The Letters Of Publius

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“The particular circumstances under which these papers have been written,” added Hamilton in the preface to the first volume of the 1788 book, “have rendered it impossible to avoid violations of method and repetitions of ideas which cannot but displease a critical reader.” Still, no attempt was made by Hamilton or Madison, in the succession of editions brought out under their supervision, to make any significant editorial changes in the essays.

The contents of the essay series fall logically into four subdivisions: First, a review of the most urgent national needs which the Confederation was unable to meet and the remedies offered by the new Constitution (Numbers 1-14); second, a series of specific criticisms of the Articles and a rebuttal of charges that the Constitution is intended to establish an autocratic central power (Numbers 15-29); then, with Hamilton and Madison at their most brilliant, comes the portion of The Federalist which has assured its niche among the classics—a discussion of the theoretical principles upon which federalism in the United States is posited (Numbers 30-46); and finally, in a tenor scarcely less inspired, there is a detailed analysis of the functions of the government departments within a federal system (Numbers 47-85).

Publius (Hamilton) opened the first essay with a keen sense of the fateful point in history at which he found himself: After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. 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. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

After setting the stage in the first two letters, Publius (in this case, Jay) struck immediately at the weakest point in the existing system—its ineffectiveness in dealing with foreign powers and in policing the relations among its own members. The threat of “divide and conquer” in the event of military attack, the unequal ability of different states to equip and maintain their own armies, as well as the very substantial danger that hostilities might break out among the states themselves—these were inherent in the present system, Jay declared. Conversely, a strong central government would unify American capacities for self-defense and would promote harmony at home. Following these arguments, Hamilton took over once more, developing his characteristic economic points—the benefits to commerce arising from a single federal control instead of thirteen state tariff systems; the expansion of the country into the interior with federal construction of highways and bridges; the lowering of the tax burden when the collection of taxes was regularized.

In spite of possible stylistic handicaps, the masterful character of this exposition of American constitutional theory was recognized from the outset. Washington was deeply impressed and undertook to have the first numbers reprinted in Virginia. Jefferson wrote Madison that he considered the series “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever has been written.” Even more emphatic at a later date was that renowned commentator on American law, New York’s Chancellor James Kent, who declared, with all the burning conviction of his own nationalism: I know not indeed of any work on the principles of free government that is to be compared, in instruction, and intrinsic value, to … The Federalist , not even if we resort to Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavel, Montesquieu, Milton, Locke, or Burke. It is equally admirable in the depth of its wisdom, the comprehensiveness of its views, the sagacity of its reflections, and the fearlessness, patriotism, candor, simplicity, and elegance with which its truths are uttered and recommended.

The letters of Publius appeared in print as the discussion over ratification was being fanned to a roaring conflagration all over the country. Newspapers in every American city of any size printed little besides the voluble essays from scores of pens on every conceivable aspect of the proposed Constitution. Letters and separately printed pamphlets poured from the desks of James Winthrop and Elbridge Gerry in Massachusetts, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in Connecticut, James Wilson in Pennsylvania, Luther Martin and Tench Coxe in Maryland, Spencer Roane and Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, and Charles Pinckney and James Iredell in the Carolinas.