Introduction to My Review of The Federalist Papers:
After reading The Anti-Federalist Papers and What the Anti-Federalists were For, I was left feeling like I was missing half of the equation. Sure, I understood the Anti-Federalist side of things reasonably well for someone of my age, although I still have much to learn. But I didn’t really understand or appreciate the fullness and complexity of the Federalist arguments that formed the bedrock of the Age of Federalism.
Like before reading What the Anti-Federalists were For, I was basing my knowledge mainly off rumors and half-truths. Not firsthand reading and examination. So, I set out to read The Federalist Papers and create a review of The Federalist Papers for y’all to enjoy and learn from.
I am very glad that I did. Doing so left with a much fuller view and understanding of early American political thought and how the views of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists have shaped out country. For the reasons I will describe in this review, I highly recommend that you buy and read a copy of The Federalist Papers. You won’t regret it, as I hope to show in my review of The Federalist Papers. There are many reviews of The Federalist Papers out there, but I hope that this one will be different and will be a more accessible way for you to understand them.
What are The Federalist Papers:
For those of you that don’t know, The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 essays published between 1787-88 (as I mention in my “American Revolution Timeline” post) by John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, with Alexander Hamilton writing far more than his share of the articles. All three men published under the same name- Publius, which was meant to harken back to the Roman Empire.
References to the Classica Era, especially the early Roman Empire, are dotted throughout The Federalist Papers. The essays were meant to make the Constitution more popular in the states so that it could be ratified, and to defend it from the stinging attacks of the Anti-Federalists, who were deeply opposed to the Constitution.
The Federalists were successful, and the Constitution was ratified. But The Federalist Papers still have meaning outside of their original context. They show modern Americans how the writers of our system of government envision it working.
Each paper, perhaps a few pages in length, is instrumental to our republic and its governance. Some, like the Federalist #10 are quite famous. Others aren’t. But all of The Federalist Papers are definitely worth reading. They show how the judiciary is supposed to work. Or the Executive is supposed to fulfill his duties. And why certain term lengths and representative numbers were chosen. The writings are still highly useful. With them our system makes sense and is functional. Without them, we would surely be lost. Thank goodness the Founding Fathers that began the world anew with the Constitution and founding of America knew what they were doing!
Summary of The Federalist Papers:
Because The Federalist Papers cover such a wide variety of topics, it is hard to write a traditional summary. Unlike The Red Line, for example, there is no overarching storyline that it is easy to concisely summarize. But, in the name of writing a good review of The Federalist Papers, I will certainly try.
If there is an overarching point of The Federalist Papers, it is that the Constitution will work. Many of its critics, the Anti-Federalists, were convinced that it would fail miserably. They thought it would lead to an overly powerful and centralized national government. Or that the long terms of presidents and senators would lead to tyranny. Or that it didn’t promote virtue enough to create the virtuous citizenry that the republic needed to survive. And there were innumerable other criticisms that needed to be addressed. And most of the criticisms leveled against the Constitution were potentially valid criticisms. In my opinion, some even turned out to be true.
So, the Federalists needed to respond. They did so by tackling each issue point by point.
An Overly Centralized and Powerful Government:
One Anti-Federalist criticism was that the Constitution created too strong of a central, national government. Alexander Hamilton fought back against that criticism in Federalist 15 of The Federalist Papers. Yes, Hamilton argued, the government created by the Constitution was much more powerful than the one created by the Articles of Confederation. But that was because the government created by the Articles of Confederation hadn’t worked! It was much too weak and hamstrung by the requirement of unanimity to be effective. In order to prevent an overly weak government from being in charge again, the Constitution had created a stronger and more centralized government.
But because of the structure of that government, with its various checks and balances, it would not become tyrannical. Furthermore, as Hamilton pointed out in Federalist 1 of The Federalist Papers, the government created by the Articles of Confederation had become corrupt and tyrannical in some instances. Governor Clinton of New York, for example, used his power to enrich himself. Because the national government was so weak, he was able to boost his power dramatically and steal from his citizenry. That would be much harder to do under the Constitution because of checks and balances.
National Defense and a Standing Army:
Another defense against the centralization argument is in Federalist 5. In that essay, John Jay pushes back on the notion that a confederacy of a few larger areas would be any more able to resist tyranny than 13 states headed by a strong national government.
Would the governments in those states not be just as likely, if not more so, to revert to tyranny than the national government of the US? And would it not be more likely that Great Britain or Spain could successfully invade one of them? As Jay pointed out through those poignant rhetorical questions, there is a place for centralization. As long as there are checks within the system, it is no more likely to be tyrannical than a smaller system. And, it has the added benefit of being much more able to resist foreign aggression, which is one of the few legitimate roles of government.
One essay I found particularly instructive was Federalist 23. In it, Hamilton describes both why the Constitution gives the federal government much more ability to act and what it should do with that power. Hamilton says that governments should have the ability to quickly build fleets and raise armies to protect their borders. America especially, as a new nation, would need to be able to do so. But the government created by the Articles of Confederation had neither the impetus nor ability to do so. So, the government created by the Constitution would be more active and have more means so that it could protect the national security.
The Federalist 23, however, raised another point of contention for the Anti-Federalists. Wouldn’t that just allow for a standing army. The Anti-Federalists, and indeed many of the Federalists, were terrified of a large, standing army. They viewed it as a force for tyranny. Hamilton addressed that issue in the Federalist 24, in which he described the benefits of having a standing army that was large enough to fight back against foreign powers.
His view was that while there is a danger of tyranny when the government has a standing army at its command, that danger is small in comparison to being defenseless; as professional armies became the norm across Europe, America could no longer rely on untrained militia. In writing the Federalist 23 and Federalist 24, Hamilton was able to answer critiques about both the centralization of government and the potential for tyranny due to a standing army.
Taxes were a huge issue in early America. Hell, we had fought a war over higher taxes (spirit that Americans should relearn). Because of that, they, especially tariffs, became a large issue for the Anti-Federalists. So, Hamilton set out to quell Anti-Federalist concerns over the government’s ability to tax in Federalists 30-36.
In those brilliant essays, especially Federalist 36, Hamilton describes why the power to tax is necessary and how the government can do it in the least painful ways. I found his argument well-structured and compelling. Additionally, it was interesting because it described tariffs as a tax. That is something you don’t hear as much today now that tariffs are viewed more as a tool of foreign policy. Reading Federalist 35, the one on tariffs, is yet another great way to see how America has been struggling with certain issues, such as tariffs, since the founding.
The Promotion of Virtue:
A major Anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution was that it didn’t promote virtue enough for the government to be successful and stay away from tyranny. Because responsibility is the other side of liberty, all of the Founding Fathers knew that we had to have a virtuous citizenry that would respect that responsibility.
To combat that objection, Madison defined a republic in the Federalist 39. Madison’s definition of a republic is “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or good behavior.” Too me, that definition settles all fears of virtue.
If a republic is in essence a government made up of virtuous men acting as representatives as long as they exhibit good behavior, then the republic is easy to maintain as long as the citizenry pays attention. Yes, if the citizenry learns it can just vote for money and be bribed by politicians, then men with bad behavior such as Rep. Hank Johnson take over (he’s the one that thought the island of Guam would tip over.)
But, if the citizenry pays attention, as Madison obviously expects in Federalist 39, then there won’t be problems because the politicians will have to act with virtue. Otherwise they can be impeached or recalled and forced out of office.
The final Anti-Federalist argument and Federalist counterargument I think it is worthwhile to describe in this review of The Federalist Papers is that the length of terms would lead to tyranny. James Madison tackled that objection in Federalist 62. In Federalist 62, Madison describes how term lengths aren’t really a problem. He gives examples of how longer and shorter time periods than the ones chosen have worked and then describes the happy medium chosen for implementation in the Constitution. Then, he gives historical examples (something the Federalists were great at) to back up his point.
One particularly poignant one was about the Polish government; it was replaced every year. Because of that, the government was unable to rule effectively. Terms of office were too short for representatives to learn what to do, and there were other problems, so Poland eventually fell. The government couldn’t deal with threats because the terms of office were too short. Madison does an excellent job in Federalist 62 of showing why the term lengths chosen, especially for the Senate, will work and why fears about them were overblown.
Analysis of The Federalist Papers:
After reading The Federalist Papers, I can easily see why they won the debate over the Constitution. Unlike the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists had a unified voice. Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were all able to write in similar styles and show similar conclusions. That is no small feat, and it definitely made their points much more convincing.
Additionally, they did an excellent job of countering Anti-Federalist arguments without even directly referencing the Anti-Federalists. Every one of the 85 Federalist Papers serves a purpose. I only described the ones that aren’t often discussed but are still important. The Federalist 10, for example, is frequently discussed. But there are others, such as Federalist 39 and 62, that I thought I should write about. I thought I should write about them in this review of The Federalist Papers in order to prove my assertion that each one serves a purpose.
There is no extraneous content in The Federalist Papers, which makes it all the more amazing that Jay, Madison, and Hamilton were able to avoid even referencing the Anti-Federalists. Through doing so, they were able to make the other side look like a collection of individual points rather than a major political force (which wasn’t really too far off mark).
Had they referenced certain Anti-Federalist writings, that may have made the Anti-Federalists look like much more of a serious and organized group to the American public. But by ignoring them while still using all available space to counter their points, the Federalists were able to both turn the Anti-Federalists into a non-entity and defeat their political points.
And that brings me to my next point; the Federalists were organized. Their works show a unified voice and theme, yes, but they also show something more. They show a political thoughtfulness and capacity that just isn’t present in The Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalist Papers are important and useful pieces of American political thought. But The Federalist Papers blow them out of the water because through their writings the Federalists are able to show that they are politically organized. They weren’t a motley collection of farmers and former revolutionaries like the Anti-Federalists. They were instead a group of dedicated and thoughtful statesmen.
Finally, I was hugely impressed by the ability of the Federalists to use historical and contemporary examples to prove their points. They tied in examples from areas of history as diverse as Imperial Rome and contemporary Poland. Classical Greece and Renaissance Italian city states. Contemporary England and the Ancient Spartans. All of those examples showed their wealth of historical political knowledge. Yes, the system they built wasn’t perfect.
But it was well designed. The Federalists were able to show how all of the individual pieces fit together and would work. And they selectively chose and modified those pieces by looking at history; they looked at what worked and what failed and created a government that took the best pieces of what did work at creating prosperity and liberty and modified those pieces so that they fit together, worked, and would be able to resist the worst forms of government.
And so far, that has been successful;. We have held socialism, autocracy, fascism, and most forms of tyranny at bay. That is thanks to the system created by the Constitutional Convention and defended by Madison, Jay, and Hamilton in The Federalist Papers.
I hope you enjoyed this review of The Federalist Papers. There are many reviews of The Federalist Papers out there, given that they are some of hte most famous political essays of all time, but I hope that this review added value and helped you understand more about the vision of the American Republic that the Founding Fathers had.
It’s hard to summarize a work as excellent as The Federalist Papers because the IQ and writing ability of the authors is so far above my own. Madison, Hamilton and Jay are masters of the English language and it shows. They defend their points with the ferocity of men that know they are right; they were charting a course through deep and troubling waters but knew that the path they were on was the right one for America. To convince people that they were right they had to write quickly and perfectly. And they did.
They showed how the government created by the US Constitution should work. How all of its intricate pieces should work together. They drew on thousands of years of political history to show why they made the choices they made. And the end result is excellence. I have said in other posts that the Founding Fathers were almost unbelievably astute.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison and other are remembered not just because of what they did during the American Revolution and its aftermath, but because their advice is still applicable today. We should be forever grateful for the knowledge they passed on.
By: Gen Z Conservative
Buy The Federalist Papers here, on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2WEndsY
To see the opposing arguments, buy The Anti-Federalist Papers: https://amzn.to/2MPyua0
Check out my review of The Anti-Federalist Papers here: https://genzconservative.com/anti-federalist-papers-summary-and-analysis/
Check out my review of What the Anti-Federalists were For to get a better understanding of early American political thought: https://genzconservative.com/what-the-anti-federalists-were-for/
Buy What the Anti-Federalists were For here: https://amzn.to/2DLyktF
See George Washington’s timeless advice on preserving peace: https://genzconservative.com/george-washington-on-preserving-peace/
Look at my American Revolution timeline to see how The Federalist Papers fit into the larger American story: https://genzconservative.com/american-revolution-timeline/
The legitimate role of government: https://genzconservative.com/the-role-of-government/
Hank Johnson is the type of politician that both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were worried about: https://genzconservative.com/hank-johnson-thinks-guam-is-going-to-tip-over/