Skip to main content

The Letters Of Publius

July 2024
24min read

Writing in haste under this antique pseudonym, three young men produced a running defense of the hold new American Constitution. After 173 years, The Federalist still casts a very long shadow

Aseries of eighty-five newspaper articles, hastily written for the immediate purpose of advocating New York’s ratification of the new Constitution of the United States, has become the all-time classic on the basic theory of American government. This status hardly could have been anticipated by its authors or contemporary readers; and yet the coming event did cast its shadow before. When their serialization was only two-thirds completed, the essays appeared in a book form which reportedly sold 25,000 copies in the decade following 1788—easily making them the best seller of their day. During the 173 years since then, under the title of The Federalist , they have gone through more than ninety printings and twenty-nine separate editions in half a dozen languages. They have been cited in dozens of Supreme Court opinions and in uncounted reams of congressional debates, and the very name has become an adjective of political science throughout the world to describe the unique character of United States government.

When the text of the proposed Constitution was printed in the New York Journal of September 27, 1787, its reception was something less than enthusiastic. In the same issue, over the pen name of Cato, a correspondent remarked how the public was discussing the document with “alternate joy, hope, and fear,” and warned the newspaper’s readers to give it their prayerful attention; for “if you are negligent or inactive, the ambitious and despotic will entrap you in their toils, and bind you with the cord of power from which you, and your posterity may never be freed.”

“Cato” was New York’s Governor George Clinton, whose hostility to the whole idea of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had been well known from the outset. He spoke, moreover, the sentiment of the average man. What was this new document but a plan to create a superstate, a government that would assume once more the powers wrested from England only half a dozen years back? Who, indeed, had authorized these men at Philadelphia to draft a constitution —had not their plain instructions been to study ways and means whereby the Articles of Confederation could be strengthened? Was this anything more than a plot of “the good, the rich and well born” (a phrase attributed to one of New York’s most articulate nationalists) to regain positions of control they had en joyed under the Crown?

The Articles of Confederation had been fully ratified, after almost six years, by the thirteenth sovereign state only in 1781, the same year as the victory at York-town. The government thus belatedly brought into being was officially denominated a “league of friendship"—a defensive alliance which had some of the features of a parliamentary union but hardly any of a national state. Congress looked after international and interstate concerns with such limited powers as the Articles had delegated to it, but its principal authority was to recommend action by the states rather than to take action itself. It was, as Edmund Randolph later described it, “a government of supplication” which “cried aloud for its own reform.”

Hardly anyone—even of Clinton’s school—could argue that this system had worked out satisfactorily. The New Jersey merchant shipping his products across his own borders paid a tariff duty either at New York or at Philadelphia, a situation which James Madison compared to a cask tapped at both ends. The Connecticut farmer similarly found himself charged excises either at New York or Boston; while on the Chesapeake, fishermen discovered that they were caught in a net of taxes and others in retaliation from both Maryland and Virginia, since both states claimed jurisdiction over the main waters of the bay.

Abroad, Yankee merchant ships strove valiantly and successfully to build a profitable China trade; but John Jay, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson strove in vain to open the ports of great European powers to American shipping. Why should France or Spain sign a treaty with agents of a Congress which had no concessions to offer at the bargaining table, and which had only dubious authority to enforce any treaty it signed? For that matter, what of the war debts owing to these nations? Congress could not pay even the interest, let alone the principal.

As to the public debt, Americans at home were even worse off. Revolutionary War veterans, suppliers of military goods, farmers whose grain and livestock had been requisitioned for the Continental Army, held (or had sold at heavy sacrifice to speculators) certificates that Congress had never been able to redeem. With defaulted public debts, private debts mounted- and with these, a demand for cheap paper currency. Several states were already manufacturing their own money, which was heavily discounted at home and not even accepted in most places outside their borders. Even so, the small farmer and the totally disfranchised city worker glowered at the propertied groups who kept control of the statehouses in Boston and Philadelphia; in western Massachusetts, only a short while before, Daniel Shays had fanned this resentment into a full-scale outburst which for a time amounted to insurrection against both commonwealth and Congress.

Undeniably, the situation called for heroic action—but what action? Even more than economic chaos, both nationalists and antinationalists dreaded the specter of political tyranny, whether in the form of George III or of coercive majorities in a national government beyond their control. Rhode Island and Delaware saw themselves crushed out of existence by New York and the great commonwealths of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. All of the states feared their own powers would be diminished if the Congress of the Confederation, the creation of the state governments, gave way to the new, strong government proposed by the Constitution and created, as the preamble declared, by “the people of the United States.”

To the voice of “Cato” were joined others in the public press. “Sydney” (the pseudonym of Robert Yates, one of New York’s three delegates to the Philadelphia convention) warned that “the new Constitution will prove finally to dissolve all the power of the several state legislatures, and destroy all the rights and liberties of the people; for the power of the first will be all in all, and of the latter a mere shadow and form without substance.”

Yates, together with John Lansing, had outvoted Alexander Hamilton, the third man on the New York delegation, for as long as they had remained at the convention. By mid-July Yates and Lansing had pulled out altogether, giving the principles of the new Constitution which was then shaping up “our decided and unreserved dissent,” as they reported to Clinton. Their departure left New York without a duly authorized voice in the final decision, a role only slightly less negative than that of Rhode Island, which had boycotted the convention altogether.

For Hamilton, this turn of events had not been of great concern. He and Madison had been the chief architects of the Philadelphia gathering, built upon the ruins of the Annapolis Convention a few months before. After all, only five states had attended that meeting, and to have persuaded twelve of the thirteen sovereignties to authorize delegations to the new convention in the face of such a conspicuous failure was in itself evidence of the recognized urgency for some kind of action.

The call to meet at Annapolis had limited discussion to problems of interstate trade, for the most part; the Philadelphia convention had been given broader instructions, to find every practical means of strengthening the Articles of Confederation. What if the document that now emerged was actually an instrument for dissolving those Articles “of perpetual union”? The Confederation had proved its own ineffectiveness; the states were on the point of permitting the national structure to collapse; what the American people needed, and needed desperately, was a central government with real power.

Hamilton’s own concept of such a central government would have replaced the states altogether with a strong authority modeled after the English constitution—an institution which, he confessed, he felt to be the nearest to perfection that man could attain. This concept, of course, was too extreme to have a chance on the floor of the convention in comparison with the Virginia plan for a federal republic, which largely prevailed over New Jersey’s proposal for a continued rigid balance of power between large and small states. The document that was reported out in final draft in September, 1787, disappointed Hamilton greatly; nevertheless, he begged permission to sign the Constitution as an individual since he could not commit his state. No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his were known to be, he told the other delegates; but the choice was between this government with some promise of success and no national government at all.

Realist that he was, Hamilton recognized that the convention in all probability had produced as strong an instrument as it would be possible to get the states to accept. At that, it was a nice question whether the necessary majority of nine would be secured. Even more serious was the question of the action of Virginia and New York—and without them, the acquiescence of all the others would be of little effect. Geographically, these two states split the rest of the union into thirds. Economically, New York was already assuming a dominant position. Politically, as it had most recently demonstrated at Philadelphia, Virginia was still the home of the most articulate statesmen in the land. The ultimate fate of the Constitution, and of national government in America, thus rested on the approval of these two states.

This was the prospect Hamilton considered as the Philadelphia convention wound up its work. Already Clinton—for whom he bore no personal affection—was launching into print with what was called a “campaign of education” against the proposed document. Redoubtable correspondents like “Brutus,” “Cincinnatus,” “Countryman,” and “Expositor” had promptly joined him. The first efforts at rebuttal by a writer signing himself “Caesar” (who may or may not have been Hamilton himself) fell flat. The Clintonians were obviously going to use their legislative majority to delay New York’s action on the Constitution as long as possible, and use the public press to solidify the consensus of opposition before that time.

A detailed argument, making the strongest possible case for the new Constitution, was essential in this battle for men’s minds. Hamilton was quite willing to take on such a task single-handed, but he realized that under the circumstances he needed help. His own law practice had been neglected during the summer months of the convention; there was much to be done to organize the state’s nationalist minority; and the comprehensiveness of the projected editorial campaign was too much for even the most energetic and versatile advocate. For, as he wrote “the citizens of the State of New York” in the opening letter of The Federalist , the essays proposed to discuss “the following interesting particulars”: The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity—The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union—The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this objective—The Conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government—Its analogy to your own State constitution, and lastly, The additional security, which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property.

After considering various collaborators, Hamilton at length selected two—Jay, who as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Confederation, was perhaps the young country’s most experienced diplomat; and Madison, whose extended notes on the Philadelphia convention supplemented his already voluminous knowledge of political theory, from Aristotle to Locke. Each of the three authors thus brought a particular specialty to the projected series of essays: Jay (who, as it turned out, wrote only a few numbers) was assigned the discussion of the international problems which demanded a strong central government; Madison dealt with the theoretical concepts of the proposed federal structure and compared it with the experience of other nations old and new; Hamilton himself emphasized financial and economic issues, although as general organizer of the series he was required to cover such other subjects as were necessary to give it continuity.

The Federalist was thus largely the work of two young men. Hamilton, at thirty, was already widely known for his Revolutionary service on the staff of General Washington, and for his demonstrated acumen in legal and economic subjects. Charming in personal manner and appearance, although tending to be supercilious in his treatment of opponents in legislative and convention debate, he made no effort to conceal his distrust for the common herd and his concern that the federal power should be removed as far as possible from the whims of popular vote. Madison, at thirty-six, had had more than a decade of experience in the Virginia legislature and the Continental Congress, including a record of having put through several major statutory reforms in Virginia. Much more tolerant of the quirks of the average citizen, even though these might tend to hamper the orderly operation of lawmaking, he conceived of a strong national government as a guarantee of individual rights as well as property rights.

On October 27—a month to the day after the first “Cato” letter had dourly greeted the text of the new Constitution—the first of the Hamilton-Jay-Madison papers appeared in the New York Independent Journal . Although it had been planned to sign the letters with the pseudonym of “A Citizen of N.Y.,” this was changed, as Madison explained in a letter in 1818, to “Publius"—the first name of Valerius Publicola, the sixth century B.C. “friend of the people” in the early Roman republic. It was a fitting pen name for a Latter-day triumvirate pontificating upon the requirements for a brave new world; but the chief reasons for the change, according to Madison, were that one of the Writers was not a citizen of that state: another that the publication had diffused itself among most of the other States. The papers were first published at N.Y. in a Newspaper printed by Francis Childs at the rate during a greater part of the time of at least four numbers a week; and notwithstanding this exertion, they were not compleated till a large proportion of the States had decided on the Constitution. They were edited as soon as possible in two small vols., the preface to the 1st vol: drawn up by Mr. H bearing date N. York Mar 1788.

Madison’s reference to the pressure of newspaper deadlines which characterized the entire series of eighty-five essays underlines one of the most remarkable features of The Federalist —that voluminous commentaries dashed off in such haste, with only the general reference to Hamilton’s broad outline to guide them and no opportunity for editorial conference among the three writers, should emerge with such a striking degree of continuity and with such consistent depth of perception. Madison wrote on another occasion:
The haste with which many of the papers were penned in order to get through the subject while the Constitution was before the public, and to comply with the arrangement by which the printer was to keep his paper open for four numbers every week, was such that the performance must have borne a very different aspect without the aid of historical and other notes which had been used in the Convention, and without the familiarity with the whole subject produced by the discussions there. It frequently happened that, while the printer was putting into types parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and to be furnished in time for the press.

“The particular circumstances under which these papers have been written,” added Hamilton in the preface to the first volume of the 1788 book, “have rendered it impossible to avoid violations of method and repetitions of ideas which cannot but displease a critical reader.” Still, no attempt was made by Hamilton or Madison, in the succession of editions brought out under their supervision, to make any significant editorial changes in the essays.

The contents of the essay series fall logically into four subdivisions: First, a review of the most urgent national needs which the Confederation was unable to meet and the remedies offered by the new Constitution (Numbers 1-14); second, a series of specific criticisms of the Articles and a rebuttal of charges that the Constitution is intended to establish an autocratic central power (Numbers 15-29); then, with Hamilton and Madison at their most brilliant, comes the portion of The Federalist which has assured its niche among the classics—a discussion of the theoretical principles upon which federalism in the United States is posited (Numbers 30-46); and finally, in a tenor scarcely less inspired, there is a detailed analysis of the functions of the government departments within a federal system (Numbers 47-85).

Publius (Hamilton) opened the first essay with a keen sense of the fateful point in history at which he found himself:
After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. 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.

After setting the stage in the first two letters, Publius (in this case, Jay) struck immediately at the weakest point in the existing system—its ineffectiveness in dealing with foreign powers and in policing the relations among its own members. The threat of “divide and conquer” in the event of military attack, the unequal ability of different states to equip and maintain their own armies, as well as the very substantial danger that hostilities might break out among the states themselves—these were inherent in the present system, Jay declared. Conversely, a strong central government would unify American capacities for self-defense and would promote harmony at home. Following these arguments, Hamilton took over once more, developing his characteristic economic points—the benefits to commerce arising from a single federal control instead of thirteen state tariff systems; the expansion of the country into the interior with federal construction of highways and bridges; the lowering of the tax burden when the collection of taxes was regularized.

In spite of possible stylistic handicaps, the masterful character of this exposition of American constitutional theory was recognized from the outset. Washington was deeply impressed and undertook to have the first numbers reprinted in Virginia. Jefferson wrote Madison that he considered the series “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever has been written.” Even more emphatic at a later date was that renowned commentator on American law, New York’s Chancellor James Kent, who declared, with all the burning conviction of his own nationalism: I know not indeed of any work on the principles of free government that is to be compared, in instruction, and intrinsic value, to … The Federalist , not even if we resort to Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavel, Montesquieu, Milton, Locke, or Burke. It is equally admirable in the depth of its wisdom, the comprehensiveness of its views, the sagacity of its reflections, and the fearlessness, patriotism, candor, simplicity, and elegance with which its truths are uttered and recommended.

The letters of Publius appeared in print as the discussion over ratification was being fanned to a roaring conflagration all over the country. Newspapers in every American city of any size printed little besides the voluble essays from scores of pens on every conceivable aspect of the proposed Constitution. Letters and separately printed pamphlets poured from the desks of James Winthrop and Elbridge Gerry in Massachusetts, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in Connecticut, James Wilson in Pennsylvania, Luther Martin and Tench Coxe in Maryland, Spencer Roane and Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, and Charles Pinckney and James Iredell in the Carolinas.

What appeared in the journals of one state was frequently reprinted from the exchanges in others; or stalwarts from a neighboring commonwealth might be drafted to aid the cause elsewhere—as Pelatiah Webster was invited to write, from Philadelphia, a series of letters refuting the Clintonians under the title, “The Weakness of Brutus Exposed.” Even within New York, essays were readily copied from one publication by another, and this was particularly true of The Federalist . First appearing in Childs’ Independent Journal ; or, The General Advertiser , they promptly began appearing also in the New York Packet and the Daily Advertiser .

Indeed, while the disposition of most of the New York papers was antinationalist, the clamor for the Publius letters on the part of the reading public was so insistent that even the virulent Clinton organ, the Journal , ultimately acceded to the demand with Number 23 and became the fourth periodical to print the essays. (It dropped them later, announcing that it was doing so upon the signed petition of thirty subscribers.)

It is safe to say that no state document of such significance, before or since, has ever been so thoroughly debated in such a large arena as the new Constitution in the critical months from October, 1787, to July, 1788. The voracious appetite for political discussion which had been cultivated by the revolutionary generation was further whetted by the manifest urgency of the issue before the country and the striking intellectual powers of the advocates on both sides. The Clinton faction was still confident that it could vote down the new Constitution at the state convention, or at the last ditch demand a vast number of concessions—at most, a second constitutional convention; at least, a series of amendments—as the price of ratification. Events seemed to justify their optimism; among the delegates to the ratifying convention to be held in June at Poughkeepsie antinationalists formed a substantial majority. Eloquent and incisive as it was, The Federalist thus fell short of its immediate objective of changing the climate of local opinion. It may well be, as a contemporary observer concluded, that the treatment of the subject by Publius was “not well suited for the common people.”

As Publius warmed to his subject—the second group of essays (Numbers 15-29) appeared during December, 1787—the first three states ratified the new Constitution. They were Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The impact of such momentous actions in nearby commonwealths could not have been inconsiderable in New York, but the Clinton party countered with broad hints that in Pennsylvania, at least, and most likely in New Jersey as well, there would be an early attempt to reconsider the action. As for Publius, he kept his attention glued upon his editorial plan.

What more persuasive argument for reconstruction of the national system, asked Hamilton in Number 15, than the record of futility of the Congress of the Confederation? “The great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle Of LEGISLATION for STATES or GOVERNMENTS , in their CORPORATE or COLLECTIVE CAPACITIES , and as contradistinguished from the INDIVIDUALS of which they consist,” he pointed out. The aim of the Philadelphia convention had been to make a government of the people rather than a council of states—to create a federal citizenry coexistent with state citizenship.

This duality, which has been a unique feature of American political organization and one of the most perplexing for foreign observers to comprehend, was the key to prospective success for the new system: the Constitution proposed to bypass the state governments as the foundation for the national structure, drawing its strength directly from the people. The electorate was thus to be drawn out of the parochial confines of exclusively state interests and to develop the broader interests of a national public. This new federalism was to make a reality of Christopher Gadsden’s aphorism of the Revolutionary era, that there should henceforth be “no New England men, no New Yorkers … , but all of us Americans.”

At best, of course, Publius could only conjecture as to the effects of the federal system upon the general welfare; with no record of native experience, except the negative accomplishments of the Confederation which the Constitution sought to overcome, it was necessary to draw comparisons from older republics. This was Madison’s forte; and his profound study of ancient and contemporary governments is reflected in the next series of letters drawing from the experiences of the classic Greek democracies, the German and Swiss confederations of the Middle Ages, and the state of the United Netherlands in his own era. From each of these, The Federalist shrewdly drew the recurring moral that such loose and limited organization had accounted for the very problems with which the United States had been confronted since independence.

But what of this national citizenship—was this not lowering the main barriers to a rampant democracy? Did this not open the gates to the very type of mob rule that had generated Shays’ Rebellion—giving control of the government to men who had no responsibilities for the management of property, hence no judgment as to what comprised the ultimate good for the country? It took no great foresight to know that a growing land would soon require additional states, that these would be peopled by voters undisciplined in the settled ways of the older communities—and that they would outvote the cultured fringe along the Atlantic. Many a conservative whose personal interests inclined him to support a stronger central government had reason to pause when he considered this prospect; upon further reflection he might, Hamletlike, prefer the ills he had under the present system than fly to others that he knew not of.

Upon this point Publius strove to emphasize the checks and balances by which the men at Philadelphia had undertaken to safeguard against an excess of democracy. There was the electoral college, which Hamilton firmly believed would insure that the President would always be the choice of an elite body, safely removed from the people. There was the election procedure for senators, secure in the hands of the state legislatures, dignified with a higher age qualification and stabilized by a system of overlapping six-year terms. Even though the House of Representatives was to be popularly elected, there was some control in the provision that the time, place, and manner of holding elections were to be set by the state legislatures.

New York continued to procrastinate. It was now February, 1788, and three more states had approved the Constitution—Georgia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. This was two-thirds of the necessary majority, but the most difficult part of the ratification struggle lay ahead. New Hampshire’s convention recessed in March without taking action; and this, as Madison reported to Governor Randolph in Virginia, considerably encouraged the antinationalists in New York.

Meantime, The Federalist was turning its attention to the basic theory of the new government proposed by the Constitution. Did this national structure contain the capacity for despotism? Critics were attacking, as they have done periodically ever since, the clause empowering Congress “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for carrying out the delegated powers in the Constitution. Hamilton met this issue with lawyer’s logic:

“What is a power, but the ability or faculty of doing a thing?” he asked. “What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the means necessary to its execution? … What are the proper means of executing such a power, but necessary and proper laws?” This method of advocacy did not prove much; in the next statement, however, Hamilton revealed the real purpose of the clause: “to guard against all cavilling refinements in those who might hereafter feel a disposition to curtail and evade” the federal authority; indeed, the very opposition to the clause “betrays a disposition to question the great and essential truth which it is manifestly the object of that provision to declare.” This “truth” was that power to perform specific acts, once given, is complete and beyond the reach of the states. While nationalists might applaud this explanation, the opponents of the new Constitution felt that it confirmed their worst fears.

On the separation of powers—that touchstone of free government according to Montesquieu—Madison wrote: “After discriminating … the several classes of power, as they may in their nature be legislative, executive, or judiciary, the next and most difficult task is to provide some practical security for each, against the invasion of the others.”

The Articles of Confederation had made no provision for an executive, other than the formal presidency of Congress; and virtually the only court machinery of the national government consisted of tribunals to settle disputes between sovereign states. The new government was to have both an independent executive and “one Supreme Court, and … such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

The Presidency—an office which, the antinationalists lamented, would saddle American democracy with a tyrant as baleful as the King—was described by Publius as a limited executive function duly circumscribed by constitutional checks. Compared with the Crown, wrote Hamilton, the national executive had far less power: his veto could be overridden by Congress; he could be impeached; he held office for only four years, after which he must stand for re-election. Most important of all, he could not prorogue or dissolve the legislature, as the Crown’s agents had done so often in the critical years before the Revolution.

On the other hand, an executive department with definite authority was a major advance from the Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers assumed that Congress itself would meet only for limited periods of the year, and that an independent executive would not only provide the continuity of the old Congress’ executive committee—a cumbersome expedient at best—but would generally expedite the discharge of government business. To the complaint that the President might assume too much authority in the period between sessions of Congress, Publius replied: “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”

The judiciary Publius saw in the Constitution was weak and limited; it had no power over finances, Hamilton’s first requisite for a strong government. It possessed no appointive authority. Its function of judicial review, which The Federalist took for granted and which already obtained in most state courts, awaited, it turned out, the appearance of a judicial statesman (and politician) like John Marshall to give it real significance. Life tenure and a salary which was not to be diminished while they held office assured the judges that they would be independent of the legislative and executive branches, as Montesquieu prescribed. Beyond that, the business of the courts was expressly defined and limited; they would have, it seemed, relatively little to do.

With respect to another objection to the new Constitution—that it contained no bill of rights—Publius made the rather lame answer that “bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege,” and in this sense such bills “have no application to constitutions, professedly founded upon the power of the people, … the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.” This answer failed to satisfy either Virginia or New York. The denial of such rights had made up the catalogue of grievances against Britain in the Declaration of Independence, and the failure of the proposed federal government to guarantee their preservation was an invitation to the abuse of power. Both states, in their ultimate ratification of the Constitution, stipulated that a bill of rights was to be the first order of business of the first Congress.

By the time the discussion had reached this stage, the issue of ratification had been settled. Maryland cast its vote for the Constitution at the end of April; South Carolina a month later. By June, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York were in convention, and Governor Clinton’s group suddenly became aware that they were losing the battle. Their chief hope still lay in keeping Virginia in line and holding out for as many concessions as possible. In this circumstance, the New York governor took an unusual step and wrote a letter to Virginia’s Governor Randolph. New York, Clinton said in effect, would vote “No” if the Old Dominion would do likewise.

Such a communication, read to the Virginia convention where the antinationalists were yet clinging to a slight majority and many votes were committed to ratification only reluctantly, quite possibly could have rallied the opposition and blocked ratification. But Randolph—that cryptic, erratic statesman who first proposed a strong federalist plan to the Philadelphia convention, then refused to sign the completed Constitution; who presided at the Virginia convention and encouraged the antinationalists to expect his support before suddenly announcing in favor of the document—Randolph refrained from mentioning Clinton’s letter to the delegates. On June 25, by the narrowest of margins, Virginia voted to ratify.

New Hampshire, four days earlier on June 21, had already become the ninth state to approve the Constitution and thus insure its going into effect. This news had not reached Richmond by the time of the voting there, but it had gotten to the convention at Poughkeepsie, and the Clintonians saw the handwriting on the wall. By early July, word of Virginia’s action had also reached the convention, and the antinationalist forces began to give ground. The Empire State joined the Old Dominion in approval on July 26. (North Carolina was to delay ratification for another fifteen months, and Rhode Island until the spring of 1790.)

By now the book edition of The Federalist was already selling smartly, but the final numbers proceeded unhurriedly into the Independent Journal . “Let us now pause and ask ourselves whether, in the course of these papers, the proposed Constitution has not been satisfactorily vindicated from the aspersions thrown upon it,” wrote Publius in his final installment. “I am persuaded that this is the best which our political situation, habits, and opinions will admit, and superior to any the revolution has produced.”

“A nation without a national government,” Hamilton said firmly, “is … an awful spectacle. The establishment of a Constitution, in a time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety.”

Its immediate function—contributing to the argument in favor of New York’s ratification—was now discharged, but The Federalist was only beginning its history as a treatise on American constitutional theory. In revolutionary France, where a federal system was advocated by the moderates as an alternative to the growing demagoguery of Paris, a translation of the American essays appeared early in 1792; the French National Assembly that same August granted honorary citizenship to Hamilton and Madison in recognition of their services through the essays to the cause of self- government. French demand for the letters of Publias was so avid that a third printing was required in 1795. Four years later came a second American printing.

Seeds of discord began to sprout in this literary soil, however, as the nineteenth century opened. The first took shape in a dispute over authorship of individual numbers, and grew out of the universal practice of that day of using noms de plume . The first list of authors was published from a handwritten sheet which Hamilton is purported to have slipped into a copy of the essays the day before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. This appeared in the 1810 collection of Hamilton’s works. Then, in 1818, came the first of a long line of editions “with the numbers written by Mr. Madison corrected by himself,” according to the publisher’s announcement. The two lists of authorship did not agree, and interested parties quickly chose sides.

Since neither Hamilton nor Madison, nor their respective publishers, made any significant change in the text of the essays themselves in printings beginning in 1802 and continuing to 1859, the authorship question would have been purely academic except for the touchy pride of one of Hamilton’s sons—John—who brought out a seven-volume collection of his father’s works in 1850-51 and who took particular pains to refute Madison’s “corrections” as to authorship.

Madison’s case was taken up by Henry B. Dawson, a well-known local historian in New York, as well as a bellicose editorial antagonist. Dawson’s 1863 edition touched off a dispute with a second Hamilton son, James, and with John Jay, a grandson of the Chief Justice. Inflamed by the hysteria of the Civil War, Jay charged Dawson with making a strong case for Madison, the Virginian, as part of a plot to encourage the secessionist doctrine of states’ rights. That Madison, the most confirmed federalist of the three original authors—and that the essays, the basic argument for incorporating the original sovereign states into a paramount national system—should have been attacked as subversive forces is eloquent testimony to the distorted passions both of war and of ancestor worship.

A vigorous though brief pamphlet campaign, which would have done credit to their ancestors in its fervor, was waged between Dawson on the one side and the second-generation James Hamilton and third-generation Jay on the other. Out of it came John Hamilton’s 1864 edition of The Federalist . Thereafter, until the end of the century, Hamilton and Dawson editions vied with each other through no less than twenty-nine printings, with the Hamilton publishers having the last word in the form of two further printings in 1904 and 1909. On the other hand, most of the twentieth century editors have tended to follow Dawson, and the dispute—though it has retired to the remote quarters of scholarly commentary—still continues.

The legacy of Publius was to extend to many lands, as the three Paris printings of the revolutionary era had forecast. Brazilian editions appeared in 1840 and 1887, a commentary in German in 1864, an Argentine translation in 1868. In most instances, the demand for a translation grew out of an internal movement for political reform along the lines of American constitutional theory expounded in the essays. Since the Second World War, editions have appeared in Mexico, Italy, and Austria. As for the continuing appeal of The Federalist to American scholars, this is attested by the fact that in the twentieth century a dozen different historians and political scientists have produced their own editions; they are still appearing to this very day.

Truly, the triumvirate of 1787 wrought better than they could have known when they dashed off the original letters to the citizens of New York. Their purpose was to secure adoption of the new Constitution. Their enduring achievement was the articulation of the basic theory upon which freedom under law became a reality in the United States.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.