The Federalist Papers 2

There was something helter-skelter about the whole enterprise: there are “violations of method,” Hamilton confessed in the preface to the book edition, “and repetitions of ideas which cannot but displease a critical reader.” Which is hardly surprising, in view of the circumstances. Hamilton wrote the first number on board a river sloop traveling from Albany to Manhattan. The seventy-seven papers that were first published in newspapers appeared twice a week, then four times a week, and so had to be written at great speed. Some were simply dashed off to meet the printers’ deadlines. Madi¬son later wrote that often “whilst the printer was putting into type parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and to be furnished in time for the press.” During the most intense period of the work, Madison, an active member of the Continental Congress then meeting in New York, and Hamilton, busy in his law practice, were both writing an essay every three or four days. In six months the authors wrote and published an average of 1,000 words a day; between October 1787 and May 1788 Hamilton and Madison wrote for publication 175,000 words. In their haste they understandably and necessarily drew on—at times copied—things they had written before. Without this prepared material, Madison later confessed, the papers could not have been written in time to be effective. Much of the most famous of the papers, No. 10, by Madison, was largely taken from a letter he had written to Jefferson a month earlier and from his “Vices of the Political System” written seven months before that. Three other papers by Madison (Nos. 18-20) were largely lifted from the reading notes on ancient and modern confederacies he had made a year before in preparation for the Constitutional Conven¬tion. Similarly, Hamilton took much of the design and some of the substance of his early contributions to the series from an elaborate speech he had delivered at the Philadelphia Convention. And some of the individual papers are not essays in themselves but sections of extended discourses broken off for the convenience of semiweekly newspaper publication. A block of twenty-one consecutive Federalist papers (Nos. 37-58) that Madison published over five weeks when Hamilton was attending the New York Supreme Court session (over 150 pages in the modern book editions) are simply sequential seg¬ments of a single, long, well-structured essay. Newspaper readers would have had to have collected the pieces as they appeared and to have saved them in order to read them together as the coherent unit they are.
Far from an integrated, systematic treatise on basic principles of political theory produced in calm contemplation, the Federalist papers were polemical essays directed to specific institutional proposals writ¬ten in the heat of a fierce political battle which every informed person knew would determine the future of the new nation. Yet gen¬erations of scholars, students, lawyers, and judges have approached the Federalist papers as if they were a formal, carefully deliberated discourse of basic theory. Every phrase in the Federalist papers has been studied by scholars for its possible meanings, and the Supreme Court, in decisions that affect the lives of all Americans, has increasingly accepted the papers as a uniquely reliable source for the mean¬ing of the Constitution. In the 210 years between the Court’s first ses¬sion and January 2000, there are records of 291 citations in the Court’s opinions: 1 in the eighteenth century, 58 in the nineteenth century, 38 in the first half of the twentieth century, and no less than 194 in the second half. Analysis of the citations shows their uses by both liberal and conservative justices and litigants on a remarkably broad range of issues, from banking and taxation to the prohibition of alcohol, from term limits to piracy, and from slavery to presiden¬tial election laws. At times the justices have considered the papers important enough to challenge each other’s interpretations of partic¬ular passages in them in the course of their written opinions.5 There is now a concordance of The Federalist—something one usually asso¬ciates with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare—in which every use of every word in the eighty-five essays except articles, pronouns, and the verb “to be” is listed out, together with the words that pre¬cede and follow it, to enable students to grasp through verbal context every nuance that might be found in what these three very busy politicians wrote.

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