- Published: 08 January 2012
In the above-noted resolution of the University of Virginia Board, The Federalist was lauded as "being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the U.S. on questions as to its genuine meaning." This referred to the Federal (framing) Convention of 1787 and to the State Ratifying Conventions of 1787-1788 which ratified, or adopted, the Constitution and thereby made it the fundamental law of the people. As Madison wrote Jefferson on February 8, 1825:
"The 'Federalist' may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution, as understood by the Body which prepared & the Authority which accepted it."
He here referred to the Federal (framing) Convention "which prepared"--and the State Ratifying Conventions "which accepted"--the Constitution.
The Federalist has long been famous as an authoritative volume of greatest pertinence to important governmental problems, especially those involving constitutional principles. Jefferson praised it highly in late 1788 in a letter to Madison written from Paris (where he was then the American Minister), saying that it is: ". . . in my opinion, the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written." Washington's high opinion of The Federalist, expressed from the standpoint of having presided over the Framing Convention and having read probably all current writings of any consequence about the proposed new Constitution, were expressed repeatedly in his correspondence and most interestingly in a letter to Hamilton (August 28, 1788):
"As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my Library. I have read every performance which has been printed on one side and the other of the great question lately agitated (so far as I have been able to obtain them) and, without an unmeaning compliment, I will say, that I have seen no other so well calculated (in my judgment) to produce conviction on an unbiased Mind, as the Production of your triumvirate. When the transient circumstances and fugitive performances which attended this Crisis shall have disappeared, That Work will merit the Notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society." (Emphasis per original.)
By "triumvirate," Washington referred to the three authors of The Federalist: Hamilton, Madison and Jay. All of the essays were published over the signature "Publius," in keeping with the custom of that time of using pen names in publishing political views; but the identity of the authors was a poorly kept secret.
Praised abroad over the generations, where it has been reprinted in various languages in different countries from time to time--for example, in France in 1792, in Brazil (in Portuguese) in 1840, in Argentina (in Spanish) in 1868, in Germany in 1864, and in 1911 in Britain in an edition designed for British readers--The Federalist has been so admired and prized in America that the domestic editions published are now counted in the dozens, several having appeared in recent years.
This book's 85 essays were written by Hamilton and Madison, two of the most distinguished leaders who had been members of the Framing Convention, and by John Jay--equally distinguished as a lawyer and political leader of New York, also in charge of foreign affairs under the Confederation in 1787, and in 1789 chosen by President Washington to be the first Chief Justice of the United States. Of these essays, Jay wrote five chiefly on foreign affairs, Hamilton wrote fifty one, and Madison wrote the remainder--a few with some data from Hamilton. Most of the essays were first published in a long series of articles in newspapers in New York City in 1787-1788 --commencing on October 27, 1787, and continuing at irregular intervals until mid-1788. (See page xxix, ante, as to authorship.)
They were presented as an authoritative and joint report of the thus well-publicized intent of the Framing Convention expressed in the Constitution and, therefore, of its original and true meaning; which is always controlling, subject to change by the people only by its amendment. Each one's contribution was acquiesced silently by his co-authors, in keeping with the joint-report nature of the essays. The authors' immediate purpose was to help to win support for its ratification, based upon sound understanding of its real meaning in keeping with this intent, and to dispel the confused thinking in this regard which was then widely prevalent due largely to uninformed assumptions about it. These essays were also published in book form (two volumes) in March and May, 1788 under the title, The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, written in favour of the New Constitution. As agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. Their publication in book form was Hamilton's self-appointed responsibility. (This volume's essays, written when there were no political parties such as came into being later, had no connection of course and should not be confused with the party created later and led by John Adams and Hamilton--called the Federalist Party--which strongly opposed, and was vigorously fought by, Jefferson and Madison as leaders of the Republican Party founded by Jefferson.)
In these articles Hamilton, Madison and Jay discussed comprehensively and authoritatively, in the light of both American and Old World history, the nature and significance of the fundamental principles underlying the American philosophy of Man-over-Government, as well as the actual intent with which the Constitution was framed--the intent expressed in its provisions. This philosophy and the Constitution's meaning cannot be understood adequately without understanding what is presented in The Federalist. Hence its vital importance today to all Americans desirous of being adequate defenders of the Constitution, of the Republic, of their own and the people's liberties, of the cause of safeguarding constitutionally limited government as the bulwark of Individual Liberty, and of the just heritage of the helpless children of today and of Posterity in America.
The true meaning of the Constitution, as intended by the Framing Convention, was well known to the members of the State Ratifying Conventions when they adopted it. This knowledge came partly through members of the latter Conventions who had been members of the Framing Convention or who were in touch with some of its members when the State Conventions were held between October 1787 and mid-1788. It also came through some dissemination of The Federalist articles after their initial publication in newspapers of New York City as well as in book form in the Spring of 1788. It is reasonable to assume, for instance, that copies of many if not most of these newspaper articles were promptly mailed by interested leaders in New York to similarly interested leaders in all of the States--especially those seeking ratification and able to inform the State Ratifying Conventions and others of the substance of these articles; also reasonable to assume that some of the articles were reprinted and circulated among leaders in the States. Note, for example, that in November and December 1787, Washington received from Hamilton and Madison copies of the newspaper essays published in that period and passed them on to a Richmond newspaper, through an intermediary, for republication; he also asked that he be sent copies of future essays, in this newspaper series, when published; and he wrote to Madison in February 1788 asking for several copies of the volume of those about to be republished in book form. (Letters: to Hamilton November 10, 1787; to David Stuart, in Richmond, November 30, 1787; also to Madison December 7, 1787, and February 5, 1788.) Another example is Hamilton's sending in May-June 1788 to Governor Randolph in Richmond, Virginia, 52 sets of the two volumes of these essays, in book form, for use during the Virginia Ratifying Convention--over which Randolph presided as chairman. Madison took a leading part in that Convention and he, too, of course had them available; and presumably some other members of the Convention also had copies (in either newspaper, or book, form). Evidence of The Federalist's contemporary use elsewhere has also been found.
The proceedings of the Framing Convention had been kept secret, in order to prevent unsound and distracting pressures from being applied to its members during their deliberations. As soon as they adjourned, however, in September 1787 and The Federalist articles began to appear in the following month, the public--and especially those who were soon to serve as members of the State Ratifying Conventions--commenced to gain fuller information about the background and meaning of the provisions of the proposed Constitution; that is, the meaning as intended by the Framing Convention as reported in these essays. Some Framers were also Ratifiers.
The meaning of the Constitution's provisions, as reported in The Federalist, is the same as was understood by the State Ratifying Conventions. This fact is fundamentally important because the true sanction and authority of the Constitution, as the people's basic law, stems from the actions of these Ratifying Conventions in adopting it as the sovereign people's specially chosen representatives, authorized to act for them in this regard--each State acting independently.
It is especially noteworthy, in connection with the Constitution as framed, that Madison stated in Congress in 1796 that "life and validity were breathed into it by the voice of the people, speaking through the several State [Ratifying] Conventions . . ."--that is, the understanding by these Ratifying Conventions of its meaning is controlling. He reiterated this in 1831 (letter to N. P. Trist), stating that it was the proceedings "of the State Conventions which gave it all the validity & authority it possesses." To the same effect, Chief Justice John Marshall stated for the Supreme Court in the 1819 McCulloch case (page 403 of opinion) that it is from these State Conventions that "the constitution derives its whole authority" as the basic law of the people. (The Framing Convention produced nothing but a draft of a proposed Constitution.) This was well understood by The Founders.
Note again the statement (page 148, ante) by Madison, in his 1825 letter to Jefferson, that The Federalist is "the most authentic" report of the meaning of the Constitution as understood and intended by both the Framing Convention and the State Ratifying Conventions.
Any adequate examination of the pertinent historical records will, it is believed, satisfy all competent and reliable scholars as to the soundness of the conclusion that, in the period of ratification as well as in the subsequent years, The Federalist was familiar to, and accepted by, those best able to judge--notably the leading and most active members of the Framing and Ratifying Conventions--as being a dependable and authoritative report, jointly by the authors (each acquiescing silently in the essays written by the others), of the intent of the Framing Convention expressed in the words of the Constitution and of its true meaning as understood and accepted by the State Ratifying Conventions. Here "the authors" refers primarily to Hamilton and Madison because Jay, due to illness, wrote only five essays (on foreign affairs in the main) and was not involved in intimate collaboration in this connection as were the other two authors.
The greatness of this volume is conceded by all who are qualified to judge, especially on the basis of competence of scholarship and intellectual integrity--with no axe to grind by way of misconstruction so as to serve some ulterior purpose. Its greatness is due in part to the fact that it was the first work in all history to define and discuss adequately the theory and realities of self-government through constitutionally limited government and of the principles of federated government: a federation of republics. This was done moreover in a thorough, comprehensive, realistic and authoritative manner, with adequate consideration of history's teachings in the field of government--duly respecting Man's experience as a guide, in keeping with the motto: "foresight through hindsight." It constitutes a unique and magnificent contribution to the science of government.
The Federalist has always been accepted by all who are qualified to judge (as specified above)--including the United States Supreme Court in scores of cases during the century and a half after 1787--not only as reporting correctly the original intent with which the Constitution had been framed and ratified and, therefore, its true meaning, but also as an authoritative exposition of the American philosophy (of constitutionally limited government, in a Republic) reflecting the essence of the principles, ideals and goals of the Declaration of Independence as best summarized in the Constitution's Preamble:
"WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." (Per original.)
Here the word "Liberty" serves as a principal connecting link between the two documents. The words: "We, the people of the United States," were intended to refer to the people of each of the States acting separately--through a State Ratifying Convention--and not to the people of the nation as a consolidated whole, as all competent and reliable authorities have always agreed; for example Madison in The Federalist number 39.
The United States Supreme Court's early opinion of The Federalist, as such a sound guide to the meaning of the Constitution, was expressed for example in the statements of Chief Justice Marshall, for the Court, in the 1819 case of McCulloch v. Maryland (page 433) and the 1821 case of Cohens v. Virginia (page 418); and see the 1895 Pollock case (pages 625, 627)--references being to pages of the opinions in the official reports. It is of special interest to note that, in this last-named case in 1895, the Supreme Court decided that the argument which had been presented by Hamilton as counsel in a 1796 case--arguing that a provision of the Constitution had a meaning which conflicted with its meaning as reported in 1787-1788 by him and his co-authors in The Federalist in keeping with the intent of the Framing Convention--had to be rejected because, said the Court (page 627 of opinion), the report in The Federalist was so authoritative that it "should not and cannot be disregarded." This was the consistent attitude of the Court toward The Federalist, as being authoritative and reliable in this regard, through the first century and a half of the life of the Republic.
The authors of The Federalist explained with great particularity the Constitution's plan for an enduring system of Man-over-Government (limited, decentralized government) which, as a dependable safeguard of the people's liberties, would serve well these American ideals and goals. However, these authors warned expressly and repeatedly that this would be true only if, and so long as, the people would require their public servants, the officials of the Federal government, to respect in practice the Constitution's limits on its powers; only if, and so long as, the people would prevent these public servants, these public trustees, from committing the gravest of civic crimes: usurpation of power--that is, misusing granted power, or grasping power in violation of, and beyond, the limits prescribed by the sovereign people in the Constitution, as amended by them.
Another important principle, which the authors of The Federalist made clear (notably in No. 43), deserves mention here. It is that the people's power to amend the Constitution as and when they see fit, to meet changing conditions, was expressed in the amending clause (Article V) and was intended to give it the needed flexibility, while preserving the necessary stability of the people's basic law and the federated system of government (featuring decentralized power through its division between a central government and State governments). This indicates the nonsensical, indeed preposterous, nature of any claim that usurpation of power is justified by the "rigidity" of the Constitution, especially in the light of the fact that when the people are ready for a particular amendment they will have it approved quickly--as in 1933 in about eleven months (the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th, or "Prohibition," Amendment); also in 1960-1961 in less than ten months (the 23rd Amendment). Any such claim--in effect that public servants, especially judges by "interpreting" the Constitution to suit themselves, may properly grasp power by usurpation--mocks the entire American philosophy and system of constitutionally limited government and amounts to assumption by these public servants of the role of the masters with the people treated as subject to the Will of these usurpers, in effect as their servants. Usurpation is, of course, never justifiable but always unconscionable--the end does not justify the means; and to tolerate it is, in reality, to sanction and foster the ultimate doom of constitutionally limited government and consequently the people's liberties--as well as Posterity's just heritage and the Republic--given enough time. This topic will be discussed later more fully concerning the role of the Supreme Court.
The Federalist also made clear a profound truth which refutes the fallacy that the Constitution is out-of-date, that it was suited only to the comparatively "simple" civilization of the period of The Founders: "the horse and buggy days." This truth is that these constitutional safeguards will always be necessary because they are designed to protect the people's liberties against the never-changing weaknesses of human nature in government; that, just as these weaknesses will never change, so the need for these safeguards can never change. This is all the more true because of the corresponding weaknesses of human nature among the electorate; these mutual and inter-related frailties of the people and of their public servants play upon and support each other to the ceaseless peril of Individual Liberty, as history proves. (Note again the very significant Jefferson quotation on page xx, ante.) Therein lies the key to sound understanding of the enduring value of the Constitution. It can, of course, fill its safeguarding role only if respected in practice--only if the people exercise not only vigilance but self-discipline by themselves respecting the Constitution and compelling their public servants to abide faithfully by the limits on their power as provided in this fundamental law (per their oath of office).
It is important to note that in The Federalist, especially numbers 33 and 78, Hamilton made perfectly clear The Framers' understanding and intent with regard to the controlling effect of the Constitution as the sovereign people's basic law, as the "supreme Law of the Land," in its original, true and always-controlling meaning: that is, in keeping with the intent with which the original instrument, and later each of its amendments, was framed and adopted. This point will be discussed more fully later. (The Appendix to this study-guide presents some excerpts from The Federalist pertinent to this topic.)
To understand the message of The Federalist is to understand, in its essential aspects, the traditional American philosophy and system of constitutionally limited government, of Man-over-Government through Rule-by-Law on the basis of the Constitution. This is why this unique volume is of enduring and inestimable value, of supreme importance, to all Americans of all generations--critically so with regard to the present generation's need of the knowledge required for the adequate and sound discharge of the daily duties of self-governing in keeping with the duty aspect of Individual Liberty-Responsibility.
(The text of The Federalist is available in bookshops in various editions including some in paperback form; but only those are dependable which reproduce the exact and complete text of the original essays as published initially in newspapers, or in book form in 1788 under Hamilton's supervision, and without any change by the editor unless clearly and expressly brought to the reader's attention in each and every instance. Any editor's comments merit cautious scrutiny.)
The foregoing indicates some of the main sources studied by the present author during his extensive research over many years in the numerous, authoritative writings of the period 1776-1787 pertinent to full understanding of the background and meaning of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution, including especially the voluminous writings of a number of the leading signers of these documents; also writings of many leaders of American political thought in the more extended period from 1750 to 1800. The records of the Framing Convention and of the State Ratifying Conventions in 1787-1788 are authoritative and invaluable sources in this connection.
Because of the importance of economic liberty--the economic aspect of the indivisible whole of Individual Liberty--it is noteworthy that two writings in the field of economics, of political economy, were looked upon with great respect and special favor by the generation of those who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One was Adam Smith's famous Wealth of Nations, first published on March 9, 1776. He was professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. The other was Jean-Baptiste Say's less well-known volume, A Treatise on Political Economy, first published in Paris in 1803. It was so popular in America that seven American editions, English translation, had been published by 1867. (Smith's book is readily available to the American people in bookshops, for example in the Modern Library edition.) Jefferson wrote of Smith's book that: "In political economy I think Smith's Wealth of Nations the best book extant . . ." (Letter to T. M. Randolph, 1790; title not italicized in the original.) On another occasion, after mentioning various writings, he wrote (letter to John Norveil, 1807) that:
"If your views of political inquiry go further, to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith's Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read, unless Say's Political Economy can be had, which treats the same subject on the same principles, but in a shorter compass & more lucid manner."
(Titles not italicized in the original. Several editions of Say's book are available in the Library of Congress. Full title of Smith's book is, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.)
The Federalist is especially enlightening with regard to a topic about which there is widespread confusion, now to be discussed. The volume needs, however, to be considered carefully in this regard in all of its pertinent parts--not merely this or that part separately--for full comprehension. This is true partly because each of the various essays (of newspaper-article length) which refers to the topic could often note only some particular aspect due to the need of brevity; also they were addressed to a public far better informed in this regard than is today's generation, therefore much knowledge could be assumed.