This Saturday marks the 225th birthday of The Federalist, the series of essays that helped make our Constitution a reality. A look back at the papers shows that their chief architect, Alexander Hamilton, could be called our “founding blogger.”
Better known today as The Federalist papers, the essays caused a sensation when they started appearing in October 1787 as a response to a rival set of essays.
The ink on the Constitution was barely dry when it was sent to the 13 states for approval, and that approval was far from a done deal.
There was considerable opposition to many key points, which were voiced by three delegates who refused to sign the final document. The concerns sounded an argument we still hear today: too much power would be held in the hands of the federal government.
A group known as the anti-Federalists started to publish an anonymous series of newspaper essays condemning the proposed Constitution as taking away the power of the states. Authors included George Clinton and Robert Yates, two New York state political figures, who wrote under the names Brutus and Cato. (Robert Yates was even a delegate of the Constitutional Convention but left before the document was completed and signed.)
Their political rival in New York, Hamilton, wrote the first of his many Federalist essays on October 27, 1787, in what many current computer users would recognize as an online feud—Founding Father style.
The sides ran rival essays in newspapers, debating each point in the Constitution. In the end, Hamilton and his two writing partners, James Madison and John Jay, got the upper hand in the contest. The anti-Federalists won one key point, forcing the issue of a Bill of Rights as an amended part of the Constitution, after its ratification.
After his death in 1804, the secret was revealed about Hamilton’s role as the primary writer (as Publius) of The Federalist. Of course, being Hamilton, he claimed nine more essays than he actually wrote in his personal list of writings.
But scholars agree that Hamilton authored at least 50 of the 85 articles that make up The Federalist.
And it was the first Federalist essay that set the tone for the extended argument that would convince enough states to make the Constitution a reality.
Link: Read Federalist No. 1
Hamilton argues that the upcoming series of essays will convince readers that the new form of government under the Constitution was active and in the best interest of the people, while the system under the Articles of Confederation was passive and couldn’t preserve the Union that the new nation had fought for.
“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” Hamilton argued.
Perhaps the most interesting and enduring quote from Federalist No. 1 is in its opening paragraph, where Hamilton says the battle over the Constitution is about “the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.”
The fact that Hamilton saw America as a potential global empire in 1787 wasn’t a mere coincidence.
In the end, Hamilton’s constant stream of essays, writings, and speeches would partially contribute to his political and personal downfall.
But the legacy of The Federalist remains strong today, as federal courts still consider the intent of its authors—Hamilton, Madison, and Jay—when they review key legal points.
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