The Federalist Papers
For twenty-first-century Americans, big government is nothing new. No matter how we feel about it, the government is everywhere and involved in virtually every aspect of our lives. With the federal government responsible for so many facets of our lives, it can be challenging to remember that it was once much smaller. The Constitution—now revered by most Americans—was a source of controversy when it was written.
The newly formed United States’ first written constitution was the Articles of Confederation, which created a federal government with limited powers while leaving considerable powers to the states. In the eighteenth century, most people believed in keeping the government close to the people, giving the states more control. Doing so was a safeguard against tyranny, according to the political science of the time. However, the Articles were relatively weak and failed to give Congress certain powers, notably the ability to levy taxes and regulate interstate commerce.
In 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation and address the country’s first government’s shortcomings. The Founders—and most Americans—understood that the federal government would likely be much stronger when their work was done, but the new governing document—the Constitution—did much more than amend the Articles. The new Constitution created a far stronger government than it had been under the Articles, with three distinct branches of government.
Even among the Constitution’s signers, there was disagreement with Federalists supporting the document and its ratification. Antifederalists opposed it because they feared the government it created was too powerful. Nine of the twelve states represented at the Convention had to ratify the document before it would become law, but in some states, namely New York, opposition to the Constitution was strong.
To convince Americans that a strong central government was necessary and would not lead to the kind of oppression they experienced under the British, three of the Founders anonymously published a series of essays in defense of the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing under the name “Publius,” published 85 essays between October of 1787 and May of 1788. In the essays, which eventually came to be known as The Federalist Papers, the three statesmen made their case for a stronger central government, carefully laying out the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and how the original government would prevent the United States from becoming a significant player in world affairs.
Though Hamilton was the most prolific of the three, writing 51 of the essays, it was arguably Madison’s Federalist 10 that would become the most influential. In the essay, Madison argued for the expansion of the United States into a large republic, maintaining that a strong national government would be better able to limit the powers of factions and special interest groups.
Whether it was due to The Federalist Papers’ influence or not, New York eventually ratified the Constitution by a narrow margin, with the insistence that a Bill of Rights be added. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay may have achieved varying degrees of success among Americans of their time. Today, The Federalist Papers is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of early American political theory.