Michael I. Meyerson

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Liberty's Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World

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Liberty’s Blueprint is a biography of a great book, the past, present, and future of the Federalist Papers — how they were written, how they were read, and what we can use in the twenty-first century.”

—Richard Brookhiser, author of What Would the Founders Do? and George Washington on Leadership

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What were the Federalist Papers?
The Federalist Papers were a series of newspaper essays written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with a small assist from John Jay) to support the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–1788. Click here for more information.

What’s the difference between the Federalist Society and the Federalist Papers?
According to their website, “The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order.”  The group, which began in 1982, took its name from the Federalist Papers for two reasons: 1) They believed that the Papers supported their views on separation of powers and states’ rights and 2) They wanted to link their legal and political to the “original understanding” of those who wrote the Constitution. 

Unfortunately, the Federalist Society has not embraced all of the Federalist Papers.  They have tended to “cherry-pick” quotations from The Federalist, and omit any statements which would contradict their positions. Thus, you do not generally see the Federalist Society sharing quotes from The Federalist  such as:

“It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” (Fed. 51 — Madison)


“[T]he courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority” (Fed. 78 — Hamilton)

Why don’t liberals read the Federalist Papers?
Far too many liberals are dismissive of the writings and teachings of those who helped write the Constitution. [One suspects that these were the same liberals who decided to let conservatives claim “patriotism” and “prayer” as conservative virtues] They see men such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton as emblematic of those who represented the white, male elite of the eighteenth century and were opposed to the blossoming democratic yearnings of post-revolutionary America. Such liberals accept the views of the political scientist Robert Dahl, who wrote that we should not feel bound by those who “wished to erect a political system that would guarantee the liberties of certain minorities whose advantages of status, power, and wealth would … probably not be tolerated indefinitely by a constitutionally untrammeled majority.”

Not only is this an inaccurate appraisal of Madison’s and Hamilton’s opinions, this objection mistakes the authors for their words. Most importantly, this myopic interpretation ignores the great teachings of The Federalist which warn of the abuse of governmental power, the role of Congress in policing the President, and the need to protect minorities against majoritarian oppression.

Why is the numbering of the Federalist Papers so messed up?
The main confusion derives from the fact that the essays of The Federalist appeared both in the newspapers and in book form, but with different numbering in each. After 35 essays had appeared in various New York City newspapers, the first volume of the book appeared on March 22, 1788.  It was published by John and Archibald M’Lean and  ran a total of 233 pages.  In getting the essays ready for print, Alexander Hamilton made several small editorial and altered the order of some of the essays. The essay which had appeared in newspapers as Federalist 35 discussed regulation of the militia,  and  followed a discussion of taxation issues. Hamilton had it renumbered as Federalist 29, so that it could follow the essays addressing military matters. Hamilton also divided one large essay into two shorter ones. What had been Federalist 31 in the newspapers thus appeared as Federalist 32 and 33 in the book.  Because of the all of this moving around, the essays that had appeared in newspapers numbered 36–76 were published in the book form of The Federalist  as 37–77.  Most people citing The Federalist today utilized the book’s numbering, which is generally called M’Lean numbering

What is your favorite Federalist paper?
Although Federalist 10 is the most famous, my personal favorite is number Federalist 51. In Federalist 51, Madison combines the four great themes of The Federalist: The fact that anyone with power is liable to abuse it; the need for a system of checks and balances to ensure the separation of powers; the value of ensuring that both the federal and state governments have sufficient power; and the fact that in any democracy there is a danger that a majority will oppress a minority.

Which Federalist Papers have been cited most by the Supreme Court?
In an article in the Kentucky Law Journal, The Supreme Court and The Federalist: A Supplement, 2001–2006, 95 Ky. L.J. 749 (2006/2007), Buckner Melton, Jr. & Carol Melton reviewed all of the cases citing individual Federalist Papers.   The top five finishers were:
1) Federalist 78 (Hamilton)(cited in 39 cases) – Discusses the power of judicial review; Says courts may not “substitute their own pleasure to the constitutional intentions of the legislature”; Courts “were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature”
2) Federalist 81 (Hamilton)(cited in 35 cases) Basis for 11th Amendment rules limiting cases when individuals can sue States for monetary damages: “It is inherent in the nature of sovereignty not to be amenable to the suit of an individual without its consent.”
3) Federalist 42 (Madison)(cited in 35 cases): Commerce Clause Power for Congress, which must “provide for the harmony and proper intercourse among the States.”
4) Federalist 44 (Madison)(cited in 29 cases) Discusses the “Supremacy Clause” and Congress’s power under the “Necessary and Proper clause”: “Without the substance of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter.”
5) Federalist 32 (Hamilton)(cited in 28 cases) State and Federal power to tax: “the power of imposing taxes on all articles other than exports and imports… is manifestly a concurrent and coequal authority in the United States and in the individual States.”

Are there any Federalist Papers which the Supreme Court has never cited?
According to the study in the Kentucky Law Journal, the Court has never cited Federalist 13, 14, 61, 67, 72, and 85. Most of these omissions are not surprising because the essays deal with topics not likely on the Court’s agenda: 13 argues that it is less expensive to have a centralized administration than separate civil officers for each state, 61 compares the power of Congress and the States to regulate the location where elections are held; 67 states the benefits in having Electors choose the President, 72 explains why there are no limits [at least before the 22nd Amendment] to how often a President can be re-elected; and 85 contains what Hamilton called his “concluding remarks.” 

The biggest surprise is Federalist 14, which was Madison’s second essay for the series and explained the need for a strong central government whose powers would be “limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.”  Federalist 14 is also known for Madison’s most flowery language:

“But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness.”

Whose essays are more important, Hamilton or Madison?
Madison wrote the essays which most provide timeless lessons for all free governments. For example, he discussed the danger inherent in any democracy: “If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” Federalist 51. Similarly he explained the need to give each branch of government the power to police the others “Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of these departments, in the constitution of the government, and to trust to these parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power?” Federalist 48

On the other hand, Hamilton wrote the analysis of the Constitutional Provisions dealing with both the President and the courts. While Madison described how Congress would function, Hamilton’s essays are essential reading to understand how our system of separation of powers would work.  Additionally, the first essay of the series, written by Hamilton, presents an important example for all who wish to use reason to prevail in a political dispute.

Who would be more fun to have a drink with?
Hamilton certainly had much more fun in public. With blue eyes and gentle features, he was widely described as “handsome” and “attractive to women.”
At parties, he would tend to be the center of attention, though John Adams did remark on  Hamilton’s “audacious and unblushing attempt upon ladies of the highest rank and purest virtue.” Madison’s public persona was quite different. One woman called him “a gloomy stiff creature,” and another, described him as “mute, cold, and repulsive”.

If I were able to have a private moment with one, though, I would probably choose Madison.  According to his closest friends, such as Thomas Jefferson, remarked on his warmth and sense of humor out of the public eye, and it would have been wonderful to be one of the hundreds who made the trek to Madison’s home, Montpelier, in Orange, Virginia, after he left the White House, to hear him describe what it was like to help draft the Constitution.