The Federalist Papers and Federalism
The Federalist Papers were mostly the product of two young men:
Alexander Hamilton of New York, age 32, and James Madison of Virginia, age 36.
Both men sometimes wrote four papers in a single week. An older scholar, John
Jay, later named as first chief justice of the Supreme Court, wrote five of the
papers. Hamilton, who had been an aide to Washington during the Revolution,
asked Madison and Jay to help him in this project. Their purpose was to
persuade the New York convention to ratify the just-drafted Constitution. They
would separately write a series of letters to New York newspapers, under the
pseudonym, “Publius.” In the letters they would explain and defend the
Hamilton started the idea and outlined the sequence of topics to be
discussed, and addressed most of them in fifty-one of the letters. Madison’s
Twenty-nine letters have proved to be the most memorable in their balance and
ideas of governmental power. It is not clear whether The Federalist Papers,
written between October 1787 and May 1788 had any effect on New York’s and
Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines Federalism as, “A mode of political
organization that unites independent states within a larger political framework
while still allowing each state to maintain it’s own political integrity” (712).
Having just won a revolution against an oppressive monarchy, the American
colonists were in willing to replace it with another monarchy style of
government. On the other hand, their experience with the disorganization under
the Articles of Confederation, due to unfair competition between the individual
states, made them a little more receptive to an increase in national powers. A
number of Federalist Papers argued that a new kind of balance, never achieved
elsewhere was possible. The Papers were themselves a balance or compromise
between the nationalist ideas of Hamilton, who wrote more for the commercial
interests of New York, and the uneasiness of Madison, who shared the skepticism
of distant authority widely held by Virginia farmers.
In American Government and Politics Today, Madison proposed that,
instead of the absolute sovereignty of each state under the Articles of
Confederation. The states would retain a residual sovereignty in all areas
which did not require national concern. The very process of ratification of the
Constitution, he argued, symbolized the concept of federalism (77). He said:
This assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as
individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and
individual States to which they respectively belong… The act, therefore,
establishing the Constitution, will not be a national but a federal act (qtd in
The Federalist Papers also provide the first specific mention we have of
the idea of checks and balances as a way of restricting governmental power and
preventing its abuse. Both Hamilton and Madison regarded this as the most
powerful form of government. As conceived, popularly elected House of
Representatives would be checked and balanced by a more conservative Senate
picked by state legislatures. (in 1913 the 17th Amendment changed this to the
popular election of senators). Hamilton observed in letter number 78 that, “A
democratic assembly is to be checked by a democratic senate and both these by a
democratic chief magistrate” (318).
In what many historians agree is his most brilliant essay, number 78.
Hamilton defended the Supreme Court’s right to rule upon the constitutionality
of laws passed by national or state legislatures. This historically crucial
power of judicial review, he argued, was an appropriate check on the
legislature, “The pestilential breath of faction may poison the fountains of
justice” (317). Hamilton rejected the British system of allowing the Parliament
to override by majority vote any court decision it finds to its dislike. “The
courts of justice are to be considered the bulwarks of a limited Constitution
against legislative encroachments” (318). Only the difficult process of
amending the Constitution or the gradual transformation of its members to
another viewpoint, could reverse the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that
In the most original of The Federalist Papers, Number 10.Madison
addressed this double challenge. His main concern was the need, “To break and
control the violence of faction” (36). Meaning political parties. He regarded
political party’s as the greatest danger to popular government. Madison wrote:
I understand a number of citizens… are united and actuated by some
common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other
citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. These
passions or interests that endanger the rights of others may be religious or
political or, most often, economic. Factions may divide along lines of haves and
have-nots, creditors and debtors, or according to the kinds of property
The idea of separating powers among the various branches of government
to avoid the corruption of concentrated power, falls under larger category of
checks and balances. But The Federalist Papers see another virtue in the
separation of powers, namely, an increase in governmental efficiency and
effectiveness. By being limited to certain functions, the different branches of
government become good at doing a few things rather than doing all of the things.
The observations in The Federalist Papers about government, society and
politics are not easy to locate. Many of these papers sound old in there ideas.
However, The Federalist Papers remain essential to anyone interested in the
constant questions of political theory and the ideas raised by Hamilton, Madison
and Jay. Joseph Sobran, a syndicated columnist, summed up federalism with one
profound sentence. “The federal government was supposed to be kept on a short
leash, lest it claim powers never given to it” (1).
“Federalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1994: 712.
Schmidt, Steffen, Mack C. Shelly II, Barbara A. Bardes. American Government and
Politics Today. New York: west publishing, 1995-1996 ed.
Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist Paper 78.” Feder16.txt.
Madison, James. “Federalist Paper 10.” Feder16.zip.
Sobran, Joseph. “Founding fathers thought the federal government should be kept
on a short leash.” Http://emanon.net/vroberts/sobran.html.