What were The Federalist Papers? What did the writers of The Federalist Papers hope to accomplish with their publication? What are the key points of the federalist essays?
The federalist essays, formally known as The Federalist Papers, were a series of essays published with the goals of encouraging the ratification of the new United States Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were the writers of The Federalist Papers.
Read on to learn what were The Federalist Papers and why they are important.
Context for The Federalist Papers
What were The Federalist Papers’ goals? 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 federalist 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. They were written with the specific purpose of building public support for the state of New York to ratify the plan of government.
(Shortform note: Historians are unclear as to what impact the writers of The Federalist Papers had 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 the approval of nine states 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 writers of The Federalist Papers failed to significantly move public opinion at the time, 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 Were The Federalist Papers’ Key Themes
We’ll take a thematic approach to The Federalist Papers, exploring:
- Why the preservation of the American Union was so vitally important for the liberty, prosperity, and security of the states within it—and for the people themselves;
- How the integrity of the Union was threatened by the highly decentralized and ineffective Articles of Confederation;
- The general principles of the new Constitution drafted at Philadelphia, why it promised to be such a vast improvement over the Articles of Confederation, and how its reallocation of power between the federal government and the states would boost the prosperity, liberty, and safety of both;
- The structure of the new Constitution, with particular emphasis on the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and how the new framework established a careful system of checks and balances between these branches; and
- The objections raised against the Constitution by critics and opponents, including its shift of power toward the federal government and away from the states, its powers of taxation, and its lack of a Bill of Rights.
The Case for the Union
The ratification of the Constitution was essential to the preservation of the Union. This was an important point made by the writers of The Federalist Papers, because the prosperity and freedom of the American people depended upon the continuance of the Union. The country had always been linked by a generally shared political and cultural connection to a common British heritage, similar political institutions between the colonies, and a high degree of economic interdependence (aided by North America’s navigable rivers, which boosted commerce). What were The Federalist Papers saying about the Articles of Confederation and weak central government?
Unfortunately, the Articles of Confederation, the plan of government in place at the time of the ratification debate, had proven utterly disastrous for the Union. The Articles of Confederation created a highly decentralized structure and weak central government that rendered the nation powerless to act in the face of both internal and external threats. Unless they were scrapped entirely, the Union threatened to break apart.
If the Union dissolved, it would be replaced by petty, rival confederacies, each vying against one another for the vast resources of the North American continent. Inevitably, this would lead to a state of permanent warfare—which, in turn, would lead to the creation of permanent standing armies in each state, something that Americans feared would be destructive of the liberties they held so dear. Dissolution, in short, would represent the death of the young nation and the failure of the republican experiment. To forestall this possibility, the only option was to ratify the Constitution and create a stronger, more durable Union.
National Security and the Prevention of War
A Union, bound together by a strong national government, would be far less likely to start external wars with its neighbors than would a series of small states or confederations of states. This was because smaller confederations would each be pursuing their own interests and independent policies. Unconstrained by the steadying hand of a unifying federal government, they would be free to act aggressively toward other nations, provoking more wars.
What were The Federalist Papers saying about foreign enemies? The danger went the other way as well—foreign powers would be more easily able to exploit weak confederations that were not supported by a strong federal government. Such confederations would lack the financial resources to levy armies and navies to prevent or turn back the aggressive actions of other countries. Moreover, states or confederations would have little reason to aid their neighbors in a war against a foreign power, because they would barely be part of the same political nation. Thus, unity was crucial to national defense, prosperity, and the protection of liberty.
What Were The Federalist Papers’ Positions on Factions?
A large and strong Union, comprising all the states, was the best remedy against the dangers of factionalism. A faction is any group of citizens, whether they constitute a majority or a minority, who seek to advance their interests and passions without regard to the rights and interests of others.
In a republic, decisions are made by representatives meeting in a designated capital, not by the people themselves in person. Therefore, popular passions are filtered through and tempered by more sober-minded representatives, making it harder for any single faction to achieve dominant status.
A large and populous country like the United States would be safer from tyrannical factions within the Union than it would be if it were split into a number of petty confederacies. Even if a faction seized control in one of the states, the largeness of the Union would make it difficult for it to extend that domination over the other states, let alone all of them. The size of the political community itself limited the spread of the political contagion.
The Economic Case for the Union
What were The Federalist Papers’ key arguments regarding the economy? Disunion would also have harmful effects on the economy. For example, there would be no effective mechanism for paying back or apportioning the debt that the Union and the individual states had accrued during the Revolutionary War. If the states were only joined in a loose league rather than a compact union, the individual states would be extremely reluctant to contribute money to help pay the debts of other states. This would have a harmful effect on the establishment of strong national credit and depress trade.
By enabling the United States to act with a unified commercial policy, the Union would give the nation greater leverage in its economic relations with other countries and enable it to secure more favorable terms of trade.
A strong Union would also provide better and more efficient means of revenue collection than would a series of independent or semi-independent states. Merchants would have to contend with only one customs regime, rather than 13, which would stimulate trade. This stimulation of trade would further enhance revenue for the federal government.
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- 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