The first Federalist essay appeared in The Independent Journal in October 1787, just 4 weeks after the Constitutional Convention presented the U.S. Constitution to the states for ratification. It was one of an eventual 85 such essays, which argued in strong support of the Constitution, and which were published serially in New York newspapers during the next 6 months. Later compiled into a single volume entitled The Federalist, the collection of essays is considered to be one of the most important articulations of American political philosophy to this date.
The political philosophy contained in The Federalist is based on the theories of the European philosophes of the Enlightenment, historical examples, and the experience of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The essays not only provided historical arguments and philosophical theories about the nature of individuals and government, but also strong criticisms of the weaknesses inherent in the Articles of Confederation The overall purpose of the essays was to convince the people that a more energetic and stronger centralized government would be more protective of their liberty.
The European philosophers influencing the statement of political philosophy in The Federalist included John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Thomas Hobbes. These philosophes thought in terms of natural rights, and described the forms of government best suited to protect these rights. They acknowledged that an individual's impulse towards self-preservation, liberty, and self-interest would fundamentally come into conflict with the competing needs of other individuals. Therefore, the best form of government balanced the selfish needs of the individual with the need to protect the whole community.
The theoretical idea that too much liberty can be bad for an orderly society was evidenced by the U.S government during the years of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles provided for only a loose confederation of independent states, and the national government rested in a single legislative body called Congress that was vested only with the authority to legislate on matters related to mutual defense. Fearful of creating a strong central government similar to Great Britain, delegates placed significant power with the state governments and greatly restricted the powers of the national government. Congress was hampered by its own lack of power to enforce its laws, collect funds, regulate trade, or to provide uniform and binding judgment upon each of the member states.
Many far-sighted leaders realized that the self-interests of the states would eventually tear the union apart, and that the Articles of Confederation provided no legal or political means to stop it. States quarreled with one another over land claims, commerce regulations, and frequently erected imposts against neighboring states. Although strictly forbidden by the Articles, states established relations and treaties with foreign nations and refused to send much needed tax money to Congress. Due to the difficult amendment process, attempts to endow congress with greater authority to tax and to regulate commerce could be stopped by the refusal of a single state.
Interested in bringing a degree of unity to at least trade and commerce, the Virginia legislature called a meeting of delegates from states interested in devising uniform trade regulations. Despite the sparse attendance of states at the Annapolis Convention in 1786, this meeting inspired another meeting for the express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.
Leaders' worries about the chaos that results from too much liberty came to fruition with Shays' Rebellion in the winter of 1787. A disgruntled farmer named Daniel Shays demonstrated the inability of a weak central government to stand in the way of personal liberty and self-interest. When he staged a rebellion against unfair tax laws in Massachusetts, he provided all the incentive needed for 12 of the 13 states to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that following May. The state could barely stop the rebellion, and the national government had no power to do so.
The experience during the Articles of Confederation led delegates to believe that a weak central government did not have enough authority to provide order and security or to protect the rights of individuals. They agreed to do away with the old system completely, and at the end of the summer of 1787, the convention presented a new plan of government entitled the U.S. Constitution. This document called for a strong central government, one that would be the authority over all the state governments and that would provide a unified authority on legislating, enforcing and judging laws. The Federalists applauded the document for bringing such energy to a centralized body. The Anti-federalists feared what the new plan would do to encroach upon individual rights and liberty.
The federalist papers provided strong and rational justifications for each choice made by the Constitutional Convention, and also persuaded citizens that by placing less power in the hands of the people, the government could provide greater protection for the people. The authors of the federalist essays, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, sought to explain the superiority of the new plan through the use of historical examples, references to the natural rights and behaviors of man, and by appealing to the reader's sense of patriotism.
Although the document originated with Alexander Hamilton's concern about ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the state of New York, leaders in many states used the arguments constructed in the essays to support ratification of the Constitution. Since both Hamilton and Madison had served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the essays were all published under the name Publius. They felt their arguments would be criticized as subjective because they took a large part in crafting the very document they defended. The struggle for ratification in New York and Virginia, two of the most powerful states, continued even after the Constitution received the required 9 of 13 state approvals. Technically, the Constitution would have gone into effect whether New York or Virginia ratified or not.
But the composing of the federalist essays was not a pointless exercise, despite the fact that the Constitution became effective without New York's support. In attempting to convince the American audience that they had the unique opportunity to be a part of the first experiment with a federal republic, Publius succeeded in articulating a uniquely American political philosophy, practical in nature, yet founded on solid historical examples, philosophical theories, and most importantly on the experience of a nation that had actually struggled to achieve the much theorized balance between liberty and order.