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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the Federalist Papers

Portrait of Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1802. (Wikimedia Commons)  Hamilton wrote the lion's share of the Federalist Papers.Portrait of Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1802. (Wikimedia Commons) Hamilton wrote the lion's share of the Federalist Papers. The framers of the Constitution have in a felicitous turn of phrase, been described as well read, well bred, and well fed.  All three are correct.  On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine delegates signed the Constitution, yet ratification by the states was necessary.  State conventions, not legislatures, met in 1788 for this purpose.  The supporters of the Constitution took the moniker, “Federalists.”  The choice was savvy, as federalism was understood to be in opposition to centralized power. Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, took to the newspapers under a pseudonym Publius, to explain the Constitution and advocate its adoption by the states.  Together they wrote eighty-five essays which were collected and comprise The Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton wrote fifty-one of the essays, Madison, twenty-nine, and Jay, five.

In another savvy choice, critics of the Constitution were dubbed “Antifederalists” by the Federalists, making it seem that challengers had little in the way of positive proposals and were simply naysayers.  Antifederalists, such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, argued that the Constitution would favor elites over the common people, weaken state governments and increase taxes. Antifederalists have been described as agrarian populists, who were worried that the Constitution would entrench the power of economic and political elites.  Would America be a nation of bankers or a nation of farmers?  The Antifederalist’s pressing objection was the absence of a list of individual rights, to limit the powers of the state.

The debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists reflected two competing visions of America in the 18th Century.  Should America embrace commerce and the aristocracy or a democratic, agrarian way of life?  The choice was between Jefferson and Hamilton’s competing visions of America. While the Constitution does not mention political parties, the legacy of the Federalist –Antifederalist debate was the birth of the party system with the new Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties.  Madison and Jefferson (Democratic-Republicans) by the late 1790’s came to think Hamilton and his Federalists had become a faction. 

To avoid the problem of unanimous consent, something that hamstrung the execution of law under the Articles of Confederation, only nine states had to ratify the Constitution.  In June of 1788, New Hampshire was the ninth to approve the Constitution; the success of the overall system remained far from secure.  The national government would fail without New York and Virginia signing on, being powerful economic and political centers, and their ratification conventions were deadlocked.  The issue of a bill of rights was the turning point. The issue was:  Should the powers of the Federal government be limited by a specific enumeration of the rights held by individuals and smaller political units within the whole?   The promise of its addition resulted in ratification by Virginia and New York. In the fall of 1789, Congress approved twelve amendments and ten were ratified by the states in 1791.   


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 6th Edition

The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson