Publication of

Three American statesmen published a series of essays both advocating and interpreting the newly adopted Constitution in an attempt to convince delegates from the state of New York to ratify the document. While the papers had little effect upon New York’s vote, they have since become fundamental documents in the explication of American constitutional law and history.

Summary of Event

The Federalist (1788; also known as the Federalist papers) comprises eighty-five essays that were first published anonymously by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison between October, 1787, and May, 1788, urging ratification of the United States Constitution, U.S. Constitution. That constitution, drafted by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, sought to increase the power of the national government at the expense of the state governments. The national debate over ratification began almost immediately after the Philadelphia Convention sent the proposed constitution to Congress on September 17 and its contents became known. Constitutional Convention (1787) Convention of 1787, sought to increase the power of the national government at the expense of the state governments. The national debate over ratification began almost immediately after the Philadelphia Convention sent the proposed constitution to Congress on September 17 and its contents became known.
[kw]Publication of The Federalist (Oct. 27, 1787-May, 1788)
[kw]Federalist, Publication of The (Oct. 27, 1787-May, 1788)
Federalist, The (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay)
Federalist Papers, The
[g]United States;Oct. 27, 1787-May, 1788: Publication of The Federalist[2750]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 27, 1787-May, 1788: Publication of The Federalist[2750]
[c]Literature;Oct. 27, 1787-May, 1788: Publication of The Federalist[2750]
Hamilton, Alexander
Jay, John
Madison, James

Before the Constitution could take effect, it had to be ratified by specially elected conventions in at least nine of the thirteen states. Throughout the nation, critics of the document Antifederalists (Antifederalists) battled its supporters Federalist Party (Federalists) in campaigns to elect men to the state conventions. The debate was particularly tense in New York, which was sharply divided over the Constitution. Federalists dominated New York City and the surrounding areas, but the rural upstate areas were strongly Antifederalist, as was the state’s popular and powerful governor, Clinton, George George Clinton.

Late in September, 1787, the New York Journal began printing a series of antifederal essays by “Cato” (who may have been Governor Clinton). In order to refute these and other antifederal tracts, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, two of New York’s most prominent Federalists, agreed to write a series of newspaper essays under the name “Publius.” The first essay, The Federalist No. 1, written by Hamilton, appeared in the New York Independent Journal on October 27. In it, Hamilton outlined the purpose of the entire series: The essays would explain the necessity of the union for political prosperity, the “insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union,” the need for a more energetic government than that which existed under the Articles of Confederation (1781) Articles of Confederation, the “conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government,” and the security that the Constitution would provide to liberty and property.

John Jay wrote the next four installments before ill health forced him to quit. In November, James Madison, who was in New York representing Virginia in Congress, took Jay’s place. Madison and Hamilton produced all but one of the remaining eighty essays; Jay wrote No. 64.

Madison’s first contribution to the series, The Federalist No. 10, is the most famous of all the essays. In it he discussed the origins of parties, or “factions” as he called them, and argued that they sprang inevitably from the unequal distribution of property. “Those who hold, and those who are without property,” he continued, “have ever formed distinct interests in society.” In any nation, “a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a monied interest, [and] many lesser interests, grow up of necessity” and divide people into different classes. Some Antifederalists had argued that the nation was much too large and too diverse to be governed effectively by a powerful central government without sacrificing people’s liberties and freedoms in the process; in The Federalist No. 10, Madison used his ideas about factions to reverse their argument. The nation’s size, he wrote, and the great variety of its people and their interests were sources of strength, not weakness. There were so many different groups or factions, so many different interests that would be represented in the new government, that no one faction, no one group, no lone demagogue could ever capture control of the national government. Far from inviting tyranny, he argued, the nation’s size and diversity, when coupled with the federal republican form of government proposed by the Constitution, would provide a strong check against tyranny.

Addressed to “the People of the State of New York,” the essays of The Federalist were intended primarily as New York ratification campaign tracts, but they also were reprinted by newspapers in other states and cities, particularly in Philadelphia and Boston. Hamilton had the first thirty-six numbers published as a book in March, 1788, and some of these books were sent to Virginia, where they arrived in time to be useful to Federalists at the Virginia ratifying convention. A second volume, containing the remaining forty-nine essays, appeared the following May.


It is hard to estimate the impact of The Federalist on the campaign to ratify the Constitution even in New York, much less nationally. Certainly, the articles were not as successful as their authors had hoped, for New York voters sent twice as many opponents of the Constitution to the New York ratifying convention as they sent supporters. By the time the convention balloted, however, ten states had already ratified the document, and New York did so too on July 26, 1788, by a narrow three-vote margin. It is unlikely that The Federalist contributed much to the result.

Whether or not the essays in The Federalist were effective political tracts in 1788, they long have been considered important keys to understanding the intentions of the members of the Philadelphia Convention. Historians and even Supreme Court justices have studied the papers as a guide to the intent of the Framers, even though they were written as election tracts, and in spite of the fact that one author (Jay) did not attend the Philadelphia Convention, another (Hamilton) played a very small role there and was dissatisfied with the Constitution, and the third (Madison) came to have serious doubts about the meaning of the Constitution and the kind of government it created within a few years after he wrote his essays for The Federalist.

The reputation of The Federalist has grown steadily since 1788. The work has been widely republished around the world in several languages and is regularly reprinted in the United States. The essays have been brought into many public political debates since 1789, particularly during times of constitutional crisis, such as the States’ rights[States rights] states’ rights debates that preceded the Civil War, the public discussion over the constitutionality of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, the debate over states’ rights and civil liberties in the 1950’s, and the proposals during the 1990’s to reduce the federal deficit by shifting to the states the responsibility for—and, often, the financing of—many of the social programs enacted in Washington during and after the New Deal. Apart from its partisan political value, past and present, many historians and political scientists consider The Federalist to be the best existing defense of federal republicanism in general and of the American Constitution in particular.

Further Reading

  • Allen, W. B., and Kevin A. Cloonan. The Federalist Papers—A Commentary: “The Baton Rouge Lectures.” New York: P. Lang, 2000. The authors describe how the Federalist papers are the foundation for the current principles and practices of American government.
  • De Pauw, Linda G. The Eleventh Pillar: New York State and the Federal Constitution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. An outstanding examination of The Federalist in the context of its time and as campaign literature aimed at the citizens of New York.
  • Dietze, Gottfried.“The Federalist”: A Classic on Federalism and Free Government. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960. Still one of the best examinations of the work as a statement of the Framers’ thoughts and a part of the constitutional heritage that has continued to affect the political process in the United States.
  • Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of “The Federalist.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A well-indexed, outstanding analysis of the topic.
  • Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist. Annotated by Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Among the many editions of The Federalist, this is one of the best annotated.
  • Kenyon, Cecelia M., ed. The Antifederalists. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966. An excellent collection of essays illustrating the Antifederalist arguments against the Constitution.
  • Kesler, Charles, ed. Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding. New York: Free Press, 1987. Published on the two-hundredth anniversary of The Federalist, these essays are for advanced research.
  • Lewis, John D., ed. Anti-Federalists Versus Federalists: Selected Documents. San Francisco, Calif.: Chandler, 1967. A well-balanced selection of often hard-to-find documents, including the minority reports from the constitutional convention.
  • McWilliams, Wilson Carey, and Michael T. Gibbons, eds. The Federalists, the Antifederalists, and the American Political Tradition. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. This brief collection of solid essays provides excellent introductory reading on the constitutional debate.
  • Potter, Kathleen O.“The Federalist’s” Vision of Popular Sovereignty in the New American Republic. New York: LFB Scholarly, 2002. Examines Publius’s views on the social compact and the role of virtue in the founding of the American Republic to determine how The Federalist established the principle of popular sovereignty.
  • White, Morton Gabriel. Philosophy, “The Federalist,” and the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Focuses on the impact of The Federalist on U.S. constitutional history. An excellent work.

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