The Federalist Papers 230 Years Later
The utility of what Jefferson called "the best commentary on the principles of government ... ever written."
This week marks the 230th anniversary of the first essay in what would later be known as The Federalist Papers. Federalist No. 1, penned under the pseudonym “Publius” (later identified as Alexander Hamilton), was the first salvo launched by Hamilton and his two compatriots, John Jay and James Madison, to convince the New York delegation to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
Considered by many legal scholars and historians to be the premier documents for understanding the original intent of the Constitution, The Federalist Papers are truly cornerstones of the republic. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said the documents were “the best commentary on the principles of government … ever written,” and yet many Americans are unfamiliar with their contents or their importance to the foundation of the United States.
In an era where people try to communicate ideas in 140 characters or less, The Federalist Papers serve as a shining example of clear thought and well-argued rhetoric. They also serve as a clarion call for unity in a day and age when people seem more focused on what divides us rather than what unites.
Hamilton’s prose in Federalist No. 1, while incredibly moving and poignant, was also the dynamic scene setter for the rest of the essays and articles. When Hamilton wrote about how the proposed Constitution’s conformity nests with the true principles of Republican virtues he was advocating for nothing short of a political revolution.
As a veteran of the War of Independence, Hamilton innately understood that the conflict with the British was but the first step in the transformation of 13 separate and distinct colonies into a new nation. Understanding the momentous crossroads facing the United States, Hamilton asked the critical question in Federalist No. 1: “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.”
Hamilton, and his numerous allies, realized they had to put forth a well-reasoned and cogent argument in favor of a strong government that would preserve the Union while still respecting states’ and individual rights.
And that is the key legacy of The Federalist Papers. They serve as the intellectual underpinning of the Liberty that we, as American citizens, continue to enjoy today. While the 21st century is a vastly different environment — socially, economically, politically and culturally — from when the Papers were written, the values they represent continue to resonate with all Americans.
The ideas propagated in the Federalist Papers — union, representative government and judicial review to name a few — form the bedrock of the compact we live under today. For that, all Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Hamilton, Jay and Madison.
Yet as Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” and recent polling shows that the nation is failing to live up to the legacy bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers.
According to the Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 37% can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and only 26% can name all three branches of government. These numbers are quite shocking, especially considering when we all live in “The Information Age.” Worse, this ignorance is an enormous threat to our Constitution.
The Federalist Papers are a seminal text for all Americans and it’s time for all citizens to reacquaint themselves with these dynamic treatises. We encourage all readers to look at outstanding links like Gregg Maggs’ guide on the Federalist Papers or take the free online The Federalist Papers course offered by Hillsdale College.
Both links are incredibly relevant to the challenges faced by our nation today and will enable anyone to better understand their feeling about things like judicial overreach, usurpation of individual rights and legislative gridlock. Only by studying and appreciating our past can we move forward in our individual and collective pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.