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The Letters Of Publius
Writing in haste under this antique pseudonym, three young men produced a running defense of the hold new American Constitution. After 173 years, The Federalist still casts a very long shadow
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Seeds of discord began to sprout in this literary soil, however, as the nineteenth century opened. The first took shape in a dispute over authorship of individual numbers, and grew out of the universal practice of that day of using noms de plume . The first list of authors was published from a handwritten sheet which Hamilton is purported to have slipped into a copy of the essays the day before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. This appeared in the 1810 collection of Hamilton’s works. Then, in 1818, came the first of a long line of editions “with the numbers written by Mr. Madison corrected by himself,” according to the publisher’s announcement. The two lists of authorship did not agree, and interested parties quickly chose sides.
Since neither Hamilton nor Madison, nor their respective publishers, made any significant change in the text of the essays themselves in printings beginning in 1802 and continuing to 1859, the authorship question would have been purely academic except for the touchy pride of one of Hamilton’s sons—John—who brought out a seven-volume collection of his father’s works in 1850-51 and who took particular pains to refute Madison’s “corrections” as to authorship.
Madison’s case was taken up by Henry B. Dawson, a well-known local historian in New York, as well as a bellicose editorial antagonist. Dawson’s 1863 edition touched off a dispute with a second Hamilton son, James, and with John Jay, a grandson of the Chief Justice. Inflamed by the hysteria of the Civil War, Jay charged Dawson with making a strong case for Madison, the Virginian, as part of a plot to encourage the secessionist doctrine of states’ rights. That Madison, the most confirmed federalist of the three original authors—and that the essays, the basic argument for incorporating the original sovereign states into a paramount national system—should have been attacked as subversive forces is eloquent testimony to the distorted passions both of war and of ancestor worship.
A vigorous though brief pamphlet campaign, which would have done credit to their ancestors in its fervor, was waged between Dawson on the one side and the second-generation James Hamilton and third-generation Jay on the other. Out of it came John Hamilton’s 1864 edition of The Federalist . Thereafter, until the end of the century, Hamilton and Dawson editions vied with each other through no less than twenty-nine printings, with the Hamilton publishers having the last word in the form of two further printings in 1904 and 1909. On the other hand, most of the twentieth century editors have tended to follow Dawson, and the dispute—though it has retired to the remote quarters of scholarly commentary—still continues.
The legacy of Publius was to extend to many lands, as the three Paris printings of the revolutionary era had forecast. Brazilian editions appeared in 1840 and 1887, a commentary in German in 1864, an Argentine translation in 1868. In most instances, the demand for a translation grew out of an internal movement for political reform along the lines of American constitutional theory expounded in the essays. Since the Second World War, editions have appeared in Mexico, Italy, and Austria. As for the continuing appeal of The Federalist to American scholars, this is attested by the fact that in the twentieth century a dozen different historians and political scientists have produced their own editions; they are still appearing to this very day.
Truly, the triumvirate of 1787 wrought better than they could have known when they dashed off the original letters to the citizens of New York. Their purpose was to secure adoption of the new Constitution. Their enduring achievement was the articulation of the basic theory upon which freedom under law became a reality in the United States.