Once the Constitution was written (see last week’s post), it had to be ratified in at least nine of the thirteen states by conventions called for that purpose. In February 1788, the New York legislature scheduled the election of delegates to the ratifying convention for late April. The convention itself was to be held in June.
The Federalist Papers were published in New York newspapers from October 27, 1787 to May 28, 1788, with the intention of persuading New Yorkers to choose delegates who would support ratification. Madison described the genesis and progress of the work in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of 8/10/1788:
Col. Carrington tells me he has sent you the first volume of the federalist, and adds the 2d. by this conveyance. I believe I never have yet mentioned to you that publication. It was undertaken last fall by Jay Hamilton and myself. The proposal came from the two former. The execution was thrown by the sickness of Jay mostly on the two others. Though carried in concert the writers are not mutually answerable for all the ideas of each other there being seldom time for even a perusal of the pieces by any but the writer before they were wanted at the press and sometimes hardly by the writer himself. (More here)
Eliza later recalled Alexander drafting the outline for the series on a week-long trip by sailboat from New York to Albany: “Public business so filled up his time that he was compelled to do much of hist studying and writing while traveling.” (Quoted in Baxter, Godchild of Washington, p. 219)
Of the 85 essays, 51 were written by Alexander Hamilton, 29 by James Madison, and five by John Jay. All are signed “Publius” – a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, Roman patriot, general, and statesman who died around 503 B.C. Plutarch, one of Hamilton’s favorite authors, gave Publicola credit for helping to establish the Roman Republic, for saving it several times in its early years, and for making the government familiar rather than terrifying. (More on Hamilton’s use of “Publius” here; Plutarch’s life of Publicola is here.) Scholars dispute the authorship of some essays. I’ve accepted the attributions to Hamilton in the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings edited by Joanne Freeman.
Throughout the United States there was discussion of the Constitution (see Johnson in More, below), but nobody else published such a comprehensive commentary refuting the objections to the Constitution and explaining how it would work.The separate Federalist essays were widely reprinted outside New York, and in March and May, 1788, were published in book form.
The Federalist Papers have been called “the greatest commentary on the Constitution and federalism ever written” (American National Biography). Writing to James Madison in late 1788, Thomas Jefferson was even more enthusiastic:
With respect to the Federalist, the three authors had been named to me. I read it with care, pleasure and improvement, and was satisfied there was nothing in it by one of those hands, and not a great deal by a second. It does the highest honor to the third, as being, in my opinion, the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written. In some parts it is discoverable that the author means only to say what may be best said in defence of opinions in which he did not concur. But in general it establishes firmly the plan of government. (11/18/1788, more here)
In this and the next couple posts, I’ll share some of my favorite excerpts from Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist Papers. They made the cut for one of three reasons:
- Eternal relevance.
- Immediate relevance. You’ll know it when you see it. If you don’t, you’re probably a lot happier with 21st-century politics than I am.
- Related to Hamilton’s ongoing battle with Governor of New York George Clinton, who had opposed the Philadelphia Convention even before it produced the Constitution; see last week‘s post. When I read the Federalist Papers years ago without this context, I couldn’t figure out why some of the arguments were given so much space. I enjoy seeing how they fit.
- Sheer beauty of language. Anybody who can put together a phrase that stands the test of two centuries gets points with me.
Federalist No. 1: General Introduction
Published 10/27/1787. Hamilton sets out why the Constitution matters, and states why there will be opposition from “a certain class of men” (Governor Clinton & Co.).
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, 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. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.
Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government. (More here)
So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution. (More here)
Also eternally relevant, and brilliantly expressed:
[O]f those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants. (More here)
Federalist Nos. 2-5 (by John Jay) are on dangers from foreign force and influence.
Federalist Nos. 6-7: Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Beteween the States
Published 11/14/1787 and 11/17/1787. Why can’t the thirteen states be sovereign entities? Because men, by their nature, will always fight among themselves. Hamilton thinks men can be good, but they can also be bad; and a plan of government must take their nature into account.
[M]en are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties in the same neighborhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages. …
From this summary of what has taken place in other countries, whose situations have borne the nearest resemblance to our own, what reason can we have to confide in those reveries which would seduce us into an expectation of peace and cordiality between the members of the present confederacy, in a state of separation? Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?(More here)
Federalist No. 8: The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States
Published 11/20/1787. Another timeless statement: When does an army become a threat to liberty?
In a country in the predicament last described [one frequently subject to invasions]… the perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors. The transition from this disposition to that of considering them masters, is neither remote nor difficult; but it is very difficult to prevail upon a people under such impressions, to make a bold or effectual resistance to usurpations supported by the military power. (More here)
Federalist No. 9: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection
Published 11/21/1787. Over the course of history, many republics have failed. Despite his low opinion of (some) men, Hamilton hopes the new Constitution will succeed because so much has been learned in the modern era about proper politics, especially about checks and balances within the government.
The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided. (More here)
Federalist No. 10, on the same subject (published 11/23/1787), is by Madison.
Federalist No. 11: The Utility of the Union in Respect to Commercial Relations and a Navy
Published 11/24/1787. Hamilton argues that we’ll be able to defend our commerce better if we’re united. At a time when 90% of Americans were farmers, he was one of the few Founding Fathers who considered trade and industry as important as agriculture, and who was willing to go to bat for business. (In 1784-1787, he took on the unpopular task of defending former loyalist businessmen in New York City: see this post.)
There are appearances to authorize a supposition that the adventurous spirit, which distinguishes the commercial character of America, has already excited uneasy sensations in several of the maritime powers of Europe. They seem to be apprehensive of our too great interference in that carrying trade, which is the support of their navigation and the foundation of their naval strength. Those of them which have colonies in America look forward to what this country is capable of becoming, with painful solicitude. They foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine. Impressions of this kind will naturally indicate the policy of fostering divisions among us, and of depriving us, as far as possible, of an ACTIVE COMMERCE in our own bottoms. This would answer the threefold purpose of preventing our interference in their navigation, of monopolizing the profits of our trade, and of clipping the wings by which we might soar to a dangerous greatness. (More here)
Why won’t they just leave us alone? A brilliant formulation:
The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral. (More here)
If we are disunited, and European powers take over our trade, then
That unequaled spirit of enterprise, which signalizes the genius of the American merchants and navigators, and which is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth, would be stifled and lost, and poverty and disgrace would overspread a country which, with wisdom, might make herself the admiration and envy of the world. (More here)
Federalist No. 12: The Utility of the Union in Respect to Revenue
Published 11/27/1787. The message: Taxes can be imposed more fairly over a the whole United States than within any particular state.
Federalist No. 13: Advantage of the Union in Respect to Economy in Government
Published 11/28/1787. The message: It will take less money to run a national government than it would for each state to operate as a sovereign entity, and that means Americans will pay fewer taxes.
Federalist No. 14, by Madison, is “Objections to the Proposed Constitution from Extent of Territory Answered.”
Federalist Nos. 15-20: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
Nos. 15-17 (12/1, 12/4, and 12/5/1787) are by Hamilton. Nos. 18-20 are attributed to Hamilton and Madison, but apparently not counted among Hamilton’s 51 essays (per Freeman’s list).
In 1786, we saw George Washington, Tench Tilghman, and Arthur Lee despair at the state of the nation. Here’s Hamilton, summing up the view that the nation is at its lowest ebb.
We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience. Are there engagements to the performance of which we are held by every tie respectable among men? These are the subjects of constant and unblushing violation. Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence? These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge. Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained, to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights. Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government. Are we even in a condition to remonstrate with dignity? The just imputations on our own faith, in respect to the same treaty, ought first to be removed. Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it. Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger? We seem to have abandoned its cause as desperate and irretrievable. Is commerce of importance to national wealth? Ours is at the lowest point of declension. Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments? The imbecility of our government even forbids them to treat with us. Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty. Is a violent and unnatural decrease in the value of land a symptom of national distress? The price of improved land in most parts of the country is much lower than can be accounted for by the quantity of waste land at market, and can only be fully explained by that want of private and public confidence, which are so alarmingly prevalent among all ranks, and which have a direct tendency to depreciate property of every kind. Is private credit the friend and patron of industry? That most useful kind which relates to borrowing and lending is reduced within the narrowest limits, and this still more from an opinion of insecurity than from the scarcity of money. To shorten an enumeration of particulars which can afford neither pleasure nor instruction, it may in general be demanded, what indication is there of national disorder, poverty, and insignificance that could befall a community so peculiarly blessed with natural advantages as we are, which does not form a part of the dark catalogue of our public misfortunes?
This is the melancholy situation to which we have been brought by those very maxims and councils which would now deter us from adopting the proposed Constitution; and which, not content with having conducted us to the brink of a precipice, seem resolved to plunge us into the abyss that awaits us below. Here, my countrymen, impelled by every motive that ought to influence an enlightened people, let us make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquillity, our dignity, our reputation. Let us at last break the fatal charm which has too long seduced us from the paths of felicity and prosperity. (More here)
What do the enemies of the Constitution want?
While they admit that the government of the United States is destitute of energy, they contend against conferring upon it those powers which are requisite to supply that energy. They seem still to aim at things repugnant and irreconcilable; at an augmentation of federal authority, without a diminution of State authority; at sovereignty in the Union, and complete independence in the members. They still, in fine [at the end], seem to cherish with blind devotion the political monster of an imperium in imperio [a sovereign state within a sovereign state]. (More here)
Letters of Alexander and Angelica
Angelica Schuyler Church and her husband had been living in England since 1782: more on her timeline in this post. She wrote to Hamilton from London on 10/2/1787. I take the tone to be fond and a bit arch (“deliberately or affectedly playful and teasing”).
You had every right my dear brother to believe that I was very inattentive not to have answered your letter; but I could not relinquish the hopes that you would be tempted to ask the reason of my Silence, which would be a certain means of obtaining the second letter when perhaps had I answered the first, I should have lost all the fine things contained in the Latter. Indeed my dear, Sir if my path was strewed with as many roses, as you have filled your letter with compliments, I should not now lament my absence from America: but even Hope is weary of doing any thing for so assiduous a votary as myself. I have so often prayed at her shrine that I am now no longer heard. Church’s head is full of Politicks, he is so desirous of making once in the British house of Commons, and where I should be happy to see him if he possessed your Eloquence. All the graces you have been pleased to adorn me with, fade before the generous and benevolent action of My Sister in taking the orphan Antle under her protection. [Alexander and Eliza had adopted the orphaned daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran.]
I do not write by this packet to either of my sisters, nor to my father. It is too Meloncholy an employment to day, as Church is not here to be my consolation: he is gone to New Market. You will please to say to them for me every thing you think that the most tender and affectionate attachment can dictate. Adieu, my dear brother! be persuaded that these sentiments are not weakened when assiged to you and that I am very sincerely your friend.
AC (More here)
Hamilton was an energetic correspondent: have a look at any year’s worth of letters in the Founders’ Archive. While he was writing the Federalist Papers, though, even he had to slow down. I see only six known letters in the seven months between the first and last Federalist essays (10/27/1787-5/28/1788). One of the six is his reply to the letter from Angelica quoted above. He wrote to her on 12/6/1787, the day after Federalist No. 17 appeared in print. The next of Hamilton’s essays (No. 21) didn’t appear for a whole week afterwards.
I this morning wrote a short and hasty line to your other self [Angelica’s husband] and did not then expect I should have been able to find a moment for the more agreeable purpose of dropping a line to you. Your husband has too much gallantry to be offended at this implication of preference. But I can not, however great my hurry, resist the strong desire I feel of thankg you for your invaluable letter by the last packet. Imagine, if you are able, the pleasure it gave me. Notwithstanding the compliment you pay to my eloquence its resources could give you but a feeble image of what I should wish to convey.
This you will tell me is poetical enough. I seldom write to a lady without fancying the relation of lover and mistress. It has a very inspiring effect. And in your case the dullest materials could not help feeling that propensity.
I have a great opinion of your discernment and therefore I venture to rant. If you read this letter in a certain mood, you will easily divine that in which I write it. …
You ladies despise the pedantry of punctuation. There was a most critical comma in your last letter. It is my interest that it should have been designed; but I presume it was accidental. Unriddle this if you can. The proof that you do it rightly may be given by the omission or repetition of the same mistake in your next. …
So Mr. Church resolves to be a parliament-man. I had rather see him a member of our new Congress; but my fervent wish always is that much success may attend all his wishes. I am sincerely attached to him as well as to yourself.
We are all well here. Your father and mother are better than they have been for a long time past. Betsey sends her love. I do not choose to say joins in mine. Tis old fashioned.
Despairing of seeing you here my only hope is that the jumble of events will bring us together in Europe. I speak not from any immediate project of the sort but from a combination of possible circumstances.
Wherever I am believe always that there is no one can pay a more sincere or affectionate tribute to your deserts than I do—
Adieu ma chere, soeur
A Hamilton (More here)
Next week: another group of favorite excerpts.
- A table of contents of the Federalist Papers is here. Links to each of the essays are here. The dates of the original newspaper publication given above are taken from the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings, edited by Joanne Freeman. If you’re interested in statistical study of the disputed Madison / Hamilton essays, see this study.
- I am always happy to have an excuse to quote Paul Johnson (he has a much broader perspective than most historians); here’s what he has to say in A History of the American People about the debate over the Constitution.
Ratification by convention also had the effect of inviting a grand public debate on the issue, and in a way this was the most significant aspect of the whole process. If Jefferson, Madison, and Adams were right in believing that education, virtue, and good government went together, then there was a positive merit in getting not just state legislatures but the people themselves to debate the Constitution. The wider the discussions, the more participants, the better – for public political debate was a form of education in itself, and a vital one …
So that ratification process was a war of words. And what words! It was the grandest public debate in history up to that point. It took place in the public square, at town meetings, in the streets of little towns and big cities, in the remote countryside of the Appalachian hills and the backwoods and backwaters. Above all it took place in print. America got its first daily newspaper in 1783 with the appearance of the Philadelphia Evening Post, and dailies (often ephemeral) and weeklies were now proliferating. Printing and paper, being completely untaxed, were cheap. It cost little to produce a pamphlet and the stages carried packets of it up and down the coast. Americans were already developing the device … of getting articles by able and prominent writers, usually employing pseudonyms … circulated to all newspaper editors, to use as they pleased. So literally thousands of printed comments on the issues were circulated, and read individually or out loud to groups of electors, and then discussed and replied to. It was the biggest exercise in political education ever conducted. … (pp. 191-2)
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