Introduction to the Federalist

The Federalist sets out to defend the proposed U.S. Constitution. Its eighty-five papers were written to support pro-ratification candidates in the election of members to the New York ratifying convention: the papers began to appear in newspapers in October 1787. The full task of the papers, however, is much grander. It is “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” (No. 1). In offering guidance for reflection, then, The Federalist makes an argument about good government that is both particular and universal. It falls somewhere between a work of statesmanship and a work of political philosophy.

Its authors—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—collaborated under one name, Publius, the Roman hero who helped found and preserve its republic. Although directed to the people of New York, Hamilton also had the papers published in newspapers across the country. Once they were completed, he published them all together in two volumes. The papers attempt to make sense of the Constitution’s various features, to make the best case for them, and to respond to the best arguments of those who opposed the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists. Publius does more than merely defend the Constitution; he guides us in understanding its meaning, purposes, and virtues. Publius offers us a political education in “the true principles of republican government” (No. 1).

Structure of The Federalist

In order to appreciate the complete vision and argument of The Federalist, it is useful to try to discern its underlying structure. Following the plan set forth in Federalist No. 1, as well as the division Hamilton used to publish the papers in two volumes, Martin Diamond offered an outline of the work, further divided (for papers 37 – 84) by Charles Kesler.

I. The Union

Nos. 1-14: Introduction and “the utility of the UNION to your political prosperity

Nos. 15-22: “The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union

Nos. 23-36: “The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object

II. The Merits of This Constitution or “The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government

Nos. 37-40: The delicate work of the Convention and the “general form” of the proposed government (i.e., its republicanism and federalism)

Nos. 41-46: The “quantity” or “general mass of power” invested in the new government and whether this is dangerous to the States

Nos. 47-84: The “particular structure” of the government and the “distribution” of its mass of power

Nos. 47-51: The separation of powers in general

Nos. 52-58: The House of Representatives

Nos. 59-61: The regulation of elections

Nos. 62-66: The Senate

Nos. 67-77: The Executive

Nos. 78-83: The Judiciary

Nos. 84: Miscellaneous objections, including the lack of a Bill of Rights

No. 85: Conclusion, including the Constitution’s “analogy to your own State constitution” and “The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that [republican] species of government, to liberty, and to property[1]


The first task of The Federalist is to show the necessity of strengthening the Union. The papers emphasize the dangers posed by foreign threats and internal discord, dangers that the then current loose confederation of states cannot handle. A strengthened union can better raise armies and fleets, better collect revenues, and more successfully advance commerce.

The most urgent issue facing government is self-defense. Safety is thus the first priority emphasized by the early papers. One might say that The Federalist begins by taking its bearings from necessities that require us to empower an “energetic” national government—one that is not shackled by the power of the states. Publius reasons from “axioms as simple as they are universal” that “the means ought to be proportioned to the end.” Thus the powers needed for the common defense “ought to exist without limitation,” he argues, “because it is impossible to foresee or to define the extent and variety of national exigencies, and the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them” (No. 23).


The union is also required to secure liberty, and with it “the diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate.” Protecting these unequal faculties will result in an unequal acquisition of property. Federalist No. 10 shows that the central domestic threat to liberty comes from faction, a group moved by passions or interests at odds with the public interest or citizens’ rights. Factions cannot be eliminated in a free country because “the latent causes of faction are…sown in the nature of man.” Since the most common source of factions is the unequal distribution of property, the “principle task of modern legislation” is the regulation of different economic interests deriving from that unequal distribution (No. 10).

The Federalist recognizes the unique and powerful danger posed by majority as well as minority factions. In fact, majority factions caused the worst turmoil under the Articles of Confederation and demonstrated the inadequacy of the state governments. The Constitution addresses the problem of faction through its broad scheme of representation. It does not simply rely on “enlightened statesmen,” who “are not always at the helm,” or the constant presence of civic virtue among the people. The union’s large size—its extended sphere—and its great variety of contending interests dilute the power of one faction steadily to direct the majority’s will. And its multiple layers of representation “refine and enlarge the public views” by helping to bring to office representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their countrymen.” A large, diverse, country with complex representation is in fact more likely than a small, pure democracy to be governed by those “with enlightened views and virtuous sentiments.” Publius defends the superiority of complex republicanism to direct democracy, and he insists that the national government in the Constitution is better able to protect republicanism than the states. Indeed, representative government across a large union offers a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government” (No. 10).

The Federalist’s case for the Constitution thus rests on more than simply meeting necessities by ensuring security and the acquisition of property. It also aims at good government. With its subtle schemes of representation and federalism, the Constitution helps control poor governance in the states. It corrects states’ excesses and offers a model of good government.

The characteristics of good government become thematic in The Federalist’s second half. Publius tells us that the “object” of good government is “the happiness of the people,” and this requires “knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained” (No. 62). The Constitution’s republican form aims “first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society, and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold the public trust” (No. 57). The Constitution does not assume that virtue will always be available, but it seeks to call it forth and sustain it.

Separation of Powers

The most important mechanism of the constitutional structure is the separation of powers. Here too The Federalist reasons from the limitations and imperfections of human nature—our representatives are fellow men, after all, not angels. A central challenge is having the government control itself internally, for we cannot rely upon the voting public alone. The most popular branch, the legislative branch, is already the most powerful and the most likely to eclipse the others. By arming the separate branches with checks, however, each can assert its own authority and check the other branches’ excesses. The intention is to keep the government limited and to block the roads to tyranny, especially the sort of legislative tyranny to which republics are prone. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Publius explains. Office holders will not always act for the sake of the common good. But their selfish interests and ambitions can as a whole be arranged to align with the common good and to protect the public rights (No. 51).

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the sole purpose of the separated powers is to check government. Most of The Federalist’s latter half is devoted to showing how the branches’ specific powers, and the mingling of these powers so that, say, the President has through the veto a portion of the legislative power, are designed to serve their functions well. Again, Publius hopes to promote good government and not only prevent bad government. The Congress, for instance, represents different interests but also draws on the experience of its members, making it the body most fit to deliberate for the sake of the common good. The presidency is designed to encourage “energy in the executive”—“a leading characteristic of good government,” necessary for “the steady administration of the laws” and answering unpredictable emergencies presented by foreign threats and domestic crises. The unity of the office allows it to exercise “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch” (No. 70). Most offices are not directly responsive to the people, and most officers serve for long terms—an advantage held by the President, Senators, and the Judiciary, providing the government energy and stability (No. 37). Still, Publius insists that a republican government need only derive its ultimate authority “directly or indirectly” from the people, and this is assuredly the case given the frequency and significance of elections in the new country (No. 39). The success of republican government, however, also depends on crafting offices that can attract and cultivate men with characters fitting to rule.

The Federalist says little about how the government will enhance the virtue of citizens; its approach to politics emphasizes property and good institutions. Throughout, however, we find descriptions of the virtues that are necessary for the Constitution’s office holders. Publius’s outlook recognizes “a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust” but also “other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” The existence of the latter qualities is important to republican government “in a higher degree than any other form” of government (No. 55). The main virtue that Publius teaches is responsibility, by which he means successfully fulfilling the duties of one’s constitutional office. Responsibility is a significant virtue of modern origin, that is, a virtue directed and confined by the objects and practices of a government founded on equality in natural rights.

The Constitution expresses the will of the people because they ratified it, but they do not regularly judge or modify it. Instead, the departments of the government contend with each other over how to interpret its meaning. Free government requires stability, which requires “veneration” or “reverence for the laws.” If the people can often change the Constitution, it cannot be worthy of their veneration. Moreover, their wishes may more often be guided by the passions of the moment than by reasoned consideration. Allowing the departments to adjust the government but keeping the Constitution fixed in the public mind helps fortify opinion on its behalf. The Constitution strengthens each individual’s “cautious and timid” reason by showing him that his views are shared by a great number across time (No. 49).

This teaching about constitutional stability reflects the caution we see elsewhere in The Federalist. Publius reminds us of the limits of human reason, especially when it comes to practical affairs. He laments that “public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good.” He shows that “an abstract view” and “theoretical propriety” cannot always prevail against passions and selfish interests (No. 37). Politics is not simply the mechanical management of passions and interests. It demands practical wisdom more than mathematical precision. Still, Publius is confident that we now have an improved “science of politics” (No. 9), and he shows we can go quite far in channeling the passions and selfish interests so that they neutralize their own worst tendencies and can be made to serve the common good. His extensive discussions of how the three branches of the new government will interact, and of the different electoral constituencies on which they are based, clarifies his expectations. Publius defends the proposed Constitution as a modern, republican regime, one in which the people, not the wise, rule, and in which the passions and interests of the people are not ignored. But the regime aims also to draw out the public’s reason so that it may rule ably. By showing citizens and statesman how to understand the Constitution at its best, Publius himself seeks to inspire veneration for a worthy object.

For further introductory reading see also:

Martin Diamond, “The Federalist” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

Charles Kesler, Introduction to The Federalist Papers New York: 2003.