The first in a series of eighty-five essays by “Publius,” the pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, appeared in the Independent Journal, a New York newspaper, on October 27, 1787. Publius urged New Yorkers to support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787.
AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.
Proponents of the new Constitution believed that centralized government was essential for successful commercial and geographic expansion. Only a strong national government, they argued, could effectively negotiate with foreign countries, ensure free trade between states, and create a stable currency.
Known as the Federalist Papers or The Federalist, these eighty-five essays addressed widespread concern that a national government, distanced from the people, would soon grow despotic. The essays eloquently and comprehensively argue that distributing power across the various branches of government provides checks and balances to the concentrated sovereignty of the federal government.
James Madison’s Federalist No.10 exemplifies the brilliance and startling originality of the Federalist Papers. Published on November 23, 1787, Madison challenges the assumption that individual rights can be secured only in small countries with homogeneous populations.
The Constitution’s detractors maintained that large nations with disparate populations are inherently unstable. The emergence of factions, they believed, would constantly threaten to overwhelm the government and place personal liberty at risk. Madison topples this argument by insisting that plurality and liberty are complementary. In a famous passage he writes:
Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
Although written for the New York press, newspapers around the country reprinted the essays. The Federalist, a bound edition of the essays first published in 1788, played an important role in the campaign to ratify the Constitution in New York and Virginia. Ratification of the Constitution was possible without these populous states, but their approval was considered crucial to the success of the new government.
In the following letter to Alexander Hamilton, George Washington thanks Hamilton for sending a copy of the pamphlet written by “Publius”.
Ultimately, the federalist vision of a national government prevailed. However, the Federalist represents one of many perspectives in a nationwide debate over the Constitution. Explore the following resources to learn more about the Constitutional Convention and the controversy surrounding ratification.
- The Federalist Papers were originally published as letters in New York newspapers 1787-1788. Use the Research Guide, Federalist Essays in Historic Newspapers to identify holdings of these newspapers in the Library’s Newspaper & Current Periodicals Reading Room.
- See Elliot’s Debates in the collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to find the proceedings of the state ratification conventions. Volume III contains the debates and proceedings of Virginia’s ratifying convention. Notice Patrick Henry’s outspoken opposition to the proposed Constitution.
- Visit To Form a More Perfect Union, a feature of the collection Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. This special presentation contains background information about the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and the call for a new constitution. Consider the anti-federalist position by reading an essay attributed to George Bryan available in the online collection of broadsides related to the Constitutional Convention. Bryan was especially concerned about the lack of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
- Access the Primary Documents in American History webguides on the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
- Search the James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859 to find additional documents related to the Federalist Papers.
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress, an online exhibition, presents The Federalist. No. 10 as it appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser on November 22, 1787.
- Alexander Hamilton: A Resource Guide compiles links to digital materials related to Hamilton such as manuscripts, letters, broadsides, government documents, and images. In addition, it provides links to external Web sites focusing on Hamilton and a bibliography containing selected works for both a general audience and younger readers.