5 Things to Know About The Federalist Papers

We live in an interesting historical moment. Many consider American politics to be more divided than ever before; Alexander Hamilton is a pop star. How did we get here? In an effort to find out, we're going back to the beginning, to our government's foundation. The Federalist, the collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in 1787 and 1788 in defense of the newly drafted Constitution, is perhaps one of the best documents we have to remind us of the political climate of our nation at its inception. An early set of the essays in book form, combining elements of the 1788 and 1799 editions, will be offered for sale in our Important Spring Auction. For a better understanding of its significance, let's unpack several little known facts about one of The United States' formative documents.

1. The founding fathers knew a lot about Roman history

Our founding fathers, indeed most educated American men of the 18th century, were exceedingly well-versed in the classics. The Roman Republic inspired the development of our own democracy, and the authors of our nation used references to Rome as a lingua franca.

The Federalist Papers were a response to several anti-federalist essays that opposed a strong central government as laid out in the Constitution, which had just been drafted because the Articles of Confederation, written right after Independence, were proving ineffective in the face of our new nation's complexities. Not surprisingly, given the discontent with a monarchy that led to our Revolution, many Americans were wary of federal governance. Hence, the anti-federalist essays.

The anti-federalist papers were written anonymously, using pseudonyms like "Brutus" and "Cato." Both refer to Romans who opposed the tyranny of Caesar in favor of the Republic. Cato was such a staunch Republican that he actually killed himself rather than accept clemency from Caesar for having opposed his reign. The play, Cato, A Tragedy - the longest-running play in American history until Death of Salesman - was even performed to rally the revolutionary troops during the wretched months at Valley Forge.

And so it was culturally contiguous that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay published The Federalist Papers under the name "Publius." Publius Valerius Publicola was one of the three Romans who led the uprising against, and exile of, the last Roman king, Tarquin the Proud. Publius and his cohorts then founded the Republic of Rome. Using the name Publius was not only a way for the The Federalist authors to protect themselves from the wrath of angry Constitutional dissenters, it also allowed them to speak with a single voice, and to avoid claims of impartiality, since they helped to draft the document that The Federalist essays were defending.

2. In defense of taxation and the military

When The Federalist Papers were first published as separate essays in newspapers, there were 84 of them. But when they were collected into book form, there were 85. This is because no. 31, attributed to Hamilton, was so long that the book's editors split it in two.

The subject on which Hamilton had so much to say in no. 31 was the federal government's right to tax individuals, in addition to state taxation. As taxes usually are, this was a particularly fraught issue. But in the case of the newly drafted, but yet unratified, Constitution, central taxation was one of the main issues it was meant to address.

The Articles of Confederation proved insufficient to regulate interstate commerce, and left the national government unable to tax its constituents. In 1787, veterans of the American Revolution launched a series of attacks on government buildings in protest against unfair, state-imposed economic policies, including the violent Shays' Rebellion that ended in a fully armed stand-off. The national government lacked an adequate military to suppress the rebellion. Hamilton, in The Federalist no. 31, argued that our new nation would never hold together or be able to defend itself unless federal taxation were permitted in order to fund a military.

3. Alexander Hamilton did not believe in the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights was left out of the Constitution because Hamilton and others believed that by delineating certain individual rights, they would be suggesting that any rights that were NOT specifically spelled out in the Constitution could be inferred to be surrendered to the state. One of Hamilton's Federalist essays was dedicated to explaining how historically, monarchies had used bills of rights to do just that.

Ultimately, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments were the resolution to this disagreement between the federalists and the anti-federalists. They state that the rights laid out in the Bill of Rights are not the ONLY rights to which citizens can lay claim, and that the federal government cannot deny any rights, whether or not they are included in the Bill. Interestingly, it was Hamilton's Federalist co-author James Madison who submitted the Bill of Rights for inclusion in the Constitution.

4. The Federalist Papers were a failure

For all their deft political philosophy, The Federalist essays did not actually achieve their intended goal. Most think this goal was ratification of the Constitution. Rather, they were initially published almost solely in New York City newspapers - The Independent Journal, The New York Packet, and The Daily Advertiser - in order to convince New Yorkers to elect federalists to New York state's convention to ratify the Constitution. This is why the essays were all addressed "To the People of the State of New York." They were distributed very little outside New York until they were published in book form in 1788. Meanwhile, New Yorkers elected 46 anti-federalists and only 19 federalists to the ratification convention, and New York was the eleventh of the thirteen states to ratify the Constitution. Nine states ratified it before The Federalist was published at all.

5. The legacy of The Federalist endures

The Federalist essays have become one of the most revered texts in the American political canon, and are commonly thought to be one of the best windows onto the reasoning of the authors of the Constitution. They are often cited in Supreme Court opinions and law review articles. Thomas Jefferson included them in the curriculum when he founded the University of Virginia. He called them the “best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written,” despite his disagreement with Publius over the issue of the Bill of Rights. That said, as heated as the debate was between the federalists and the anti-federalists, they clearly found a way to resolve their differences, respect each other's intellectual efforts, ratify a constitution, and found a country.

Original Set of The Federalist
Pairing 1788 and 1799 Editions
Lot #1236

The Important Spring Auction