Many jurists, politicians and historians have a common agreement that The Federalist Papers remains the most important political philosophy work that has ever existed in the United States. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay worked hard to ensure that they wrote series of letters to the New York newspapers in order to defend the US draft constitution that had been signed in Philadelphia on September 17 1787. This draft constitution awaited ratification by at least nine out of thirteen states before taking effect. The main issue was to convince delegates from New York and Virginia states in order to support the Constitution because a negative vote from these states would easily influence the outcome. At the time, New York and Virginia were large and with immense power. It was apparent that delegates from these states were already divided in terms of the support towards the drafted Constitution. This is what prompted Hamilton of New York to approach Madison of Virginia in writing persuasive letters that would convince delegates who were to attend New York Convention to support the drafted constitution.[1] An older John Jay also contributed to the writing of some letters that were published in the New York newspapers.

These authors believed that embracing the newly drafted constitution was a way towards a stronger country that could stand the test of time by avoiding failures of other empires like the Roman Empire according to Edward Gibbon, failed for lack of cohesion and lack of civic virtue. Such regimes had also created powerful centers of power that easily abused their subjects.[2] The need to avoid such failures could only come from serious expounding of different elements, theories and concept within this new constitution.

Hamilton, who was 32 years old by this time, had served as an aide during the American Revolution. He wrote 51 of the 85 letters that made the federalist papers. Madison was 36 years old and contributed 29 of the letters, with his work coming out as balanced, frank and exhibiting reasoning power. John Jay, who later became the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, wrote the remaining five letters. It is also important to note that the Federalist Papers were not written over a long period of time after a thorough study of the draft constitution, but was done between October 1787 and May 1788. This indicates the urgency with which these men wanted to defend the draft constitution. At first, they intended to reach out to the New York audience with these messages; however, they were published in different parts of the United States, helping to convince masses of the public good and private rights assured by the constitution. In order to achieve these, required areas that needed attention included separation of powers, republicanism, constitutional government, union and federalism. Indeed, these are concepts that were covered in The Federalist Papers.[3]

The Separation of Powers

The Federalist Papers pointed to the need for separating powers among the different branches of the government in order to avoid dangers of concentrating power under one authority. According to the writers of these papers, adopting separation of powers would help in creating efficiency and effectiveness in governmental departments. Creation of various departments within the government was to help develop specialized and targeted functions that could create expertise in the execution of duties. This would not be achieved with government departments with overlapped duties to carry out. According to Hamilton, Madison and Jay, they wanted to explain to the people that there were benefits of separating powers. Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire notes that central authority established by Augustus in the Roman Empire contributed to its fall.[4]

Clustering all functions under one authority would not be appropriate since different departments are set to undertake different duties. According to Hamilton, “energy in the executive” arm of the government was necessary to help in the defense against foreign threats, ensuring fairness in administering laws and protection of the property and individual rights of all citizens. However, they were quick to note that energy was not the virtue that qualified good legislators but the ability to earn full confidence of the people through listening to their divergent views and interests. The concept of separation of powers also led to the explanation of the need to have the executive power vested on one person who the president. The Federalist Papers note that having many executives would lead to a crisis as it would lead to paralysis and frustration during emergencies when serious decisions need to be taken.

Authors of these papers feared that centralized power would lead to excessive abuse of the American people by the political elites. These essays supported creation of three levels of federal government: legislative, executive and judicial. The importance of such a structure was important because the draft constitution was creating a very large republic. Federalist 51 is the paper dealing with separation of powers. In it, the writer advances the theory of separation of powers between the federal and state governments. This paper points out the need to ensure constitutional empowerment to each level of government, the only way to be effective in fulfilling unique assigned function.

Constitutional Government

The Federalist Papers point to the fact that a constitutional government meant a government with limits. Id Est, the government had to act within the powers allocated by the constitution that has been consented by the public. For this reason, Federalist 22 notes that streams of national power flowing from legitimate authority must come from the consent of the people. Authors elaborated that the constitution ensured that that major interests of the country would be referred to the federal government while local interest would be referred to the state legislatures. The union formed by constitutional government had four broad functions an indicated in Federalist 23: first, fronting a common defense of all persons represented; second, maintaining public peace and prevention and defense against any external attacks; third, regulating business activities other foreign nations as well as within member states; finally, superintending United State’s commercial and political intercourse with other foreign countries.[5] The authors were quick to assert that the constitutional powers granted to the federal government were particular and not general, going further to explain the functions of congress.


Hamilton, Madison and Jay argue in support of the union of all the thirteen states. Immediately after the American independence, some argued that all the thirteen states to be independent countries without stronger ties as stated in the newly drafted constitution. According to these writes, American liberty only depended on the ability to unite under a common identity. Note that the constitution was creating a government that had limited powers. The best way to fulfill this was the concept of common citizenship of all the member states. As indicated by The Federalist Papers, the main constitutional reason for forming a union of all the states was security. The union would help in enhancing security against foreign attacks, civil unrests that could arise from the rebelling confederacies, and other domestic factions. Publius hoped that the union would help in creating integration within various economic sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, something that was hoped to create a sense of belonging or “Americanness”.[6] Federalist 11 notes that a united government was important for important towards advancing United State’s commercial and political interests.


Federalism was instituted to in ensuring protection of all Americans through division of powers to the federal and state governments. According to Hamilton, Madison and Jay, this was important since the constitution had proposed a very large and vast country. To these authors, federalism was an important concept that was to be embraced as indicated in the constitution. They went ahead to use The Federalist as the title to their essays. It is clear that powers were allocated to the federal government; however, it was also important to allocate some powers to the state governments in order to help in dealing with some of the local political issues.[7] The essays cleared fears that federal government could claim absolute authority in dealing with the all issues by noting that the state governments would retain rights of sovereignty as earlier held.

In essence, The Federalist Papers sought to explain the new form federalism that the draft constitution had created. Many Americans feared going back to centralized governance system like the oppressive monarchy by the colonists. Per Contra, confederation system made the individual states experience difficulties in terms of instability and disorganization. Lack of order had made individual states engage in unhealthy competition, leading on underdevelopment and lack of cohesion. For this reason, these states were also ready to accept an idea of a united and cohesive government for all the people; a government that could foster togetherness and help spur development of all the states. These essays helped in explaining the need to embrace a new king of federalism that had never been practiced in any part of the world. Federalists written by Hamilton sought to show the benefits that would accrue to the proposed country by having a port city like New York. At the same time, Madison’s papers helped in warning the people about a distant government like that held by the colonists. He was a Virginian, a state with many farmers who believed that a distant authority worked better for them.

Madison was instrumental into explaining the need for all individual states to have residual powers in matters that did not call for national concern. This meant that states were never to have absolute sovereignty on all matters. In his further explanation, Madison went ahead to note that the federal and state governments would act concurrently just like planets that revolve around the sun but maintaining their distinct individual status, something helped in advancing the need for a central authority.[8] The Federalist Papers pointed out some of the failed alliances in Greece and Europe, especially in times of crisis, something that these authors wanted to avoid by embracing federalism. According to them, federalism was different in that it helped the individual states to retain their Statu Quo while transferring some important, yet limited functions to the central authority.

In for federalism to work and avoid clashes of having concurrent governments, drafters of the constitution ensured that the US constitution was the supreme law that superseded state laws and the federal courts were responsible for the enforcement of the federal laws. This meant that the decision made by the national government was to overrule those made by the state governments whenever there was a clash of the law. Nevertheless, the constitution ensured that the absolute sovereignty was bestowed upon the people of the United States. Both levels of government were only to help in serving the people and helping them achieve certain goals.

According to Gibbon, devolved power had made the Roman Empire to stand out in terms of development and leadership. However, this was abused by the emperors who had been given all the national powers to perform their functions.[9] This can explain the reason for federalism for the United States, a system that neither gave all sovereignty to the states nor the national government.


The Federalist Papers advocated for republicanism in order to help foster for American citizenship rather than having factious and groupings based on race, region, creed, wealth and even social class. Thus, the concept of republicanism was to advance the goals stipulated in the constitution; of having a union. It was also to help in guiding Americans in exercising political powers in a responsible manner. These essays were also quick to note that republicanism was not meant to form a government full of people or groups with competing interests but to create an environment that ensured promotion of the general welfare of all persons in the United States.[10] The failure of achieving this would amount to having a government with unlimited powers that could easily yield to the demands of certain special constituencies with self-interest. The republican government was to ensure that interest of all the states was taken into consideration on state and national state through the elected representatives.

Checks and Balances

Checks and balances was a theme that was close to that of separation of powers as discussed above. However, authors of The Federalist Papers wanted to elaborate on the same, noting that checks and balances meant the ability of all three branches of government- legislative, executive, and judicial- to limit excesses of the other. For this reason, each of the three branches had to be given powers over the other two in order to avoid situations where one was above the rest in terms of making decisions. Federalist 51 emphasizes on the need to promote an ambition that promoted each of the branches to protect their powers in order to effectively perform their functions; the constitution gave constitutional capabilities for each branch to protect itself. According to these authors, this theory was essential in creating efficiency in the performance of the government functions. Lack of balance of power is an issue that Gibbon notes in most of his writings, especially the intolerance by the European regimes.[11]

Judicial Use

In modern times, challenges continue to emerge that only require an interpretation from the perspective of those who drafted the law. According to Lupu, the Federal Papers have been used, especially by federal, while giving interpretation of the constitution in order to put the intentions of the framers of constitution into perspective.[12] For instance, Hines v. Davidowitz was a case where the role of the federal government on foreign affairs was sought.[13] In this case, Pennsylvania State’s alien registration system was overruled by the federal system and was termed as distracting the federal alien registration system from achieving the intended goals. In his judgment, Judge Hugo emphasized the supremacy of federal government in matters of dealing with foreign sovereignties in all the states.

On the validity of ex post facto laws, the United States Supreme Court had to make a decision on a case (Calder v. Bull) where an interpretation was required on its authority to make reviews on certain decisions made by the state legislatures.[14] In this case, a new trial was order on the content of a will, a decision that the Supreme Court Judges unanimously agreed that the decisions did not violate ex post facto laws, which they argued to only affect criminal cases. These are clear indications that the Federalist Papers were playing an important role in the judicial system. Michael notes that the Supreme Court had quoted the Federalist Papers 291 times in their rulings by the year 2000.[15] These essays will still play important roles in terms of understanding the intentions of the drafters of the constitution.


Ariens, Michael. Famous Cases Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386 (1798)

Brownley, Martine W. “Gibbon’s Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall.” Journal 

of the History of Ideas 42,4(1981), 629–642.

Dietze, Gottfried. The Federalist: A Classic on Federalism and Free Government. Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Edward Gibbon (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. W. Strahan

and T. Cadell

Gray, Leslie, and Wynell Burroughs. “Teaching With Documents: Ratification of the

            Constitution.” Social Education, 51 (1987): 322-324

Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52 (1941).

Lupu, Ira C.”The Most-Cited Federalist Papers”. Constitutional Commentary (1998).

Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay,The Federalist Papers. New York: Penguin,


Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution.

New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985

Nagle, Paul. One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought. New York: Oxford

University Press, 1964.

Rakove, Jack. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. Vintage

Books, 1997.  

Scott, Kyle. The Federalist Papers: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

Wootton, David. “Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.” History and

Theory 33, 4 (1994), 77–105.

[1] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay,The Federalist Papers (Penguin, 1987), 12-41

[2]Martine Brownley. “Gibbon’s Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall,” Journal of the History of Ideas  42,4 (1981), 629–642.

[3]Rakove Jack,Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Vintage Books, 1997), 101.

[4]Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776), 24-54.

[5]Leslie Gray and Wynell Burroughs, “Teaching With Documents: Ratification of the Constitution” Social Education, 51 (1987): 322-324.

[6] Paul C. Nagle, One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought (Oxford University Press, 1964), 23-54.

[7] Gottfried Dietze, The Federalist: A Classic on Federalism and Free Government (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 67-70.

[8]Kyle Scott, The Federalist Papers: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 202.

[9]Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 46.

[10]Richard Morris B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985), 14-42.

[11]David Wootton,  “Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall” History and Theory 33, 4 (1994), 77–105.

[12]Ira Lupu C, “The Most-Cited Federalist Papers” Constitutional Commentary, (1998), 403.

[13] Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52 (1941)

[14]Michael Ariens, Famous Cases Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386 (1798).

[15] Ibid.