The truth about the Federalist Papers

1027-federalist-papers-1787-2Too many people today believe (and are taught to believe) that the Federalist Papers are the definitive guide to interpreting the original intent of the Constitution. Hardly anything could be further from the truth, though it has all the right hallmarks to appear as the truth. Despite this appearance, the truth is that the Federalist Papers were little more than propaganda aimed at persuading reluctant New York voters to accept a new centralized form of government they didn’t want. In the mean time, the serial publication of these persuasive pieces of genius marketing also provide a stall tactic desperately needed by the Federalist faction.

Even before the Constitutional Convention closed, forces both for and against it began to prepare for intense debate over ratification. Some states would greatly benefit from the proposed new government. These would likely ratify quickly with little discussion. Other states, however, had more to lose from a consolidated government. This consideration and other factors would combine to form powerful opposition to the proposed Constitution in the more populous and prosperous states. It would therefore take a strong campaign of public persuasion for the forces of centralized power—the Federalist or Nationalist party—to make headway.

Showdown in New York

A nearly impossible case in selling the new centralized form of government would come in New York. Though a primary architect and promoter of the Convention itself—Alexander Hamilton—had come from New York, the governor, state congress, and most of its people opposed ceding power and money to a distant capitol and interests other than their own. Governor George Clinton knew Hamilton’s position, and therefore planned to prevent him from advancing his ambitions. He sent two strong advocates of state sovereignty as delegates flanking Hamilton. These could outvote him at every point, thus neutralizing his schemes.

Only six weeks into the four-month Convention, however, the two faithful delegates, Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., realized that the Convention had already hopelessly exceeded its mandate merely to revise the Articles of Confederation. It had instead pursued the formation of an entirely new government with vastly greater powers over the states—especially new powers of taxation and legislation. Knowing Hamilton could do nothing without them (not having enough votes for a majority from the state), the two left the Convention disillusioned and in protest.

While they would wait several months for a strategic moment before making their dissent public, it seems they alerted Governor Clinton much earlier. Someone certainly had. Merely ten days after the close of the Convention, the proposed Constitution was published in the New York Journal for all the citizenry to read. In that same September 27, 1787 edition, an open letter to the citizens of New York bore a critique and solemn warning about the proposal. The letter was signed with the pseudonym “Cato.” The author was Governor George Clinton.

The name “Cato” was taken from Cato the Younger (d. 46 BC), the ancient Roman statesman known for his commitment to freedom and honesty. After Caesar crossed the Rubicon and usurped power from the Senate, Cato committed suicide. He would rather die than suffer the tyranny of Caesar’s military dictatorship. Governor Clinton now saw a group of similarly ambitious politicians usurping power from the States. He warned the people:

Deliberate, therefore, on this new national government with coolness; analyze it with criticism; and reflect on it with candor: if you find that the influence of a powerful few, or the exercise of a standing army, will always be directed and exerted for your welfare alone, and not to the aggrandizement of themselves . . . adopt it—if it will not, reject it with indignation—better to be where you are, for the present, than insecure forever afterwards. . . .(1) 

Within a week, the letter received a response in the newspaper. It came from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton, perhaps even from his pen. And what pen-name would the ambitious writer choose to oppose Cato? Unbelievably, it was “Caesar.” And just like the Caesar who crossed the Rubicon with military force, this young would-be Caesar brandished the threat of military takeover should the people not submit to the proposed government willingly. Referring to George Washington as “the American Fabius,” he urged Clinton to help the former general’s journey to the presidency of a new nation:

I would also advise him to give his vote . . . to the American Fabius; it will be more healthy for this country, and this state, that he should be induced to accept of the presidency of the new government, than that he should be solicited again to accept of the command of an army.(2)

Clinton denounced this idea to the people as a threat that “in case you do not acquiesce, he should be solicited to command an army to impose it on you.” In his second letter as Cato, he went on to remind them of the freedom they had just fought for:

Is not your indignation roused at this imperious style?—For what did you open the veins of your citizens and expend their treasure?—For what did you throw off the yoke of Britain and call yourselves independent?—Was it from a disposition fond of change, or to procure new masters?—if those were your motives, you have your reward before you—go,—retire into silent obscurity, and kiss the rod that scourges you—bury the prospects you had in store, that you and your posterity would participate in the blessings of freedom . . . let the rich and insolent alone be your rulers—perhaps you are designed by providence as an emphatic evidence of the mutability of human affairs, to have the shew of happiness only, that your misery may seem the sharper, and if so, you must submit. But, if you had nobler views, and you are not designed by heaven as an example—are you now to be derided and insulted?—Is the power of thinking, on the only subject important to you, to be taken away? And if perchance you should happen to dissent from Caesar, are you to have Caesar’s principles crammed down your throats with an army?—God forbid! . . .(3)

This indeed was a case of Caesar versus Cato, and the Governor intended to make it clear to all people that a small group of tyrants intended to grab power over them. He wrote:

The Convention too, when in session, shut their doors to the observations of the community, and their members were under an obligation of secrecy—Nothing transpired. . . .

For the sole and express purpose [of revising the Articles of Confederation] a Convention of delegates is formed in Philadelphia:—what have they done? Have they revised the confederation, and has Congress agreed to their report?—neither is the fact.—This Convention have exceeded the authority given to them, and have transmitted to Congress a new political fabric, essentially and fundamentally distinct from it, in which the different states do not retain separately their sovereignty and independency, united by a confederated league—but one entire sovereignty—a consolidation of them into one government. . . .

[T]he Convention had taken on themselves a power which neither they nor the states had a right to delegate to them. . . . it originated in an assumption of power . . . founded on usurpation. . . .

[A]nd yet you are unhesitatingly to acquiesce, and if you do not, the American Fabius, if we may believe Caesar, is to command an army to impose it.(4)

Not only did Caesar oppose Cato and the people of New York, he had clearly opposed acknowledging God himself. This is consistent with Hamilton’s actions just previously in Philadelphia. By late June the Convention had run into rough proceedings as states and individuals vied for power over each other’s interests. At this point, Benjamin Franklin gave his famous speech on Providence which ended with a motion that each future session begin with appeal to heaven. It was Hamilton who spoke in opposition to prayer: the Convention members were more than adequate in themselves and therefore Hamilton “did not see the necessity of calling in foreign aid!”(5)  Further, it would signal to the public that the Convention had encountered “embarrassments and dissentions.”(6)

Caesar’s final letter against Cato would reveal a deeper animosity to religion: he wished to see America as a glorious empire destined to steal power from and begin the decline of Christian nations:

When this glorious work is accomplished, what may America not hope to arrive at? I will venture to prophesy that the day on which the Union under the new government shall be ratified by the American States, that that day will begin an era which will be recorded and observed by future ages, as a day which the Americans had marked by their wisdom in circumscribing the power and ascertaining the decline of the ancient nations in Christendom.(7)

Hamilton’s faction did not seem to have the upper hand in this rhetorical battle. It was playing the role of the tyrant, Caesar, against the just lover of freedom, Cato. It was threatening a military dictatorship, or at best a civil war, and it opposed Christianity at this time. It seemed to play the part of a tyrant well. New York was still a long and difficult battle to come for ratification.

The Federalists’ Strategy

Another long protracted battle, however, over ratification would occur in Virginia. It was the largest state by population, and the wealthiest. Virginians had the most to lose once a central government began taxing commerce in order to pay down a consolidated national debt. Smaller states that had less ability to raise their own revenue—and thus a more difficult time paying off their debts—naturally desired to see their burdens assumed by the wealthier. Thus, the two largest and wealthiest states—Virginia and New York—balked at the proposed new government.

This also opened a very public tension during ratification. Each state watched the other, and other states watched the two biggest. If either New York or Virginia refused to ratify early on, the other would likely follow, and the rest would have little benefit from joining at all. Thus if New York or Virginia rejected the Constitution very early, it could thwart the whole Federalist usurpation.

With the clear voices of opposition in New York, the picture did not look promising early on for the Federalists. Similar opposition arose immediately in Virginia. Despite one of its own delegates, James Madison, having authored the majority of the proposed Constitution’s text, and another being George Washington himself, other delegates opposed it. George Mason and Edmund Randolph had refused to sign it, and Mason fought it openly during ratification. Patrick Henry had opposed the Convention from the beginning: though asked to participate, he refused even to go.

The two most ambitious of the Federalist leaders, however, resided in these two important states—Hamilton in New York and Madison in Virginia. They understood the importance of their states’ positions as early as the Convention itself, and thus they planned the way best to pressure them into ratification: reduce the number of states required to ratify, and delay the ratification process in the important states (New York and Virginia) as long as possible to keep them from rejecting it early on.

The first measure had been secured already in the Convention—the Federalists needed only nine states to ratify. But would there be enough time for nine states to shuffle in before the pro-state forces in New York or Virginia could set the dominoes tumbling against ratification? The race to delay was on.

Knowing that nine of the smaller states would likely sign up quickly barring any major setback in a major state, Madison and Hamilton immediately set to the work of preventing any such setback from occurring. They planned a lengthy propaganda campaign aimed at publically glorifying the proposed Constitution and vilifying those who opposed it. If they could keep their respective states in deliberation for a while, enough of the other states would ratify to turn the tables of political pressure on New York and Virginia. Once all or most of the other states unified under a Constitution, New York and Virginia would face isolation, contempt, and possibly even armed confrontation should they continue to stand out.

Madison clearly expressed this strategy in a letter to George Washington shortly after the Convention had closed. On October 28, 1787, he wrote,

There is at present a very strong probability that nine States at least will pretty speedily concur in establishing it. What will become of the tardy remainder? They must be either left as outcasts from the society to shift for themselves, or be compelled to come in, or must come in of themselves when they will be allowed no credit for it.(8)

[By “compelled to come in,” Madison meant by force of arms. We have seen Caesar above making similar threats. It was not uncommon, apparently. In the Convention itself, Governeur Morris had declared, “This country must be united. If persuasion does not unite, the sword will.”(9)  Morris wrote to Washington merely two days after Madison stating that his own state of New Jersey so unanimously approved that it would certainly stand ready should the situation in New York require “something more than votes.”(10) According to the speech of General William Thompson in the Massachusetts ratifying convention, there was varied concern about how to treat potentially non-ratifying states; while he himself argued against arms, he related that “Some cry out, Force them.”(11)

Madison and Hamilton would thus strategize to keep New York in deliberation until the requisite nine states would ratify, hopefully including Virginia. For the day when it would finally capitulate, the two established a message relay team of riders to shuttle the news northward as quickly as possible.(12)

Meanwhile, the conscientious New York delegates were not done. A few days prior to the first session of the state congress, Yates and Lansing sent a letter to Governor Clinton disclosing their reasons for dissent against the proposed Constitution. When congress finally reached a quorum on January 11, 1788, the Governor published the letter to them along with the proposed document.

Already by that time, five states had ratified the Constitution—the largest of these, Pennsylvania, with considerable opposition. But it would take five months before pressure would mount enough for Virginia to pass; for now it was still unclear whether it would. New York remained strongly opposed—nearly two to one—against the Federalist takeover.

The Federalist Papers Project

At this point, Hamilton changed the New York Federalists’ public facade. He would not play proud Caesar versus Cato—the role of the warmongering, dictatorial Emperor. Rather, he conceived a series of essays under the name “Publius,” after Publius Valerius Publicola—an aristocrat of early Rome who overthrew a tyrannical monarchy and established the Roman Republic in 509 BC. In other words, instead of appearing as the champion of Empire, Hamilton now promoted himself as the leader of republican ideals.

With this new front, Hamilton planned a project for the composition of several essays aimed at persuading the public toward their view, and thus designed to win the elections for delegates to the New York ratifying convention. Aside from creating as much delay as possible, these men had the short-term goal of installing Federalist-friendly delegates in the very seats that would decide on ratification.

Hamilton recruited Madison, Governeur Morris, and future Chief Justice John Jay. Morris declined; the other three began writing profusely, but Jay soon fell ill after four essays and could only return to the project much later for one more. The remaining 80 of the 85 essays belong to Madison and to the mastermind of the project, Hamilton. Of these 80, 51 most likely came from Hamilton’s pen.

Thus were born the Federalist Papers: an essay campaign to exalt the glories of union, criticize the proponents of the existing Confederation, promote the necessity of a strong, energetic government (as was proposed in the Constitution, just by coincidence), associate “Federalism” with the “true republican principles” as Hamilton and Madison promised them, and then provide persuasive commentary upon the proposed Constitution article-by-article.(13)

These essays were little more than propaganda. Despite carrying the appearance of the definitive interpretations of the Constitution—as they are still referenced even today—they served to pay lip-service to the concerns of those wary of the Federalist/Unionist takeover, and to refute their arguments with the appearance of authority and finality.

They succeeded in their goal. Though produced primarily for the New York battle over ratification, supporters of Federalism raved over the essays in many states. Hamilton and Madison then decided to create a “veritable debater’s handbook for advocates of the Constitution.”(14) They enlarged their original designs for the essays and began to address each article of the proposed Constitution point-by-point. The result came to be titled The Federalist Papers.

This lengthy serial publication helped sustain the long argumentative delay Hamilton and Madison wished for. They began the project in October 1787, and the final eight of the 85 essays appeared in book form on May 28, 1788, although these last also appeared in newspapers through the middle of August. New York continued debate; but with Virginia finally succumbing on June 25, 1788, the war was all but over. New York would not desire to stand alone outside the union of twelve. A mere month later, New York followed in ratification by a close margin of 30 for and 27 against.


Does this mean that the Federalist Papers provide no help in understanding the original intent of the Constitution at all? Not necessarily. But it means that whenever we read them, we must first and foremost understand them in their own original context of political spin. This means that many of the promises and interpretations made by Hamilton and Madison should not be accepted as thoroughly sincere, and thus not necessarily reflective of the reality of the Constitution they were fiercely promoting (for ulterior motives, we might add). For such reality, we must look at the subsequent acts of tyranny Hamilton’s theory of loose construction has brought in its wake, and not the highly political promises that preceded it. In other words, the Constitution should be judged by its fruits—the fruits of Marshall, Holmes, Brandeis, and even now Roberts, in addition to the many, many Congresses—and not by the words of the serpents who persuaded us to eat that fruit.

  1. In Storing, 2:105–6.()
  2. Ford, Essays, 285. Fabius Maximus was the Roman general who won his wars gradually through guerilla tactics. Instead of meeting superior forces head-on, he broke into small bands and executed numerous small sorties, slowly wearing down the enemy’s forces and will to fight. George Washington had used similar tactics against the British during the American War for Independence.()
  3. Storing, 2:107.()
  4. Storing, 108–9.()
  5. William Steele to Jonathan D. Steele, Sept. 1825, Farrand, Records, 3:472.()
  6. Farrand, Records, 1:452; see also Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 235.()
  7. Ford, Essays, 291.()
  8. James Madison to George Washington, October 28, 1787, The Writings of James Madison, 9 vol., ed. by Gaillard Hunt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 5:42.()
  9. Elliot, Debates, 5:276.()
  10. Elliot, Debates, 1:505.()
  11. Elliot, Debates, 2:61.()
  12. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution,” Political Science Quarterly 76/2 (Jun 1961): 215.()
  13. Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), 107-8, for this and much of the preceding.()
  14. Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), 108.()

Consider partnering with us