The Federalist Papers and Federalism The Federalist Papers were mostly the product of two young men: Alexander Hamilton of New York, age 32, and James Madison of Virginia, age 36. Both men sometimes wrote four papers in a single week. An older scholar, John Jay, later named as first chief justice of the Supreme Court, wrote five of the papers. Hamilton, who had been an aide to Washington during the Revolution, asked Madison and Jay to help him in this project. Their purpose was to persuade the New York convention to ratify the just-drafted Constitution. They would separately write a series of letters to New York newspapers, under the pseudonym, “Publius.”
In the letters, they would explain and defend the Constitution. Hamilton started the idea and outlined the sequence of topics to be discussed, and addressed most of them in fifty-one of the letters. Madison’s Twenty-nine letters have proved to be the most memorable in their balance and ideas of governmental power. It is not clear whether The Federalist Papers, written between October 1787 and May 1788 had any effect on New York’s and Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution. Encyclopedia Britannica defines Federalism as, “A model of political organization that unites independent states within a larger political framework while still allowing each state to maintain its own political integrity” (712).
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Having just won a revolution against an oppressive monarchy, the American colonists were willing to replace it with another monarchy style of government. On the other hand, their experience with the disorganization under the Articles of Confederation, due to unfair competition between the individual states, made them a little more receptive to an increase in national powers.
A number of Federalist Papers argued that a new kind of balance, never achieved elsewhere was possible. The Papers were themselves a balance or compromise between the nationalist ideas of Hamilton, who wrote more for the commercial interests of New York, and the uneasiness of Madison, who shared the skepticism of distant authority widely held by Virginia farmers. In American Government and Politics Today, Madison proposed that instead of the absolute sovereignty of each state under the Articles of Confederation.
The states would retain residual sovereignty in all areas which did not require national concern. The very process of ratification of the Constitution, he argued, symbolized the concept of federalism (77). He said: This assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and individual States to which they respectively belong…
The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a national but a federal act (qtd in American 85). The Federalist Papers also provide the first specific mention we have of the idea of checks and balances as a way of restricting governmental power and preventing its abuse. Both Hamilton and Madison regarded this as the most powerful form of government.
As conceived, a popularly elected House of Representatives would be checked and balanced by a more conservative Senate picked by state legislatures. (in 1913 the 17th Amendment changed this to the popular election of senators). Hamilton observed in letter number 78 that, “A democratic assembly is to be checked by a democratic senate and both these by a democratic chief magistrate” (318). In what many historians agree is his most brilliant essay, number 78. Hamilton defended the Supreme Court’s right to rule upon the constitutionality of laws passed by national or state legislatures. This historically crucial power of judicial review, he argued, was an appropriate check on the legislature, “The pestilential breath of faction may poison the fountains of justice” (317).
Hamilton rejected the British system of allowing the Parliament to override by majority vote any court decision it finds to its dislike. “The courts of justice are to be considered the bulwarks of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments” (318). Only the difficult process of amending the Constitution or the gradual transformation of its members to another viewpoint could reverse the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that document. In the most original of The Federalist Papers, Number 10. Madison addressed this double challenge.
His main concern was the need, “To break and control the violence of faction” (36). Meaning political parties. He regarded political party’s as the greatest danger to popular government. Madison wrote: I understand a number of citizens… are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. These passions or interests that endanger the rights of others may be religious or political or, most often, economic. Factions may divide along lines of haves and have-nots, creditors and debtors, or according to the kinds of property possessed. (37)
The idea of separating powers among the various branches of government to avoid the corruption of concentrated power falls under the larger category of checks and balances. But The Federalist Papers see another virtue in the separation of powers, namely, an increase in governmental efficiency and effectiveness. By being limited to certain functions, the different branches of government become good at doing a few things rather than doing all of the things.
The observations in The Federalist Papers about government, society and politics are not easy to locate. Many of these papers sound old in their ideas. However, The Federalist Papers remain essential to anyone interested in the constant questions of political theory and the ideas raised by Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Joseph Sobran, a syndicated columnist, summed up federalism with one profound sentence.
“The federal government was supposed to be kept on a short leash, lest it claims powers never given to it” (1).
“Federalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1994: 712.
Schmidt, Steffen, Mack C. Shelly II, Barbara A. Bardes. American Government and Politics Today. New York: west publishing, 1995-1996 ed.
Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist Paper 78.” Feder16.txt.
Http://instructors.datatech.com/buisness/xx733.html. 317-319. Madison, James. “Federalist Paper 10.” Feder16.zip.
Http://instructors.datatech.com/buisness/xx733.html. 36-39. Sobran, Joseph. “Founding fathers thought the federal government should be kept on a short leash.”
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