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The Federalist Papers: No. 1

On this day in 1787, “Publius” published an essay defending the Constitution in several New York newspapers.

Eventually, 85 of these essays would be published. Each defended a different aspect of the new Constitution that had just been proposed to the states. Collectively, these essays came to be known as “The Federalist Papers.”

To put these papers into perspective, we have to remember that Americans were not then sure what to think of the Constitution that had just been proposed to them. The Constitutional Convention had been conducted in secrecy, behind closed doors. This rule of secrecy had been adopted so that all delegates would feel free to speak their mind, but most people didn’t know that. Instead, they worried that the proposed Constitution was a plan to subvert republican principles of government. They also worried that the government created would be too strong and would strip Americans of their liberties. They had, after all, only recently won their freedom from Britain. Why would they give away their hard-earned freedom so quickly and so easily?

The papers were anonymous, and their authorship was not known at the time. Today, we know that the task of writing the papers was split among three men: John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The first paper was written by Hamilton. It laid the groundwork for the papers that were to follow, and it spoke of the importance of the debate that was to be had at the state ratification debates and among the American people. We were to decide on a new form of government.

Hamilton noted: “The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.”

Thomas Jefferson later included the Federalist Papers as part of the curriculum at the University of Virginia. The Federalist Papers, collectively, were described as “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 United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning.”

Of course, readers of this page will know that the Federalist Papers were part of a debate between two sides. Many so-called “anti-Federalists” wrote their own essays, which were also published in local newspapers. The anti-Federalists argued against adoption of the Constitution. How wonderful that our founding generation was so active, interested, and involved in considering the principles upon which this country would be founded.

If only the Federalist Papers and the anti-Federalist Papers were required readings in our school today.