The Federalists

An edition of The Federalist, a series of pro-Constitution essays published in 1786-87

The Constitution was submitted for public debate in late September 1787 and those interested quickly formed into two groups. Individuals who supported the Constitution became known as Federalists because they supported a federal system of government, as created by the Constitution. Their numbers obviously included the men who had helped devise the Constitution, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Despite his notionally objective role as the Convention’s chairman, George Washington later came out and publicly backed the Constitution, a factor that convinced many Americans to support it.

A historian’s view:
“In many ways they [the Federalists] provided the intellectual foundation of American government. For that and several other reasons, both good and bad, we tend to believe everything they said… Tthey won, and winners generally tell the stories. They were intelligent and articulate, the kind of people with whom historians tend to identify and so to trust… But the Federalists also controlled the documents on which historians depend. They owned most of the newspapers. They sometimes paid those who took notes on the convention debates, or subsidised the publication of transcripts. In some places they blocked the circulation of literature critical of the Constitution… They were not trying to distort history [but] were struggling to win a very tough fight on behalf of what they understand as the nation’s welfare.”
Pauline Maier

The Federalists’ arguments centred around the great innovations of the Constitution and how it would benefit rather than endanger the nation. Like Thomas Paine they used polemic to sell the advantages of their preferred system. The Federalist Papers, a series of essays under the pen-name ‘Publius’ but in fact written by Madison, Hamilton and John Jay, appeared in New York in 1788 and clearly spelled out why ratification should occur. They enunciated that the Constitution would be the supreme law of the land, transcending all other laws and severely limiting the power of potential tyrants. They focused on popular sovereignty and discussed how the people would be better represented and protected than before. They educated readers about checks and balances and explained that under their system tyranny, military oppression, restriction of liberties and excessive taxation would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

When the idea of a bill of rights was floated, the Federalists responded with either indifference or calm acceptance that such a measure might be necessary. Alexander Hamilton, however, penned Federalist Number 84 which campaigned against such a bill; his argument was that enunciation of specific individual rights would mean that they are only rights individuals would end up with. Hamilton thought the constitution and its preamble was more than adequate for protecting rights:

[According to the Constitution] the people surrender nothing, and as they retain everything, they have no need of particular reservations. “We the people of the United States, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” Here is a better recognition of popular rights than volumes of those sayings that make up several of our state bills of rights, and which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government…

John Jay, the third author of the Federalist Papers, wrote only five of the 85 that were published. However, his legal training was significant in launching a defence of the Federalist position.

Citation information
Title: “The Federalists”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: February 27, 2015
Date accessed: July 07, 2022
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