elite among early republican leaders, but they were not popular men, and they were defending a proposal that would curb the people’s power through a stronger central government. Why should the people bother to listen, much less accept, their arguments? The writers of The Federalist made themselves “Publius” in search of a common touch and bond with a general audience of citizens. Their efforts, while philosophically complex, would be couched in simple tones and a polemical style. How this adroit combination of sophistication and commonality worked is one measure of creativity in the Publius essays.

Pleasing the people through the symbolic signature had another virtue. It covered differences between the collaborators. Better far to write as Publius than as Hamilton, the belligerent and often divisive upstart from the British West Indies, or as the genteel Jay, from the highest stratum of New York society, or as the painfully shy and scholarly Madison, from the squirearchy of Virginia, which he personally deplored. The writers knew they would have to fashion themselves beyond their own mundane reality, and their success raises a second major puzzle. Men of obvious talent but recent colonials, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were relatively dispersed and parochial figures living on the outer limits of the English-speaking world. What enabled these very different men to come together effectively—so effectively that critics still argue over who wrote given sections of The Federalist and turn to statistical theory and computer analysis to bolster their competing claims of authorship? Once joined, how did these busy men of affairs transcend their situation as writers? How did they produce a timeless work of literature out of the political rancor of their moment?

The remaining puzzles turn on the nature of influence. Publius spoke for the people but meant to curb their excesses in the body politic through federal authority. Does The Federalist confirm and save the Revolution or more deviously cap its broader intentions? Are the rhetorical strategies of inclusiveness to be taken seriously, or is Publius more realistically the spokesperson of a conservative elite? The Federalist is authoritative today as a legal citation in leading court cases, and it appears as a resource in every constitutional crisis. Where, in its pages, does the verbiage of wily politicians end and the statesmanship of proclaimed lawgivers take over? And who gets to make that determination?

The Federalist had a limited impact on the ratification of the Federal Constitution except perhaps in New York, where the Constitution would be ratified by the narrow margin of thirty to twenty-seven votes in the state assembly called for that purpose. How does The Federalist become a universal source of national explanation? How can the modern reader take on such a dense text with pleasure and profit? Even eighteenth-century citizens complained of tedium when faced with this endless flow of newspaper articles, and it is the rare individual in any era who can pick up Publius and follow him straight through. How, then, should The Federalist be approached today?

These puzzles are ones that every reader must solve in approaching a national text that grows slowly out of pamphlets dashed off in episodic bursts more than two centuries ago. They must be solved because no citizen of the world can afford to ignore The Federalist, despite its mysteries and arcane limitations. Its wisdom on common political problems cannot be gainsaid. Like every major work of political science and social theory, this one must also be understood with its integrities in mind. Value lies not in the ability to quote selectively from The Federalist, a favorite ploy in both politics and law, but in coming to grips with writings that envisage and then explain how a new kind of nation, an uncertain experiment at best, could thrive on the American strand. In the success of the United States, now the oldest republic in the world, Publius continues to speak to the twenty-first century, but his words offer more than confirmation. The reader will find a poignant series of cautionary tales in these pages. The many warnings about correct governance in The Federalist protect the rule of law and should be required reading for both ruler and ruled.

The Creative Circumstance

It is easier to describe the creativity that produced the literature of public documents than to explain it. The men who crafted national understandings wrote with strong beliefs in place. Their convictions can be summarized briefly: Principles could alter history. Good ideas would convince reasonable people everywhere of their merit. The right answers to problems would spread throughout the world. As writers, they assumed that the structure of thought was of a piece with knowledge, that the correct placement of language could encompass the most complicated and intractable of difficulties, and that eighteenth-century political theory could produce a better world for all of humanity. Most important of all, they thought they possessed the means to fulfill these goals in America. “Federalist No. 1” opened with a colossal claim:

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, 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 (p. 9).

Forever? Everything was at stake for all peoples in such language. Knowledge would be the legacy of the New World with the United States of America as its leading exponent.

These ideas are still afloat today, but early republican writers embraced them with an assurance that we can no longer match. John Adams, hardly an optimist but an expert in what he called “the divine science of politics,” believed so strongly in these assumptions that he wrote of being “sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live.” Edmund Randolph, a man of uncertainties, could nonetheless open the Constitutional Convention by talking about how rapidly new knowledge would bring change. He argued that the framers in Philadelphia were in a much better position as lawgivers than the first patriots who wrote the Articles of Confederation a mere decade before. Those first drafters in 1776 had written their defective document “in the then infancy of the science, of constitutions, & of confederacies.”3 The men of 1787 knew so much more! Where does this confidence in creating a dramatically better form of government come from? Why were these recent colonials so sure of their expertise as they contemplated saving the world?

Four fundamentals contribute to their creativity, and each is a dominant element in The Federalist. First and counter-intuitively, Americans were more adept at writing out instruments of government than the English counterparts to whom they often looked. They had to be. There were no customs to call up in the New World, no established legal institutions to fall back upon. The first colonists had to draft formal compacts that would define acceptable behavior as they carved new communities out of the wilderness. Much was borrowed from English traditions, but everything had to be readjusted to fresh circumstances. Americans of succeeding generations, many starting over, also formalized their arrangements and with a growing appreciation for procedure and form. In literary terms, no writer composes a masterpiece on the first attempt; one learns from the sequent toil of each new composition. By 1787 early republicans had thoroughly mastered the craft of composing compacts. Every state except Rhode Island and Connecticut wrote, debated, and adopted a new constitution between 1776 and 1784. Seventeen constitutions in all were written during the course of the Revolution. The Federal Constitution would contain many innovations, but procedurally and generically it belonged to a familiar past and came out of a set of intellectual skills that few cultures in history could match. The Federalist, with its thorough grasp of constitutionalism, was part of a general sophistication in making officialdom available to the people.

The ideals of the secular Enlightenment were a second factor in the writers’ creativity and reception. Belief in the progress of ideas and in the capacity of any rational person to benefit from them had a lot to do with an early American faith in the dissemination of knowledge. Thomas Jefferson would scorn all backward thinking when he wrote, “Thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened, to listen to these impostures; and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde; what is once acquired of real knowledge can never be lost.”4 Progress was a matter of better understanding; the proper writing would encourage order from below instead of having it imposed from above. Excitement over the spread of ideas also had its technological side, as Jefferson’s words indicated. The invention of the portable printing press made publication available everywhere; it created a republic of letters that knew no boundaries. Anyone who had access to print could become a member. The international scope of this republic of letters guaranteed that ideas could come from any stratum of society or any location. Needless to say, Revolutionary American writers benefited. Intellectuals in Europe looked to the new United States as a plausible solution to larger problems. It was no accident that the first edition to carry the names of the authors of The Federalist would appear in France in 1792, where another set of political leaders were struggling to bring order to their own revolution.

The third source of literary self-confidence may seem the simplest. The success of the Revolution gave early republicans a worldwide subject and the assurance to write it. Defeat of the British and the heroes who accomplished it made for a fascinating story and not just in America. The triumph of revolutionary principles gave hope to the oppressed everywhere. Interested observers could see that the Revolution had been fought with the pen as much as the sword. They could see that principles had mattered. But, that said, admitting the relevance of principle raised a new question to be answered: Where would those principles lead next? Only three generations of American writers have ever held the immediate attention of Europe. The first settlers in the New World held on to that honor as emigrants who were still Europeans. Much later, in the 1920s, the novelists and poets of “the lost generation” would attain a similar cachet; they were voluntary exiles in Europe after performing as welcome allies in World War I. Between these two epochs, only the writers of the Revolutionary generation could easily see themselves as equal to European literati in their own time. Their radical experiment in government was thought to have lessons for the world, and they could count on an international audience for whatever they decided to say or write about it.

A problem rather than a resource supplied the fourth basis of creativity in the literature of public documents. The problem was uncontrolled space. To what extent could one create social form out of “empty” land? Land as property was the measure of meaning and power in the Anglo-American world of the eighteenth century. What did one do when there was too much land not owned by anyone or, alternatively, huge chunks of it claimed abstractly by political claimants? The greatest anxieties in the early republic involved the open territory to the west of every state and the sometimes terrifying tribes of peoples already there. Who would seize these territories? The imperialism of neighboring states as well as foreign powers raised ugly suspicions on all sides. Some citizens were in favor of the incorporation of new territories; others were not. The plausibility of a large republic remained a question.

The task of the writer in this situation was to make a virtue out of necessity. Publius offers a perfect example. “It has often given me pleasure to observe,” he would write in “Federalist No. 2,” “that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, wide spreading country, was the portion of our western sons of liberty” (p. 14). Nothing could have been further from the case in 1787, but the style and strategy of the writer were sound. Imagination was the main prerequisite in circumscribing a United States that no map could yet define. Early republican writers would use language to impose form and structure in the absence of concrete reality. Documents like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 projected ideal societies long before early republicans could build them. The Federalist depended on the same skill. It imposed abstractions over a host of evils and made claims that would become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Collaboration

The four impulses of creative confidence just noted fueled the collaboration. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison shared these impulses to an extraordinary degree. All three men possessed detailed knowledge and practical experience in the writing of official documents. All three shared the optimism that made self-evidence in ideas the mode of address to enlightened citizens of the world. All three held positions of high honor and success in the Revolution, and all three believed that only a new and proper structure could save a failing union on the verge of chaos and collapse; correct form was missing, and only the new “frame” of the proposed Constitution could supply it. Even Hamilton, easily the most cynical of the three authors, would write in “Federalist No. 11” that ”wisdom” was the key in making America ”the admiration and envy of the world” (p. 62). He spoke of grand opportunities: ”It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race” (p. 65).

Stylistic cohesion came from yet another source. Each of the three authors of The Federalist became gentlemen of letters through a college education, a rarity of the times. Hamilton and Jay attended King’s College, which later became Columbia University, and Madison graduated from the College of New Jersey, soon to become Princeton. The elevated tone, careful civility, abstract claims of felicity, and stresses on decorum and candor of The Federalist were typical features in the eighteenth-century epistolary tradition of college clubs and literary circles. These virtues in writing were also signposts of station and, therefore, of authority in communal affairs. As important in its own way as the ideas presented in The Federalist, the etiquette of eighteenth-century writing secured the uniformity of style that everyone notes about the collaboration and its claim to authority.

Anonymity was also a complicated virtue in such writing. A true gentleman of letters wrote under a veil of secrecy in public and only then if the writing could be shown to assist the common good. An inner circle of peers generally knew the identity of an author and contributed ideas and corrections during private circulation of a manuscript before encouraging actual publication. It followed that publication was often understood in collective terms. An assertive claim of personal authorship could be dismissed as a vulgar trait obscuring the civic goal that justified publication in the first place. In perhaps the most extraordinary example of the phenomenon, no one beyond intimates knew that Gouverneur Morris composed the finished draft of the Constitution until forty years after the event. These mannerisms of “polite letters” are forgotten or satirized today as empty courtesies, but they were the stabilizing sources of sequestered negotiation and compromise in early republican politics. Neither the United States Constitution nor The Federalist could have been written without these accepted standards. Who can imagine a comparable degree of respected confidentiality in a major political gathering today?

Among the collaborators, Alexander Hamilton was the moving force, the organizer, the dominant contributor, the figure who arranged for publication in four of five New York City newspapers, and the editor who gathered the individual papers into book form. By conservative estimate and discounting minor addenda from the other authors, he composed fifty-one of the eighty-five papers himself, with Madison writing twenty-nine, and Jay adding just five more. Hamilton had argued for a new constitution and the means to achieve it as early as 1780. “If a Convention is called,” he wrote then, “the minds of all the states and the people ought to be prepared to receive its determinations by sensible and popular writings.”5 Typical of the man, he knew exactly what had to be done long before it could happen. Seven years later, The Federalist essays would be those “popular writings” and more. It would be Hamilton, in an added touch of creativity, who would conceive of the ephemeral newspaper series as a permanent book. Never just a thinker, the restless Hamilton seized initiative at every opportunity. He had been one of the prime architects of the Constitutional Convention, personally drafting the resolution in 1786 that called for it to meet in Philadelphia and enlarge the powers of the Confederation. No one was better suited to write a commentary on the new Constitution.

Here, in effect, is another answer to the power and achievement of The Federalist. Among the founding generation there were three persons of unambiguous genius. The rest were figures who fortuitously prepared for the unexpected roles that they had to play and then played them well. Genius, in these terms, refers to individuals who, given half a chance, would rise to prominence in any context through foresight, ability, and unusual qualities. The first two intellects of note were, of course, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The third was Alexander Hamilton, and he had the farthest to climb, beginning as he did in the lowest level of society and coming from a disdained minor province beyond the thirteen colonies. Of illegitimate birth, Hamilton began in an unsupportive, dysfunctional, and contentious family in Nevis, in the British West Indies. He was on his own at the age of twelve, largely self-taught, and rose entirely through his own prowess and energy. No one at any point needed a second glance to see the brilliance in this outgoing, often argumentative youth; those with whom he worked learned that he could make the most of any opportunity.

Hamilton’s talents describe only part of him, but they are worth summarizing in thinking about The Federalist. He wrote with amazing rapidity and with one of the neatest and most stylish hands of the age. Even today an observer can read one of Hamilton’s now withered letters while standing some distance away from them. These were distinct advantages in the haphazard and often desperate needs of eighteenth-century newspaper publication. Hamilton was always available with something written that was more than sensible and easily set into print. Only such a man could have sustained the pace that occasionally required two and three long newspaper essays a week from Publius. Hamilton saw the nature of problems just as clearly and quickly as he wrote about them and seems to never have been without an answer to them. Ambitious to a fault, he knew how to make others around him better than they were—not least, George Washington, whom he served as aide-de-camp in the Revolutionary Army from 1777 to 1781. Just twenty-two, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel at the time and already a recognized pamphleteer in the propaganda wars of the Revolution, Hamilton would prove of inestimable value throughout Washington’s career as an organizer, strategist, and writer. No one found or articulated the root of a matter more rapidly than Hamilton. Typically, he would demand and receive an examination and then gain admission to the New York Bar in 1782 after just three months of legal study and immediately take his place as one of its most brilliant members.

There is, however, something more difficult to grasp in the brilliance of Hamilton, and it explains the first virtue of The Federalist. As his foresight over the need for a constitutional convention implies, Hamilton possessed a singular knack for rearranging the different pieces of a dilemma into a farsighted solution. One can see it in his Revolutionary War letters over key issues of military strategy. It appears again when, as the country’s first secretary of the Treasury, he organized the economy and national bank. His Report on Manufactures in 1791 would be uniquely prescient in mapping the relations of government to economic growth and private capital. In virtually every debate of note, Hamilton possessed a better grasp of the economic and social variables at work in America than others. Call it a scrutiny that led to comprehensiveness of view. Hamilton would use it to his advantage in the collaboration of The Federalist by making sure that every imaginable aspect of constitutional controversy, whether near or far in the distant future, was raised and answered. It is hard to find a serious governmental problem in the history of the United States that is not first mentioned here.

John Jay wrote just five of The Federalist essays, but his role in the collaboration was more significant than mere numbers suggest. Forty-one years old in 1787, Jay was a better-known and more polished politician and diplomat than either Hamilton at thirty-two or Madison at thirty-six. No doubt Hamilton asked him to join the enterprise because of Jay’s greater reputation and ideological compatibility as another conservative New York lawyer who favored the new Constitution. Jay had been active in the defense of New York during the Revolution and in writing the first New York state constitution. He had been instrumental in getting George Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and he already had served effectively as chief justice of New York, president of the Continental Congress, ambassador to Spain, and one of the three peace commissioners to negotiate and sign the Treaty of Paris ending the war with England in 1783. Jay also had worked hard and long as the permanent foreign secretary of the United States while other positions rotated under the Articles of Confederation. This experience gave him greater knowledge than others in diagnosing the weaknesses of the Confederation as well as unique credibility in public debates on the subject.

The major contribution of Jay came early in the collaboration. He wrote Essays Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5 of The Federalist before bowing out because of illness, and then, much later, Essay No. 64. His first four offerings dealt mostly with the dangers of foreign influence and the need for a stronger union to cope with them; his last essay explained the Senate’s role in the treaty-making power. But if workmanlike on the facts, Jay’s essays accomplished something far more important for the overall tone and direction of the collaboration. Alexander Hamilton had been mired in petty squabbles over the new Constitution even as a delegate at the Convention. Immediately after, he became the instigator in vitriolic newspaper exchanges with the opposition, and it showed in his own first essay introducing the collaboration. Deeply embroiled, Hamilton couldn’t help himself even though he realized that a higher register was called for in The Federalist. “Federalist No. 1” would devote whole paragraphs to the ”obvious interest,“ perverted ambition,” and “preconceived jealousies and fears” of the ”classes” of men who opposed the Constitution. It called for objectivity but compulsively returned again and again to enemies guided by ”ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these” (p. 10). It was not a tactic that could hope to win friends and influence people to accept the new Constitution.

Jay would quell these tendencies of party spirit with a more inclusive reading of the problem in ratification. In “Federalist No. 2” he welcomed all parties into the new union through “sedate and candid conversation.” Instead of acrimony, a new aesthetics of ratification and goodwill through “isible union” dominated Jay’s contributions. Citizens, in Jay’s view, would stop arguing to the extent that they saw their interest clearly. In ”Federalist No. 64,” he would write: ”In proportion as the United States assume a national form, and a national character, so will the good of the whole be more and more an object of attention” (p. 360). The opposition was not perverted by ambition so much as it was sadly mistaken. In Enlightenment terms, the problem of those who opposed the Constitution was ignorance and a simple lack of education. Jay urged everyone to learn to belong together instead of standing apart.

Here, as well, was the adroit creation by Publius of a new and more favorable meaning of the word “federal.” Originally, the term provided an antidote to proponents of further nationalism and consolidation under the Confederation. One of the boldest rhetorical achievements of The Federalist would be to attach a new meaning of “federal” to the proposed Constitution through its self-proclaimed “federalist” supporters and writings. In the wake of Publius, all opponents to the Constitution would be “antifederalists,” a designation that quickly carried the implications of gloomy partiality for something less than joyous union with other Americans. Always a fast learner, Hamilton would see Jay’s strategy and adopt it as his own in subsequent papers. His abrasive tones would resurface, but Jay’s composure and equanimity in the positive claim of union, also more in keeping with Madison’s temperament, would guide and control the tone of The Federalist henceforth.

James Madison, as the last to join, is harder to figure as a logical collaborator until one looks at the facts. Madison and Hamilton were temperamentally unsuited for each other and would become political enemies in 1789, during George Washington’s first administration, but there was a great deal to hold them together in 1787. It made sense for Hamilton to reach out to a leader from another state, especially Virginia, in his nationalist project of union. Madison was available in New York after the Convention as a representative in Congress. Previously, the two men had joined as instigators of the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which brought together delegates from five states to discuss the economic problems of the union and ended by calling for a more general constitutional convention, and they then became firm allies as delegates in Philadelphia the following year. Both were strong unionists, and Madison, by common consensus even then, had been the guide for others in framing the Constitution in Philadelphia. William Pierce, a delegate from Georgia, wrote thumbnail sketches of the other framers in Philadelphia and found Madison to be “the best informed Man of any point in debate. The affairs of the United States, he perhaps, has the most correct knowledge of, of any Man in the Union.”6 This evaluation would be borne out again in The Federalist. For while Hamilton had the tougher and more comprehensive view of politics, Madison would prove the deeper reader of theoretical possibilities and would provide philosophical heft. A scholar first and man of affairs only after, the reclusive Madison had schooled himself with great care in the history of congresses and confederacies. He had identified all of the problems and knew how to create imaginative solutions to them.

Today Madison’s first contribution to the collaboration, “Federalist No. 10,” is accepted as a separate tour de force within the collection. It gave, among other things, a new philosophical answer to the problem of an extended republic. Madison claimed that an enlarged sphere with proper representation could best balance competing interests and protect minorities from majoritarian pressures. He also fused federalism and republicanism as joint operations under the Constitution and soothed fears about the bugaboo of the age, namely factionalism. “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire,” Madison wrote in one of his boldest strokes, “an aliment, without which it instantly expires” (p. 53). Liberty, like fire, was dangerous when uncontrolled but a virtue when properly exercised.

In words that would gain a life of their own in the American polity, “Federalist No. 10” argued that “diversity” had to be celebrated instead of squelched. Factional differences were inevitable as a practical matter, and recognition of their constant presence brought a moral component, toleration, to bear on how a citizenry should deal with the nature of conflict. There was room and opportunity in America for all to get along. Admonitions for every age followed. Madison warned that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” Class warfare was always possible because of “the unequal distribution of property” and “interfering interests.” Likewise, enlightened statesmen would “not always be at the helm” to manage affairs. Madison’s answer to factionalism and conflict, like Hamilton’s but with deeper philosophical perception, turned on the proper structure and accepted routine of governmental operations.

Neither Madison nor Hamilton had been completely happy with the Federal Constitution that emerged from the Convention, and both saw problems in its makeup. But they had been delegates together in Philadelphia, and the refining processes of debate and disagreement there had turned them into realists concerning what was possible. The experience had taught them how to reinforce each other’s arguments through separate and not always compatible lines of inquiry. They knew enough not to get in each other’s way. Here was the heart of the collaboration. Both men accepted the same larger predicament to be solved. How, in Madison’s words in “Federalist No. 37,” could one combine “the requisite stability and energy in government with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form” (p. 196)? Wouldn’t citizens always disagree about where that line should be drawn?

The two major collaborators had different approaches, but Madison would answer these questions for both of them in the very next paper. He observed in “Federalist No. 38” that the legendary Greek lawgiver Solon “had not given to his countrymen the government best suited to their happiness, but most tolerable to their prejudices” (p. 202). Citizens could recognize their interests only through the customary forms available to them. The real question was whether those forms could be rearranged to serve the nation better. Expertise and artifice were needed. In “Federalist No. 51,” Madison would build the conflict of interests that he saw into the very structure of government by providing the separate branches of government “the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.”

Hamilton and Madison were always ahead of their opponents in the ideological battle over ratification, and they had schooled themselves in the moderating theory of human nature that all good government requires. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Madison opined in “Federalist No. 51.” That nature was fallen, but not without possibilities. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison reasoned. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Alas, there were no angels, and human participants could not be expected to act like them anyway. A tougher, more realistic arrangement of “opposite and rival interests,” had to supply “the defect of better motives.” The “great difficulty” in this balancing process was also clear to both writers: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (p. 288).

How was this program of control to be managed? Technique would replace temperament. The guarded blend of pessimism and optimism in “Federalist No. 51” is one of the most endearing traits of Publius throughout the collaboration. Consider the qualifiers in his reply to the problem just stated: “Happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle” (p. 292). What was necessarily and crucially “practicable” in the design of government had to be ”judicious” and carried to a limited but “great extent” through “modification” and “mixture.” The passage is awash in misgivings paired to a contrasting confidence that will thwart danger through “the federal principle.” Anxiety answered by expertise struggle with each other throughout the collection, and part of the fun for a reader is watching Publius win out over difficulties that are psychological as well as political.

The Federalist could succeed because it was itself “a judicious modification and mixture” of collaborators who understood and used each other effectively. Hamilton’s bulldog intensity and inclusive drive, Jay’s international flavor and aplomb, and Madison’s learned approach to political theory came together in common language that all three could accept under the one name of Publius. Belief in the moment cemented their alliance. All of them wrote as Jay did in “Federalist No. 2,” that rejection of the Constitution “would put the continuance of the union in the utmost jeopardy” (p. 17). There was work to be done, and Publius held the keys to communal greatness in his hands! This urgency held the three writers together; it made them greater than the sum of their parts. Hamilton, often impatient in relations, deserves special credit in his choice of colleagues. An overlooked attribute of genius consists in knowing when to call upon others to raise the level of achievement.

The Success of The Federalist

How did The Federalist transcend time and place to become a touchstone in republican theory as well as a guide for the United States? Three aspects of the pamphlet series turn this thoroughly American book into a universal text. First, the collected essays succeed as a comprehensive interpretation of the Federal Constitution. Second, they define republicanism effectively, culling examples from history to refine the concept. Third, they wrestle courageously with the riddle at the base of all government: namely, where must authority control and where should authority give way to the independent impulses of the controlled? Modern readers should study these three facets for themselves. At its best, The Federalist is a treatise on what political science can do and mean for any society. If calling it a treatise makes the book sound dry, the designation changes dramatically depending on where readers stand within their own situation. For some, the book has obvious panegyric or congratulatory significance; for others, it is a monody, a lament over lost or unattainable opportunities. Either way, Publius writes out important aspirations in human understanding.

The comprehensiveness for which Hamilton is largely responsible serves a number of ends that have been useful to later generations. The thorough, even dogged, reach of The Federalist to all parts of the Constitution provides a check on misinterpretation of specific provisions in it. To the extent that The Federalist posits a seamless fabric to be mastered, it reminds everyone of the strategic scale required for constitutional interpretation. Inclusiveness simultaneously illustrates the structural relation of interdependent parts, a reminder of the complexity of assigned tasks in the federal government. Then, too, The Federalist provides a language of celebration as it explains the Constitution. Publius naturally wallows in confirmative prose as part of his quest for ratification, and later supporters have not hesitated to crib from him. Each of these holistic traits aids judicial interpretation as well as general legal scrutiny of national problems.

The American judiciary looks to Publius’s lofty tones to bolster its own rhetoric, and it relies on his specific words in “Federalist No. 78” for the doctrine of judicial review. There we are told that the courts have the duty and obligation “to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the constitution void” (p. 429). The Constitution itself is silent on the question of judicial review; not so Publius, who thinks of this power as the ultimate guarantee of limited government. The Constitution leaves many aspects of governance to implication; Publius offers fulsome explanation. Others interpret the Constitution, but extensive commentary in The Federalist by two writers who attended the Constitutional Convention as framers provides unique authority. Hamilton made absolutely sure that everyone would see the scope of his project immediately. In ”Federalist No. 1” he pledges “to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance.” He promises to include everything “that may seem to have any claim to your attention” (p. 12). Constitutional theory prides itself on seeing the whole picture. Often enough, its proponents find their controlling image of that picture in the pages of The Federalist.

The second aspect of enduring success in The Federalist, its definition of republicanism, serves a wide range of political theory and debate. In “Federalist No. 9” Hamilton expresses his “horror and disgust” over republicanism in its ancient forms, “the petty republics of Greece and Italy.” Fortunately, modern knowledge in “the science of politics” has made possible a “more perfect structure” in current republics. The institutional innovations of eighteenth-century republicanism—innovations ”not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients“—include distribution of power into distinct departments, legislative checks and balances, an independent judiciary holding office during good behavior, and representation of the people in legislatures by deputies of their own election. More succinctly in “Federalist No. 39,” after dismissing all previous theories on the subject, Madison defines a republic as “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour” (p. 210). But if the ideals of Greek and Roman republics were corrupt in practice, what did the definitions of Hamilton and Madison mean for actual practice by a republic in the modern world?

Publius was not always sure, but his need for the definition flowed from a further assumption. Only a “strictly republican” form of government would tally with “the genius of the people of America.” Madison would take up in earnest the deeper problem in “Federalist No. 39.” His task here was to convince Americans that a government with both federal and national components could still be termed “strictly republican” because the new Constitution left supreme authority in the people. Other so-called republics—including Holland, Poland, and England—had fallen short in this regard. Madison was quite insistent on the point and its extent. “It is essential to such a government,” he wrote, “that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it” (p. 210). But this definition raised an unresolved worry in The Federalist. What, after all, was to be the proper role of the people in the performance of government, and would they accept necessary limitations on their authority? Publius hesitates over the questions, and his squeamishness leads into the third universal claim of The Federalist on modern sensibilities. What was the connection between the authority of government and the liberty of the people? How should deference and democracy come together?

Not very long after ratification, Madison would reveal just how troubled the framers’ invocations of the people had been in 1787. How could their proposal for a much stronger government also produce a freer people? Why wasn’t this a contradiction in terms, as many anti-federalists would claim? “Every word of [the Constitution],” Madison revealed in 1792, “decides a question between power and liberty.”7 Every word? The claim could be true only in the knowledge of a complete structure that kept everything in place and only if power and liberty were to be held in eternal tension with each other. Publius would wrestle with the role of the people more than any other problem of government. Hamilton, always in favor of stronger authority, openly feared emphasis on the people’s rights as early as “Federalist No. 1.” The people’s “zeal for liberty” was “more ardent than enlightened,” he would write again in “Federalist No. 26” (p. 140). What was wanted from the people—and Hamilton would put it in capital letters in ”Federalist No. 22”—was their “CONSENT” (p. 124). Their role was to receive. They agreed to be governed in the right way. Hamilton would hope against hope in “Federalist No. 35” that the lower orders in society would simply defer to the upper class in government as their “natural patron and friend.”

More thoughtful, Madison pinned his own hopes of control on the structured dispersal of representation and the check that a detached Senate of worthies would exercise over the more popular House of Representatives, but he was just as worried. He acknowledged in “Federalist No. 49” that the people were given to passions more quickly than reason and that those passions “ought to be controlled and regulated by the government” (p. 283). Yet he was just as convinced in ”Federalist No. 37” that there could be no justice in society without liberty. The greatest problem in the Convention and, hence for Publius, involved “combining the requisite stability and energy in government, with the inviolable attention due to liberty, and to the republican form” (p. 196). If there was acrimony over these combinations, it was because people would diverge over “the difficulty of mingling them together in their due proportions.” Popular government could be consensual only if power was placed in “a number of hands” and if the powerful were “kept in dependence on the people.”

The interesting questions for modern readers revolve around these variables in defining and maintaining a truly republican government. Have the due proportions between power and liberty been maintained in the modern nation state? Are the far more powerful and isolated leaders of today kept in dependence on the people? Has the evolution of the American empire, a phrase used often by both Hamilton and Madison, changed the meaning and definition of republicanism itself? The delineations of republicanism, power, and liberty in The Federalist are tools for testing the health of any government. A reason for reading with care lies here. If Publius can insist that “mingling” power and liberty is a balance difficult to achieve, the modern reader should join him in searching the fragile dynamics in that difficulty. Balances are susceptible to the unfolding of circumstance. One of many admonitions from Publius would come over this issue of maintenance. In “Federalist No. 48,” he warns all future citizens that “a mere demarkation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands” (p. 279).

How Should The Federalist Be Read Today?

The first task of any reader must be to appreciate the organization of The Federalist for what it is. Hamilton presents his overall plan for the collaboration in “Federalist No. 1,” and he holds the partnership of writers to that understanding across the ten months of haphazard newspaper production and political adjustment. The breakdown of subjects covered by the full pamphlet series falls into six basic units:

Nos. 1—14 discuss the importance of a strong union to safety
and prosperity.

Nos. 15—22 describe weaknesses and problems in the current

Nos. 23—36 explain and justify the powers required for a
more energetic union.

Nos. 37—51 cover the Constitutional Convention and define
the new federalism.

Nos. 52—83 analyze the branches of government: the House
of Representatives and federal election system (52—61), the
Senate (62—66), the Executive (67—77), and the judiciary

Nos. 84—85 answer miscellaneous objections and appeal
again for ratification.

Historians, political scientists, biographers, constitutionalists, politicians, and the student of civic affairs will naturally approach each unit in different ways. The Federalist is inevitably a digest to be mined by specific interests. But every reader, whether specialized or general, should remember that Hamilton designed the series as an urgent plea against a sea of troubles. If his strategies were controversial in their time, they belong to conventional wisdom today, and there is a problem in this. The very success of the plan can blind one to the intricate strategies that made it successful.

It follows that the second task of the interested reader must be to entertain a certain suspension of disbelief. Publius emerges in all of his creativity only if he is regarded as a persona crafted for crisis and made to think hard about the difficulties that he must encounter as a model citizen. It helps to think of Publius as the nation’s first significant fictional character—predating Washington Irvings Rip Van Winkle by more than three decades. The narrator of The Federalist develops in episodic ways and through moments of stress across the collaboration, and these patterns can help to hold a reader’s interest.

Essays No. 1-22 of The Federalist contend with the anxieties that pervade Revolutionary America as colonials turn themselves into the first uneasy citizens of a republic. They are marked by a curious manic-depressive tone in argument. Gloom and gladness chase each other across the page in “the dark catalogue of our public misfortunes” under the Confederation. In “Federalist No. 15,” Publius comes close to despair: “The frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins” (p. 86). These same essays describe the depressing history of failed republics and confederacies from antiquity to the present. Yet Publius is confident that he can change history with “a different prospect.” He says he has “the cure for which we are seeking.” Mostly, this unit is the place to study Publius’s discovery of himself and the collaboration’s achievement of a tonal equanimity that will disarm frustrated opponents.

Essays No. 23—36 present the case for greater energy in the union, and they are understandably defensive as they joust with the status quo and try to answer objections from the states over centralized authority. Publius feels his way slowly, though right away in “Federalist No. 23” he introduces the theme of this unit: “the quantity of power necessary” for such unpopular measures as military defense and taxation. He worries openly in ”Federalist No. 26” that “we shall never be likely to make any material change for the better.” “Federalist No. 31” then points to the intractable nature of people set in their ways and to the need to proceed with caution as “a necessary armor against error and imposition.” Hamilton is the author of this entire section, and he believed more strongly than his partners in the legitimacy of power, but he seems strangely handicapped in arguing for it as a general need. ”Federalist No. 31” reveals his frustration: “The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal government,” he complains, “we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning” (p. 166). This unit of The Federalist strives to rise above its negative terms, and it illustrates an interesting feature of the emerging rhetoric in American nationalism. Few political figures have wanted to identify themselves with powerful government after Thomas Paine convinced the country in 1776 that government “is but a necessary evil” and “the badge of lost innocence.”8

Madison takes over in “Federalist No. 37,” and although he too complains about difficulties, he lifts Publius out of an incipient despond. Essays No. 37—51 are Madison’s, and this more reflective-minded version of Publius brings three great positives to bear on the problems of the union. He finds a remarkable and saving altruism in the framers of the Convention (many of whom were war heroes), he tempers Hamilton’s earlier calls for power with more attention to the goal of liberty, and he adjusts an independent federalism to a national federalism under the proposed Constitution. Notable rhetorical range supports all three assertions. Madison, who obviously knew better from his own experience, expresses “wonder” and “astonishment” over “a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected” in the Constitutional Convention.9 This claim of unanimity appeals somewhat cynically to a bible culture steeped in Revolutionary ardor. “It is impossible, for the man of pious reflection,” Publius exclaims, “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” (p. 200). More important in the run-up to the present is the changing meaning of federalism offered by Madison in these fourteen essays. “Federalist No. 39” conflates federalism and nationalism to such an imaginative extent that the Constitution becomes “in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.” Publius is perhaps most boldly creative here. Anyone interested in current political battles over whether state or federal authority should control the country will want to study these essays with particular care.

Although Madison contributes early on, Hamilton is again the dominating force of the next and longest unit of The Federalist, Essays No. 52-83. These papers cover the specific powers and checks on the three branches of government, and they do it in impressive detail. Publius is in full cry in these sections as an analyst of politics, and the subject matter suits Hamilton well. His legalistic precision in these papers makes him a commentator any time the branches of the federal government come into conflict or a specific branch is accused of overreaching its authority. To be sure, Hamilton writes more with ratification in mind than his own theory of power politics, but he does it with consummate skill—so much so that the theory of checks and balances that it contains are much more than a theory in these pages. Hamilton is a serious student of institutions. He sees how they must work and the dangers in each. Effort, insight, and calculation over the particulars combine here to give us the Publius that most readers remember.

Hamilton’s conclusion to The Federalist, Essays No. 84 and 85, brings another change in tone and direction. These papers are the work of an author who has been writing alone over the last twenty contributions to the collection, and he is away from the influence of his more conciliatory colleagues. In any case, Publius reverts here to the belligerence of “Federalist No. 1,” once again taking full aim at opponents, real and imaginary. He sees just two kinds of Americans in the end: “sincere lovers of the Union” and “enemies to a national government in every possible shape.” These last words magnify an overwhelming foe, and they are the last ones that Publius will speak. Hamilton’s anxieties have returned in full force. Back where he was in the first essay, he reiterates “the awful spectacle” of failure and gives yet another catalogue of horrors, including civil war, anarchy, perpetual alienation, demagoguery, and military despotism. The objections of others have come to annoy instead of interest Publius in the end. He has exhausted himself and lost all patience with his opponents. These last essays sweep away reasonable inquiries about the need for a bill of rights in the proposed Constitution and sneer at worries from the strapped states about the added expense of a stronger central government.

Nothing pleases this final figure, and the nature of his efforts expose him for what he always has been, a writer uneasy in his own skin. Closing down the series in “Federalist No. 85,” Hamilton pauses rather awkwardly, aware of his predicament. He openly apologizes for “intemperances of expression which I did not intend” but continues to write on intemperately nonetheless. “I have frequently felt a struggle between sensibility and moderation,” he confesses (p. 483). These admissions are illuminating. Hamilton could be such a force in an era of volatile change precisely because of his personal sense of dislocation. He is, in consequence, the ultimate puzzle of his production, a figure for every reader to conjure with.

Just a little earlier in The Federalist, we receive a glimpse of what drives this impossibly energetic and difficult man. His ambition was a goad, and the basis of it surfaces in an unguarded moment. As Publius in “Federalist No. 72” Hamilton writes of converting the desire for reward into service by making interest coincide with duty. First on his list of interests is “love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds” (p. 401). Fame comes first because it will “prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit.” Hamilton made no secret of his desire for this brand of glory, and it is only fair to give him his due. Publius is a crowning achievement. For whatever else The Federalist appears to be, it fits its creator’s own exacting standards. It is an extensive and arduous enterprise for the public benefit, and it deserves the fame that it receives.

Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University; he teaches in both the Law School and the English Department. His books include Law and Letters in American Culture, The American Enlightenment, 1750—1820, and Reading the Early Republic. He is currently at work on a book about courtroom trials as rituals in a republic of laws.


1 Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols., 1911; revised edition, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966); for this quote, see vol. 2, p. 632.

2 Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, November 18, 1788, in Thomas Jefferson, The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776—1826, 3 vols., edited by James Morton Smith (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), vol. 1, p. 567.

3 John Adams, “Thoughts on Government,” in Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society (New York: G. Braziller, 1965), pp. 246, 250, and Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention,vol. 1, p. 18.

4 Thomas Jefferson to William Green Mumford, June 18, 1799, in Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment, pp. 340-341.

5 Alexander Hamilton to James Duane, September 3, 1780, in Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment, p. 571.

6 Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention, vol. 3, p. 94.

7 National Gazette, January 19, 1792; quoted in James Madison, The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings, edited and with an introduction by Saul K. Padover (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953), p. 335.

8 Thomas Paine, Common Sense, in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York: Citadel Press, 1945), vol. 1, p. 4.

9 Publius exaggerates here in “Federalist No. 37.” Three leaders of the Convention—Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry—refused to sign the Constitution at the end, and half a dozen other dissenters left the Convention before its end. The claim of unanimity is not even true by state. Alexander Hamilton’s signature could not stand for New York in the absence of the two other delegates, Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., both of whom had left earlier in protest.



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