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The Federalist

Daniel J. Elazar

The Federalist, sometimes referred to as The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, is the classic work of American political philosophy and the classic exposition of the principles of modern federation (called since the publication of The Federalist by the generic term "federalism") based on appropriate federal practices. The Federalist is perhaps unique in the annals of political philosophy in that it is a collection of eighty-five essays, each written by a separate author but published collectively under the pen name "Publius" as a series of articles in the newspapers of New York state in 1787 and 1788. They were part of the campaign by the federalist supporters of the proposed Constitution of the United States drafted in Philadelphia over the spring and summer of 1787 and placed before state ratification conventions elected for that explicit purpose -- in this case by the voters of the State of New York.

The Federalist was written in what was probably the only age in which there existed a sufficient newspaper reading public with the level of literacy and political interest that would make these essays appropriate for that medium, the period in the late eighteenth century when educated people still were expected to read and understand the King James version of the Bible even if they had turned much of their attention from religious to political matters and could bring those skills to bear on considering issues of public policy. Because the essays were written for newspapers to advocate ratification of the proposed new constitution, the essays have a good deal of the polemical in them. Indeed, one of the things that is most impressive about them is the degree to which they are seriously philosophic in the context of their polemic. As such they have entered the canon of great works of political philosophy and at the same time need to be read with careful attention to what is emphasized, what may be overemphasized, and what may be left out for the sake of the polemic.

The original essays were published between October 1787 and March 1788 not only as individual essays in different newspapers. The first collection entitled The Federalist included only the first thirty-six essays, but it was already published in March 1788. A second volume containing the remaining essays was published in May of the same year as The Federalist, Volume Second. This set of books, still very much in demand by collectors, included all eighty-five essays including the final eight which had not yet been published in newspapers but were between June 14 and August 16, 1788. From then on, The Federalist was republished regularly but a definitive edition did not appear until 1961 with the publication of Jacob E. Cooke's The Federalist (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1961) which is generally accepted as such today. The most popular edition in use today, however, is that of Clinton Rossiter, published by the New American Library (1961) as The Federalist Papers. The Federalist raises most if not all of the critical questions of political thought, especially with regard to the combination of self-rule and shared rule that lies at the heart of the federal idea. Among the principles it emphasizes are:

1. The idea that sovereignty is vested in the people, not in any state or state institution. Therefore its exercise can be divided through the delegation of specific powers to different governments.

2. The difference between federation and confederation lies in the fact that, in a federation, within the sphere of powers delegated by the people to the federal government, that government is not only supreme but can act directly on the people who are citizens of the federation as well as the individual states comprising it.

3. The instrument through which people delegate powers to the several governments is the constitution of the whole, to which they must consent and which is best adopted either through their direct action or through their representatives and which then becomes the supreme law of the land.

4. Through federation, a people can establish an extended republic without eliminating or seriously weakening local self-government. The virtue of an extended republic lies in that the factions contesting for power are many and are not confined to two -- the richer and the poorer elements -- as they are in small republics, to the detriment of the survival of the latter. In an extended republic a multitude of interests will invariably prevent the establishment of any permanent majority but rather keep majorities transient based on coalitions of interests that join together to achieve specific goals. This is a security for the maintenance of republican liberty.

5. In an extended republic government must be through representatives which at one and the same time allows the people to be enfranchised but provides means through representative government to maintain a system of checks and balances so as to prevent popular passions from overwhelming prudential decisions and destroying republican liberty and republican government.

6. Republican checks and balances are vital for republican government because they provide "republican remedies for republican diseases" (No. 51). No longer do people have to rely upon the mixed regime of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy embodied in different institutions of the polity to gain proper balance. Through republican checks and balances in an extended federal republic the appropriate distribution of powers can all be republican in character but based upon different elements of the republican principle, thereby enabling, in the worst case, "ambition to counteract ambition," and in the best, to reach agreement among a multiplicity of interests on various public policy goals.

7. Thus true federal republicanism (later federal democracy) is based on popular representative institutions serving governmental arenas of different sizes whereby each arena is necessary and legitimate for its purposes and none are more or less important ("higher or lower") per se.

8. These devices at times involve "auxilliary precautions" which include dispersed and extended majorities, requiring majorities constituted differently for different purposes, including greater majorities for matters of greater constitutional import and broader majorities for matters of greater constitutional and policy import.

The Federalist is a fully modern work in that while it draws upon many examples from history, particularly of the problems of confederations and why they failed, it does not even once cite the Bible or biblical examples as part of its argument and thus is a thoroughly secular work, this at a time when almost every other proponent or opponent of the American Revolution and constitution made extensive use of biblical texts as examples.

The polemical dimension of The Federalist was manifested in the sleight of hand that its authors used to seize the word "federalist," which until that time had meant a partisan of confederacy, for their own purposes and at times in the way they structured their arguments about historical confederations. Yet at the same time that they sought to limit government, they also sought to combine "the requisite ability and energy in government, with the inviable attention due to liberty, and the Republican form" (No. 37). The Federalist argues that "the genius of Republican liberty, seems to demand of one side, not only that all powers should be derived from the people; but, that those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and that, even during this short period, the trust should be placed not in a few, but in a number of hands. Stability, on the contrary, requires, that the hands, in which power is lodged, should continue for a length of time, the same."

Overall, The Federalist rests its case on a very deep sense of realism that tries never to expect too much from people, either the general public or their leaders. They put the matter thus: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience taught mankind the necessity of auxilliary precautions" (No. 51).

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