During the American Revolutionary War and in its immediate aftermath, the term "federal" was applied to any person who supported the colonial union and the government formed under the Articles of Confederation. After the war, a new political group felt the national government under the Articles was too weak, and sought to replace them with a new, stronger Constitution. This group appropriated the name Federalist. As the Federalists moved to amend the Articles and create a new Constitution, they dubbed their opposition Anti-Federalists.
After the Philadelphia Convention, in which the new Constitution was written, the Federalists actively campaigned for support from the states in ratifying the proposed Constitution. The fight for ratification was arduous, as many state governments were interested in retaining their powers and resisted establishing a new, stronger, centralized government.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay authored a series of essays commonly called The Federalist Papers. These supported ratification and attacked the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. The authors not only wanted to influence states' votes in ratifying the Constitution, they also wanted to shape future interpretations of it.
The Federal Convention sent the proposed Constitution to the Confederation Congress, which, at the end of September 1787, submitted it to the states for ratification. The Constitution immediately became the target of many articles and public letters written by its opponents. Hamilton decided to launch a measured and extensive defense and explanation of the proposed Constitution as a response to the Anti-Federalists, specifically addressing the people of New York. In "Federalist No. 1" he wrote that the series would "endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention." Hamilton recruited Madison and Jay as collaborators for the project.
Federalist No. 10
There are many highlights among the essays of The Federalist Papers. "Federalist No. 10" is generally regarded as the most important of the 85 articles presented. In this paper, James Madison discussed the means of preventing rule by majority faction (a topic of great concern for Anti-Federalists) and advocated for a large, commercial republic. He saw direct democracy as a danger to individual rights and advocated a representative democracy to protect what he viewed as individual liberty from majority rule, or from the effects of such inequality within society.
A republic, Madison wrote, differs from a democracy because its government is placed in the hands of delegates. It resultantly can be extended over a larger area, with the notion that in a large republic there will be more "fit characters" to choose from for each delegate. Madison theorized that each representative's being chosen from a larger constituency should make manipulation of the system less effective. For instance, in a large republic, a corrupt delegate would need to bribe many more people to win an election as compared with the situation within a small republic. In a republic, the delegates also filter and refine the people's many demands, preventing frivolous claims from impeding on the government's business, as they might in a purely democratic government.
Federalist No. 51
Also influential within The Federalist Papers was Madison's "Federalist No. 51," which addressed the means by which appropriate checks and balances can be created in government, and advocated for a separation of powers within the national government. One of its most important ideas is the often-quoted phrase, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." The purpose of No. 51 was, according to Madison, to inform readers of the safeguards the convention created to maintain the separate branches of government and protect the rights of the people and the country.
In a republican form of government, Madison asserted, the legislative branch is strongest, and therefore must be sub-divided into different branches, which must be connected with each other as little as possible and be rendered by different modes of election. Governmental power over people was further divided between the federal government and state governments, as well as through branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) within the federal government. Because of this division of power, Madison wrote, a "double security arises to the rights of the people. The governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself."
Another influential paper was "Federalist No. 14," in which Madison took the measure of the United States, declared it appropriate for an extended republic, and concluded with a memorable defense of the constitutional and political creativity of the Federal Convention. Also, in "Federalist No. 39," Madison presented the clearest exposition of what had come to be called "federalism."
The Federalist Papers appeared in three New York newspapers: the Independent Journal, New-York Packet, and Daily Advertiser, from October 27, 1787. Hamilton also encouraged reprinting of the essays in newspapers outside of New York state, and they were subsequently published in several other states where the ratification debate was taking place. However, such publications were irregular, and in other parts of the country they were often overshadowed by local writers.
The high demand for the essays led to their publication in a more permanent form. On January 1, 1788, the New York publishing firm J. & A. McLean announced it would publish the first 36 essays in a bound volume. This was released that March 2 and titled The Federalist. New essays continued to appear in the newspapers; "Federalist No. 77" was the last number to appear first in that form, on April 2. A second bound volume containing the last 49 essays was released on May 28. The remaining eight papers were later also published in the aforementioned newspapers.
Influence on the Ratification Debates
The Federalist Papers were written to support ratification of the Constitution, specifically in New York. Whether the authors succeeded in this mission is debatable. Separate ratification proceedings took place in each state, and the essays were not reliably reprinted outside of New York. Additionally, by the time the series was well underway, a number of important states had already ratified the Constitution. While The Federalist Papers certainly had some effect on its passage, other forces were also influential. Specifically, the personal influence of well-known Federalists such as Hamilton and Jay was an important factor during ratification conventions.
The Federalist Papers
Title page of the first printing of what would be The Federalist Papers (1788).