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Federalist Papers

by James Madison

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The second American Revolution came right on the heels of the first—so quickly, in fact, that it attracts little notice today. Many modern Americans have the vague idea that right after America won her independence the Constitution magically appeared and poof!—George Washington was in the White House.

Of course there was no White House then, nor was the seat of the federal government in Washington, D.C. More to the point, the United States Constitution was not ratified until 1788, and before that America was governed according to the Articles of Confederation.

The revolution that initiated the move from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution was not bloody, but it was hard-fought. Many Americans, having just overthrown a British government that they viewed as heavy-handed, were quite content to exist in a loose confederation of states with very weak central power. But this arrangement was so slack that it barely amounted to a union at all. For example, Article Two of the Articles of Confederation declared that “Each state retains its sovereignty,” which pretty much guaranteed that each state would be its own small nation, with little interest in preserving a union.

Men like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison knew the confederation was too weak, and hoped that the states would adopt a constitution that strengthened the federal government. In order to convince their fellow citizens of this need, they began a letter-writing campaign to New York newspapers, with each man using the pen-name “Publius.” These letters were later numbered and collected as the book we have today, The Federalist Papers.

Though you can make a strong case that The Federalist Papers failed in their primary purpose—to persuade New Yorkers to elect people sympathetic to the Constitution as delegates to the ratifying convention—the Papers did earn the distinction of being the most widely-read defense of the Constitution, and so came to be viewed as “the most authoritative interpretation of the Constitution once it was adopted,” according to editor Garry Wills.

Students only have time to read two of the most important letters, numbers 10 and 51, both by Madison. As they read, they should listen for the echoes of political theorists like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and they should bear in mind just how narrowly America became the “United” States.

by Jeff Baldwin