Between October 1787 and May 1788, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay undertook what was essentially a public relations campaign to encourage New York to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Though the members of the Constitutional Convention had already approved the document as of September 17, 1787, it could not go into effect until at least nine states ratified it.
New York was a large, populous, and geographically central state, and its membership in the new republic was crucial. So Hamilton, Madison, and Jay worked together to compose a series of 85 articles, published variously in four New York newspapers, to explain the Constitution’s structure and text and to address criticisms.
Each essay was written under the pseudonym, “Publius”; titled “Federalist Paper” and numbered; and addressed “To the People of the State of New York.” (Though published anonymously, the authorship of many of the articles has been determined, for example, by stylistic differences—although certain articles remain unattributed. For instance, either Madison or Hamilton wrote a series of articles on the House of Representatives—Federalist Nos. 52, 53, 54, 55, and 56—as well as Nos. 62 and 63, describing the Senate.)
Today, scholars typically refer to the collective essays as the “Federalist Papers.” Written by two of the Constitution’s Framers (Madison and Hamilton), they are an authoritative resource for academics, lawyers, and judges—including Supreme Court justices—to use to interpret the Constitution and to determine its original, or historic, meaning.
In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton challenged his audience to consider the impact of ratification: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country … to decide 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.” Hamilton went on to write a majority of the articles, including: No. 30, the taxing power (“Money is … the vital principle of the body politic”); No. 78, the plan for the federal judiciary, including its lifetime appointment (“the judiciary … is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches; and that as nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence as permanency in office”); and Nos. 67 to 77, about the powers of the executive branch—like the president’s commander-in-chief and pardoning powers, in No. 74. In No. 84, Hamilton defended the Constitution despite its lack of a bill of rights.
Madison, too, wrote essays on the fundamental powers of the federal and state governments: in Nos. 41, 42, and 43, describing the general powers of the federal government (to declare war; to borrow money; “to make treaties; to send and receive ambassadors … ; to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations; to regulate foreign commerce”); in No. 44, the restrictions on state power (“No State shall enter into any treaty … coin money … or grant any title of nobility”); and in No. 45, the powers left to the states (“all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State”).
John Jay, in Federalist Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, wrote about the dangers from “foreign force and influence” that wholly independent states would face without a unified federal republic: “[W]eakness and divisions at home would invite dangers from abroad; and that nothing would tend more to secure us from them than union, strength, and good government within ourselves.”
Finally, in the last Federalist, No. 85, Hamilton summarized the security that a unified government under the Constitution would provide, such as “restraints … on local factions and insurrections” and “the prevention of extensive military establishments, which could not fail to grow out of wars between the States in a disunited situation.”
He then entreated each person to consider carefully the arguments of the Federalist Papers:
Let us now pause and ask ourselves whether, in the course of these papers, the proposed Constitution has not been satisfactorily vindicated from the aspersions thrown upon it; and whether it has not been shown to be worthy of the public approbation, and necessary to the public safety and prosperity. Every man is bound to answer these questions to himself, according to the best of his conscience and understanding, and to act agreeably to the genuine and sober dictates of his judgment.
Hamilton’s own view was that, although the Constitution was not perfect, it was the best alternative, and an exciting one:
I am persuaded that it is the best which our political situation, habits, and opinions will admit, and superior to any the revolution has produced. … A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety.
The Federalist Papers were successful in achieving their goal. One month after Federalist No. 85 was published, New Hampshire ratified and the Constitution went into effect; Virginia and New York ratified soon after.
Lana Ulrich is associate in-house counsel at the National Constitution Center.