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What are the Federalist Papers?


"The opinion of the Federalist has always been considered as of great authority. It is a complete commentary on our Constitution, and is appealed to by all parties in the questions to which that instrument has given birth. . . . "
--- The U.S. Supreme Court in Cohens v. Virginia (1821)

The following words are from historian Clinton Rossiter in, The Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Penguin Books USA Inc.

Message to Mankind

The authors and supporters of the Constitution of 1787 foresaw that a clear-cut vote against it in the State ratifying conventions would destroy at birth the young nation's most important experiment in popular government...

Alexander Hamilton, in an energetic effort to win over his home State, began a series of essays explaining and defending the Constitution. These were published in New York City newspapers under the pseudonym Publius. Hamilton was aided by contributions from two other advocates of a new and energetic national government, James Madison and John Jay. The efforts of these three men resulted in The Federalist Papers--an authoritative analysis of the Constitution of the United States and an enduring classic of political philosophy that takes its place in history beside the Constitution itself.


The Federalist is the most important work in political science that has ever been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United States. It is, indeed, the one product of the American mind that is rightly counted among the classics of political theory.

This work has always commanded widespread respect as the first and still most authoritative commentary on the Constitution of the United States.It has been searched minutely by lawyers for its analysis of the powers of Congress, quoted confidently by historians for its revelations of the hopes and fears of the framers of the Constitution, and cited magisterially by the Supreme Court for its arguments in behalf of judicial review, executive independence, and national supremacy. It would not be stretching the truth more than a few inches to say that The Federalist stands third only to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself among all the sacred writings of American political history. It has a quality of legitimacy, of authority and authenticity, that gives it the high status of a public document, one to which, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any" as to the "genuine meaning" of the Constitution.

In recent years respect for The Federalist has blossomed into admiration. It is now valued not merely as a clever defense of a particular charter, but as an exposition of certain timeless truths about constitutional government. It has caught the fancy of political scientists throughout the world, has been translated into a dozen languages, and--surely the most convincing evidence of its lofty status--has become one of the three or four staples of American college curriculum in political science. General Washington, who was trying merely to be friendly, wrote some prophetic words to Alexander Hamilton in the summer of 1788: "When the transient circumstances and fugitive performances which attended this crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of posterity, because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government--which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in civil society." The "notice of posterity" for the stern yet hopeful message of The Federalist has never been more attentive than in these drawn-out years of peril for constitutional democracy.

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