Significance of The Federalist Papers: Did They Matter?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Federalist Papers" by Alexander Hamilton. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What is the significance of The Federalist Papers? What did The Federalist Papers do?

The significance of The Federalist Papers was that they were used to encourage ratification of the Constitution. However, the true impact of The Federalist Papers is unknown, since they have been read and used by many historical figures to support or oppose policy over the years.

Read more to see the significance of The Federalist Papers and how the topics covered have evolved since ratification.

Significance of The Federalist Papers

The purpose of The Federalist Papers was to make the general case for a stronger national government and urge the ratification of the Constitution drafted during the Constitutional Convention held at Philadelphia in 1787. The 85 essays that comprise The Federalist Papers were published in New York City newspapers in a piecemeal fashion between October 1787 and April 1788, while the ratification debate over the new Constitution was taking place in the 13 states. 

(Shortform note: Historians are unclear as to what impact of The Federalist Papers was on the ratification of the Constitution. New York’s constitutional convention did vote to ratify, but it was the 11th state to do so—the Constitution had only needed nine states to ratify it for it to become law, thus making New York’s vote largely symbolic. Moreover, New York’s convention only approved the Constitution by a razor-thin 30-27 margin, indicating that The Federalist Papers failed to significantly move public opinion, even in the state where they were most heavily published. Outside of New York, they were hardly published at all, further calling into question their effect. Nevertheless, they stand as an important analysis of the merits of the Constitution and are widely regarded as essential reading for those interested in the history of American governance.)

What did The Federalist Papers do About Electing Senators?

The Senate is the upper chamber of the national legislature. Senators were to serve six-year terms and be elected by the state legislatures—not by the people themselves. The Senate was designed to temper the more dangerous democratic impulses of the House. This was because its members were fewer, they were not elected directly by the people, and their terms in office would be longer. This would prevent them from being susceptible to democratic political pressures.

(Shortform note: The significance of The Federalist Papers is the original process for electing Senators, which was a system of having state legislatures elect senators had become rife with corruption by the late-19th century, with scandalous incidents of Senate seats being openly bought and sold. Moreover, the political polarization of the time had frequently resulted in state legislatures failing to come to agreement on elections to the Senate. This resulted in many Senate seats going unfilled, leaving states without representation in the upper chamber of Congress. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913, finally ended senatorial election by state legislatures, mandating instead that senators be directly elected by the voters of their states.)

Significance of The Federalist Papers for Treaties and Foreign Commerce

Perhaps the most historically significant foreign policy provision of the Constitution was the explicit authority it gave to the federal government to outlaw the international slave trade beginning in 1808. This was a great moral victory for the young nation and part of the significance of The Federalist Papers.

(Shortform note: The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 went into effect on January 1, 1808, thus extricating the United States from the international slave trade as soon as it was constitutionally permitted. A massive internal slave trade between the states, however, persisted until the final abolition of slavery in 1865 and there was no impact of The Federalist Papers on it.)

Conviction After Impeachment

What did The Federalist Papers do to address removing a problematic President? The Constitution also set out the Senate’s sole authority to convict members of the executive (including the President) for high crimes and misdemeanors by a two-thirds vote, following impeachment in the House. This high threshold for conviction made it highly unlikely that a President would be removed from office for purely partisan reasons. Only those who had committed truly heinous offenses would be convicted.

(Shortform note: This has indeed proven to be a high bar and is part of the significance of The Federalist Papers. Although three presidents have been impeached by the House as of 2020—Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump—none has been convicted in the Senate. Richard Nixon likely would have been both impeached and convicted had he not resigned from office in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal.)

Significance of The Federalist Papers: Did They Matter?

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Alexander Hamilton's "The Federalist Papers" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Federalist Papers summary:

  • The genius of the founding fathers in how they designed the United States Constitution
  • Why it was critical for the United States to form a union rather than stay separated as colonies
  • How Alexander Hamilton anticipated social issues that are still relevant today

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *