The Federalist Papers

Generations of people—scholars and polidcians alike—have believed the Federalist papers to be the finest explanation of the principles that underlie the American government and the most accurate analysis of the intentions of those who designed it. More than that, the Federalist papers seem to many to have a timeless, transhistorical quality. The New York jurist Chancellor Kent con¬cluded that they were superior to any work on the principles of free government, and that, he said, included the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Milton, Locke, and Burke. It is still, Benjamin Wright, a distinguished modern authority on the sub-ject, wrote, “by far the greatest book on politics ever written in Amer¬ica”—written, that is, on politics as such, not merely on our own national brand of politics.
Informed Europeans agreed. When the Spanish ambassador to France confessed to Talleyrand that he did not know The Federalist, the foreign minister wasted no sympathy on him: “Then read it,” he told the envoy curtly, “read it.” Later, Guizot said The Federalist “was the greatest work known to him” in applying the principles of gov¬ernment to practical administration. And in England, a writer in Blackwood’s Magazine, echoing views in the Edinburgh Review, wrote that The Federalist may be called, “seriously, reverently, the Bible of Republicanism … which for comprehensiveness of design, strength, clearness, and simplicity has no parallel” even in the works of Mon¬tesquieu and Aristotle.
But the Federalist papers were not always thought of as such a profound document, especially by the small number of the authors’ contemporaries who are known to have read the papers as they appeared. The Antifederalists, of course, who were determined to prevent the adoption of the Constitution as it had been submitted, challenged the Federalist papers’ arguments when they did not simply dismiss them out of hand—as one Antifederalist did who said The Federalist would “jade the brain of any poor sinner” and another did by claiming that The Federalist had mistaken “sound for argu¬ment … accumulated myriads of unmeaning sentences, and mechan¬ically endeavored to force conviction by a torrent of misplaced words.” And while many of the Federalists praised the papers, some of them too had doubts. Washington’s former secretary, for example, the Federalist judge A. C. Flanson, conceded that the papers were penetrating in part and “ingenious,” but he confessed that he found them sophistical in some places, obvious in others, and throughout simply tiresome: they do not “force the attention,” he wrote, “rouze the passions, or thrill the nerves.”
The paradoxes multiply the closer one looks. The papers are assumed to have been a collaborative effort by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay; but in fact the authors worked quite independendy. Madison and Hamilton began but then quickly stopped reviewing each other’s papers before they were published, and there is no evidence that one writer’s work was ever revised on the advice of either of the others. While there was broad agreement on fundamental points and an acknowledgment of each author’s particular concerns, there was no “special allotment,” Madison wrote, “of the different parts of the subject to the several writers” and no concurrence on the weight to be given the various issues. “Frequently one half of ‘Publius’ [Hamilton or Madison] would not know what the other half said until he read the article in the news¬paper.” At one point, Madison and Hamilton appeared to disagree so strongly that John Quincy Adams said they were writing what he called “rival dissertations.” One modern historian has diagnosed the papers as suffering from “a split personality,” others have said its trouble is intellectual “schizophrenia.” Madison himself admitted that the authors had distinct differences “in the general complexion of their political theories,” and had no desire “to give a positive sanc¬tion to all the doctrines and sentiments of the other [s].” None of the writers were “mutually answerable for all the ideas of each other.” Some later commentators have concluded that the papers are simply a work of political rhetoric written to gloss over the compromises of the Constitution and to make that document look consistent; still others have claimed that in terms of systematic political theory the papers are trivial. However that may be (and we shall return to that) there is no doubt that the authors had different kinds of commit¬ments to the project. Of the eighty-five papers, John Jay wrote only five; Madison, twenty-nine; Hamilton, fifty-one. Hamilton was the manager of the project throughout. It was he who proposed the series in the first place, and it was he who published the first thirty-six papers together as volume I of the book edition and who added eight new papers of his own to those that had appeared in newspapers to round out the second volume.

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