The Letters Of Publius


A detailed argument, making the strongest possible case for the new Constitution, was essential in this battle for men’s minds. Hamilton was quite willing to take on such a task single-handed, but he realized that under the circumstances he needed help. His own law practice had been neglected during the summer months of the convention; there was much to be done to organize the state’s nationalist minority; and the comprehensiveness of the projected editorial campaign was too much for even the most energetic and versatile advocate. For, as he wrote “the citizens of the State of New York” in the opening letter of The Federalist , the essays proposed to discuss “the following interesting particulars”: The utility of the UNION to your 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 objective—The Conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government—Its analogy to your own State constitution, and lastly, The additional security, which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property.

After considering various collaborators, Hamilton at length selected two—Jay, who as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Confederation, was perhaps the young country’s most experienced diplomat; and Madison, whose extended notes on the Philadelphia convention supplemented his already voluminous knowledge of political theory, from Aristotle to Locke. Each of the three authors thus brought a particular specialty to the projected series of essays: Jay (who, as it turned out, wrote only a few numbers) was assigned the discussion of the international problems which demanded a strong central government; Madison dealt with the theoretical concepts of the proposed federal structure and compared it with the experience of other nations old and new; Hamilton himself emphasized financial and economic issues, although as general organizer of the series he was required to cover such other subjects as were necessary to give it continuity.

The Federalist was thus largely the work of two young men. Hamilton, at thirty, was already widely known for his Revolutionary service on the staff of General Washington, and for his demonstrated acumen in legal and economic subjects. Charming in personal manner and appearance, although tending to be supercilious in his treatment of opponents in legislative and convention debate, he made no effort to conceal his distrust for the common herd and his concern that the federal power should be removed as far as possible from the whims of popular vote. Madison, at thirty-six, had had more than a decade of experience in the Virginia legislature and the Continental Congress, including a record of having put through several major statutory reforms in Virginia. Much more tolerant of the quirks of the average citizen, even though these might tend to hamper the orderly operation of lawmaking, he conceived of a strong national government as a guarantee of individual rights as well as property rights.

On October 27—a month to the day after the first “Cato” letter had dourly greeted the text of the new Constitution—the first of the Hamilton-Jay-Madison papers appeared in the New York Independent Journal . Although it had been planned to sign the letters with the pseudonym of “A Citizen of N.Y.,” this was changed, as Madison explained in a letter in 1818, to “Publius"—the first name of Valerius Publicola, the sixth century B.C. “friend of the people” in the early Roman republic. It was a fitting pen name for a Latter-day triumvirate pontificating upon the requirements for a brave new world; but the chief reasons for the change, according to Madison, were that one of the Writers was not a citizen of that state: another that the publication had diffused itself among most of the other States. The papers were first published at N.Y. in a Newspaper printed by Francis Childs at the rate during a greater part of the time of at least four numbers a week; and notwithstanding this exertion, they were not compleated till a large proportion of the States had decided on the Constitution. They were edited as soon as possible in two small vols., the preface to the 1st vol: drawn up by Mr. H bearing date N. York Mar 1788.

Madison’s reference to the pressure of newspaper deadlines which characterized the entire series of eighty-five essays underlines one of the most remarkable features of The Federalist —that voluminous commentaries dashed off in such haste, with only the general reference to Hamilton’s broad outline to guide them and no opportunity for editorial conference among the three writers, should emerge with such a striking degree of continuity and with such consistent depth of perception. Madison wrote on another occasion: The haste with which many of the papers were penned in order to get through the subject while the Constitution was before the public, and to comply with the arrangement by which the printer was to keep his paper open for four numbers every week, was such that the performance must have borne a very different aspect without the aid of historical and other notes which had been used in the Convention, and without the familiarity with the whole subject produced by the discussions there. It frequently happened that, while the printer was putting into types parts of a number, the following parts were under the pen and to be furnished in time for the press.