By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
After the new Constitution was printed and made available for the general public, George Washington reflected deeply, “Much will depend on the literary abilities, and the recommendation of it (the Constitution) by good pens, should it be openly, I mean, publicly attacked, in the Gazettes.” Among those good pens, none wielded a better one than Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s one-time aide. How was Hamilton successful against the anti-Constitutionalists?
Hamilton had left Philadelphia, confident that the Constitution had everything it needed to carry it through the ratification process, a “strong belief in the people at large of the insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the existence of the Union,” the “good will of most men of property,” and “the very great weight of influence of the persons who framed it, particularly in the universal popularity of General Washington should guarantee ratification.”
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Preparation of Hamilton’s Defense
Hamilton was jolted when he returned to New York City in early October in 1787 to find “the full flood of official influence is let loose against” ratifying the Constitution, and he promptly began laying plans for lengthy and exhaustive series of newspaper articles that would “explain and elucidate”, and defend the Constitution. To do that, however, required time, flexibility, and stamina, and Hamilton’s growing law practice did not look like favoring him with the opportunity to undertake such a series alone.
Instead, he recruited partners in the project—John Jay, the Confederation’s secretary of state, and finally James Madison, who was at least temporarily within Hamilton’s reach in New York City while serving in the Confederation Congress. Together, they would create a series of 85 articles, published in the New York newspapers between October 27, 1787, and August 16, 1788.
Hamilton chose for the title of his series, The Federalist, which was at that moment a daring act of aggression since it was the anti-Constitutionalists who saw themselves as the defenders of federalism and a confederation; but by entitling this article series The Federalist, Hamilton would thereby gain the high ground by asserting that the Constitution represented a better version of federalism than the Articles of Confederation.
Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s views about the American republic.
Hamilton and the Publius
Hamilton gave a collective pseudonym to his trio of good pens, Publius, from Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the founders of the Roman Republic. According to Plutarch, this man’s nickname, Poplicola, meant ‘friend of the people’, a role which Hamilton very much wanted to see himself filling.
Overall, Hamilton would write 51 of Publius’s articles, most of them published in two long stretches in December and January, and again in March until May 1788; Madison would write 29, all but five published between January and March 1788. John Jay, dogged by ill-health that winter only managed to write five.
Madison and Hamilton, especially, wrote at white heat, churning out an average of 1,000 words a day for six months, sometimes written at such a torrid pace that, as Madison remembered, neither Hamilton nor Madison had time to match notes, and “it frequently happened that whilst the printer was putting into type the parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and to be furnished in time for the press.”
The Indispensability of the New Constitution
Hamilton and Madison were not content merely to offer rebuttals to the anti-Constitutionalists who now, by default, became the anti-Federalists. In the very first Federalist, Hamilton laid down six themes by which Publius would demonstrate the indispensability of the new Constitution.
First, the utility of the Union to the nation’s political prosperity. The insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve that Union. The necessity of a government, at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object. The conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government. Its analogy to each one of the state constitutions. And lastly, the additional security, which its adoption would afford to the preservation of that species of government—meaning Republicans—to liberty and to property.
Learn about The Federalist Papers: A blueprint for American government.
Hamilton and Madison’s Strong Line of Defense
It was a remarkable collaboration, and all the more remarkable for the flashes of ingenuity, these Federalist Papers demonstrated, at the same time, in handling the anti-Federalists objections. In Federalist No. 10, Madison confronted the argument that the United States was too large to sustain a single national government without resorting to tyranny by replying that the size of the United States was exactly what would cause tyranny to fizzle away into thin air. Conflict would not have to be stamped out by the national government because it “will be unable to spread to a general conflagration through the other states.”
In Federalist No. 23, Hamilton defended the necessary-and-proper clause with an argument that “carries its own evidence along with it,” that “the means ought to be proportioned to the ends. How can we confide, Hamilton asked, “to a government the direction of our must essential national concerns, without daring to trust it with the authorities which are indispensable to their proper and efficient management?”
Above all, Madison, in Federalist No. 51, turned the necessity of separating the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in the Constitution from a weakness, as some perceived it, to a virtue by arguing that the three branches, precisely by being separate, would be too occupied with minding each other’s boundaries to have time to plot against the liberties of the people. By “contriving the interior structure of the government,” Madison wrote, “its several parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”
In 1821, looking back on the achievement of the Founders, Chief Justice John Marshall would call the Federalist Papers the “complete commentary on our constitution” and Thomas Jefferson would describe them as the “best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.”
Common Questions about Alexander Hamilton’s Valid Defense against the Anti-Constitutionalists
Alexander Hamilton named his trio after Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the founders of the Roman Republic. According to Plutarch, this man’s nickname, Poplicola, meant ‘friend of the people’, a role which Hamilton very much wanted to see himself filling.
Thomas Jefferson described The Federalist as the “best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.“
The Publius created a series of 85 articles, published in the New York newspapers between October 27, 1787, and August 16, 1788.