The Federalist Papers
A nation without a national government is, in my view, an awful spectacle.
--Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, No. 85
After the Revolutionary War, many Americans realized that the government established by the Articles of Confederation was not working. America needed a new form of government. It had to be strong enough to maintain national unity over a large geographic area, but not so strong as to become a tyranny.Unable to find an exact model in history to fit America's unique situation, delegates met at Philadelphia in 1787 to create their own solution to the problem. Their creation was the United States Constitution.
Before the Constitution could become "the supreme law of the land," it had to be ratified or approved by at least nine of the thirteen states. When the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, they knew ratification would not be easy. Many people were bitterly opposed to the proposed new system of government. A public debate soon erupted in each of the states over whether the new Constitution should be accepted. More important, it was a crucial debate on the future of the United States.
The Federalist Papers Nowhere was the furor over the proposed Constitution more intense than in New York. Within days after it was signed, the Constitution became the subject of widespread criticism in the New York newspapers. Many commentators charged that the Constitution diminished the rights Americans had won in the Revolution.
Fearful that the cause for the Constitution might be lost in his home state, Alexander Hamilton devised a plan to write a series of letters or essays rebutting the critics. It is not surprising that Hamilton, a brilliant lawyer, came forward at this moment to defend the new Constitution. At Philadelphia, he was the only New Yorker to have signed the Constitution. The other New York delegates had angrily left the Convention convinced that the rights of the people were being abandoned.
Hamilton himself was very much in favor of strengthening the central government. Hamilton’s Constitution would have called for a president elected for life with the power to appoint state governors. Hamilton soon backed away from these ideas, and decided that the Constitution, as written, was the best one possible.
Hamilton published his first essay in the New York Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. He signed the articles with the Roman name "Publius." (The use of pseudonyms by writers on public affairs was a common practice.) Hamilton soon recruited two others, James Madison and John Jay, to contribute essays to the series. They also used the pseudonym "Publius."
James Madison, sometimes called the Father of the Constitution, had played a major role during the Philadelphia Convention. As a delegate from Virginia, he participated actively in the debates. He also kept detailed notes of the proceedings and drafted much of the Constitution.
Unlike Hamilton and Madison, John Jay of New York had not been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. A judge and diplomat, he was serving as secretary of foreign affairs in the national government.
Between October 1787 and August 1788, "Publius" wrote 85 essays in several New York newspapers. Hamilton wrote over 60 percent of these essays and helped with the writing of others. Madison probably wrote about a third of them with Jay composing the rest.
The essays had an immediate impact on the ratification debate in New York and in the other states. The demand for reprints was so great that one New York newspaper publisher printed the essays together in two volumes entitled The Federalist, A Collection of Essays, written in favor of the New Constitution, By a Citizen of New York. By this time the identity of "Publius," never a well-kept secret, was pretty well known.
The Federalist, also called The Federalist Papers, has served two very different purposes in American history. The 85 essays succeeded by helping to persuade doubtful New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. Today, The Federalist Papers helps us to more clearly understand what the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they drafted that amazing document 200 years ago.
The complete text of The Federalist Papers
A Guide for GovernmentWhat follow are quotations from several essays in The Federalist Papers. After each selection are two kinds of activities. The first activity includes questions that should be discussed and answered by the whole class or in small groups. If necessary, refer to a dictionary or your government textbook. The second activity after each selection is intended as an individual or homework assignment.
Federalist Paper 23--Alexander HamiltonThe principle purposes to be answered by Union are these -- The common defense of the members -- the preservation of the public peace as well as against internal convulsions as external attacks -- the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States -- the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.
For Discussion1. According to Hamilton, what are the main purposes of forming a Union under the Constitution? Make a list in your own words.
2. Do the majority of Hamilton's purposes relate to domestic or to foreign affairs?
Individual AssignmentWhich one of Hamilton's purposes do you think is the most important for the United States today? Explain your answer in about 100 words.
The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
Federalist Paper 47--James Madison
For Discussion1. According to this excerpt, do you think Madison supported or opposed the principle of "separation of powers"? (Refer to your government textbook if you are not familiar with this term.)
2. Why do you think Madison held this view of the "separation of powers"?
Individual Assignment In about 100 words, describe a government in which all legislative, executive and judicial power is in the hands of one person or a single small group.
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
Federalist Paper 51--James Madison
For Discussion1. Which of the following statements would Madison agree with based on his views in the above excerpt?
a. Government is necessary.2. What would you say was Madison's general opinion of people in government: angels? devils? something else?
b. The people should elect government leaders who act like angels.
c. Elected government officials should be controlled by a system of "checks and balances." (Refer to your government textbook if you are not familiar with this term.
Individual AssignmentFind and describe five examples of "checks and balances" in the Constitution (refer to your government textbook).
Federalist Paper 72--Alexander HamiltonThe original intent of the Constitution was to place no limit on the number of times an individual could be elected president. However, after Franklin D. Roosevelt won four presidential elections in a row, a constitutional amendment (the 22nd) was passed limiting a person to two terms as president. In the following selection, Hamilton argues against limiting the number of presidential terms.
[An] ill effect of the exclusion would be depriving the community of the advantage of the experience gained by the chief magistrate in the exercise of his office. That experience is the parent of wisdom is an adage, the truth of which is recognized by the wisest as well as the simplest of mankind. What more desirable or more essential than this quality in the government of nations?
For Discussion1. What argument does Hamilton give against limiting the number of times a person may be elected president?
2. What could have been one of the arguments used by those who proposed the 22nd Amendment?
Individual AssignmentPresident Reagan remarked that there should not be a limit on the number of times a person may serve as president. Do you agree we should go back to the original intent of the Constitution and allow individuals to be elected for any number of presidential terms? Explain your answer in about 100 words.
Federalist Paper 78--Alexander Hamilton"If then the courts of justice are to be considered as the bulwarks of a limited constitution against legislative encroachments, this consideration will afford a strong argument for the permanent tenure of judicial offices, since nothing will contribute so much as this to that independent spirit in the judges, which must be essential to the faithful performance of so arduous a duty.
This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of . . . designing men."
For Discussion1. What does Hamilton mean by "the permanent tenure of judicial offices"? Does Hamilton support or oppose this idea?
2. What does Hamilton mean when he says that an "independent spirit in the judges" is essential for them to do their duty?
Individual AssignmentWrite a letter of about 100 words to the editor of a newspaper agreeing or disagreeing with the view that the U.S. Supreme Court justices should be elected for limited terms of office.
For Further ReadingCooke, Jacob E., ed. The Federalist. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
Van Doren, Carl. The Great Rehearsal: The Story of the Making and Ratifying of the Constitution of the United States. New York: The Viking Press, 1948.
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The Constitution is the base for all laws in the United States.
The Constitution is the highest law in the United States. All other laws come from the Constitution. It says how the government works. It creates the Presidency. It creates the Congress. It creates the Supreme Court. Each state also has a constitution. The constitutions of the states are their highest law for that state — but the United States Constitution is higher.
The Constitution can be changed. The Constitution is changed by an "amendment." Among the amendments is a list of the rights of the people. By listing these rights, they are made special. It is illegal for the government to violate those rights. As of 2006, there are 27 amendments. Not all of them involve rights, but many do. The first ten amendments are special. They are called the Bill of Rights.
The Framers worked for four months over the course of a hot summer in Philadelphia to craft the Constitution.
The Constitution was written in 1787. Yes, it is over 200 years old. We actually have old copies of what was created. The master copies are stored at the National Archives in Washington D.C. We also have pictures of the Constitution on this site.
From May to September 1787 a group of men known as the Framers met. The Framers talked about what should be in the Constitution. The United States was a brand new country. The United States had a government that did not work very well. The Framers met to find a new way of running the country. This meeting is called The Convention. Some of the Framers are famous to us today. They include James Madison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington.
At that time there were only 13 states. The men came from all the states except Rhode Island. Each state had ideas for the new government. The Framers had many debates. They talked a lot. They make a lot of speeches. By talking about it, they came up with a plan that everyone could agree with. They had to have a lot of compromises. Only by agreeing could all the arguments be worked out. Ben Franklin said the he was not sure if the plan was perfect. He said that it was probably as perfect as it could be.
This map of the United States was published in 1784 by William Faden.
After the Convention, the Constitution had to be approved. Actually, only nine states had to agree to, or ratify, the Constitution. But everyone wanted all 13 states to agree. Two states took a long time to decide to agree. These states were Rhode Island and North Carolina. In the end, they did agree. Once the first nine states agreed, we say the Constitution was "ratified." New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify.
When the Constitution was written, the Framers knew their creation was not perfect. They knew that other people would have good ideas for the Constitution. They wanted to be sure that it wasn't too hard to make changes. They also wanted to be sure that it wasn't too easy.
The Framers added an amendment process. An amendment to the Constitution is a change that can add to the Constitution or change an older part of it.
Originally, some people did not want to ratify the Constitution. One big reason was that it did not have a bill of rights. A bill of rights is a list of rights that belong to the people. The government is not allowed to break these rights. Some of these rights might sound familiar: the right of free speech; the right to practice your own religion; the right to be silent if you are arrested. The original Constitution had no bill of rights. Many of the Framers did not think it was needed. But many people wanted one. So, promises were made to add one, using the amendment process.
Soon, the new government started meeting. Congress proposed the Bill of Rights. A list of twelve changes was sent to the states. In 1791, ten of those changes were agreed to by the states. The ten changes were added to the Constitution. These ten changes are called the "Bill of Rights."
Other changes to the Constitution are discussed below. The last change to the Constitution was made in 1992. The 27th Amendment is actually one of the two left-over amendments from 1791. It is very unusual for an amendment to take that long to be accepted, but it is possible. Some, like the 26th Amendment, are accepted very quickly, in just 100 days. Most, though, take a little over a year to be ratified.
This image of a black slave appealed to the humanity of free whites, asking, "Am I not a man and a brother?" The image accompanied the antislavery poem "Our Countrymen in Chains" by John Greenleaf Whittier, published in 1837.
In 1787, most of the black people in America were slaves. A slave is someone who is owned by someone else. Today, there are no legal slaves in America. It was common in 1787. As time went by, more people thought that slavery was wrong. Most of the people who wanted to end slavery were from the states in the north. They were called abolitionists. Most of the people who wanted to keep slavery were from the states in the south. Slavery was important in the South. A lot of how the people in the south made money involved slaves. Slaves were worth money. Slaves picked their crops, like cotton and tobacco.
The people in the North wanted to end slavery. They said it was an important step for America. The people of the South were afraid of losing slavery. They were afraid of losing business. They thought that having slavery was important for each state choose on its own. When President Lincoln was elected, the South got very angry. Lincoln had said he didn't like slavery. Most of the Southern states decided to break away from the United States. They created their own country. It was called the Confederate States of America. The USA did not agree that the states of the CSA could break away. The Civil War followed. The USA won that war. It was a terrible war. Many people died. Many buildings were destroyed.
Something good did happen, though. Slavery ended. With the 13th Amendment, slavery was made illegal. The 14th Amendment said that every person born in the United States was a full citizen. Even former slaves were full citizens. The 15th Amendment made sure that black people could vote.
These changes protected many freedoms. But it took a long time to change peoples' minds. Many people still did not like black people. They thought that white people were better. For 100 years, some laws reflected this feeling. Today, these laws are also gone. Most people do not think that anyone is better than someone else just because of their color.
A portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Stanton and Anthony were leaders in the "suffragette" movement, the movement to give the vote to women.
At the beginning, we talked about the men who were the Framers. For a long time, most of the people who shaped the country were men. This is not because women could not help. It is not because women did not want to help. Instead, men held all the positions of power. Men were the Presidents. Men were the members of Congress. Men were the mayors. Men were the owners of companies. Women had very little chance to advance in life. Today, many women like taking care of the home. Today, though, this is a choice. Before, this was the only option for a woman.
Women had no role in government. They had no role in politics. They were homemakers. They took care of their husbands or fathers. They took care of kids. Most men did not feel that women should vote. There were actually laws that said women could not vote. Many people decided this was wrong and many women and some men fought against it. Finally, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed. It says that women can vote in all elections.
Today, women are active in government and politics. Being able to vote is a big part of that. Without the ability to vote, women had no voice. Without a voice, there was no reason for politicians to care what women think. They did not care about issues that are important to women. Once women could vote, some got very interested in politics. Some women ran for office. There have not yet been any women as President. However, it is only a matter of time before the first woman President is elected.
The Bill of Rights protects the freedom of, and from, religion.
The Bill of Rights
We already talked about the Bill of Rights. It was passed because some people were afraid that the government would have too much power. They were afraid that some important things could be made illegal. They wanted to be sure to keep those things legal.
For example, you can say whatever you want about the President. You can say that you don't like his hair. You can say you don't like his voice. You can say you don't like the war in Iraq. You can say you don't like his tax ideas. It seems normal to us to be able to say these things. We can criticize the President. We can criticize a member of Congress. We can criticize a mayor. We can say what things they do that we don't like. This is only possible because of the Right of Free Speech. The Bill of Rights protects Free Speech.
The freedom to express yourself, in speech, in writing, and in protest, is also protected by the Bill of Rights.
Imagine if there was no right to free speech. A law could be passed that says that if you criticize the President's hair, you can spend a day in jail. Or worse, criticizing the President's taxes can get you a year in jail. These are the kinds of laws that the Framers were afraid of. The Bill of Rights protects us from such laws. We cannot be put in jail because of our opinions.