A classic of American political thought, The Federalist is a series of eighty-five essays by three authorsAlexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jaythe purpose of which was to gain support for the proposed new Constitution of the United States, a document that many considered too radical. Most of the papers” were published in periodicals as the vote on approving it drew near. Without the support of these powerfully persuasive essays, the Constitution most likely would not have been ratified and America might not have survived as a nation.
Beginning with an assault upon the country’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, the authors of The Federalist present a masterly defense of the new system. Hamilton, Madison, and Jaythree of our most influential founderscomment brilliantly on issue after issue, whether it be the proper size and scope of government, taxation, or impeachment. Today lawmakers and politicians frequently invoke these commentaries, more than 200 years after they first appeared.
Written in haste and during a time of great crisis in the new American government, the articles were not expected to achieve immortality. Today, however, many historians consider The Federalist as the third most important political document in American history, just behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. They have become the benchmark of American political philosophy, and the best explanation of what the Founding Fathers were trying to achieve.
Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University; he teaches in both the Law School and the English Department. His books include Law and Letters in American Culture, The American Enlightenment, 17501820, and Reading the Early Republic.