Under a provision agreed to by the delegates of the Philadelphia Convention and approved by Congress, the Constitution had to be ratified by nine states in order to go into effect. Despite its having the backing of America's brightest statesmen, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and the Revolutionary hero George Washington, however, the Constitution had its enemies. George Mason and Virginia governor Edmund Randolph, members of the Virginia delegation to the Convention, had both refused to sign it. At the Virginia ratification convention Mason and Patrick Henry opposed ratification because the proposed new government was potentially too strong.
In addition to being large and populous states, Virginia and New York had the nation's biggest and most diversified economies and could conceivably stand alone if necessary. If both were to refuse to ratify, the Union would probably fail. In Virginia, even the friends of the Constitution estimated its support at no more than 50 percent of the voting population, while in New York the opposition seemed even stronger. By virtue of size, population, and wealth New York and Virginia held virtual veto power over the ratification process.
Friends of the Constitution in New York organized a campaign to sell the new plan of government by writing a series of newspaper essays. The main organizer and architect of the campaign was Alexander Hamilton, a New York lawyer who had been a delegate to the Philadelphia convention. Hamilton enlisted the help of fellow lawyer John Jay. Madison happened to be in New York on official business at the time and agreed to assist Hamilton as well, and ultimately ended up authoring nearly 40 percent of the series.
What we know as the Federalist Papers, is actually a series of eighty-five essays written by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison between October 1787 and May 1788. The essays were published anonymously, under the pseudonym “Publius,” and were contemporaneously known as The Federalist. Originally and primarily published in two New York state newspapers—The New York Packet and The Independent Journal—the essays were reprinted by a number of other New York newspapers, as well as by newspapers in several other cities and states.
In arguing for the adoption of the Constitution, the essays explained particular provisions of the Constitution in detail. For this reason, and because Hamilton and Madison were each important members of the Constitutional Convention, The Federalist Papers are often used today as a means to interpret the intentions of those drafting the Constitution. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison responded to and answered questions and charges that opponents of ratification raised. They contained warnings of dangers from tyranny that weaknesses in the proposed Constitution did not adequately provide against. Many of the Anti-Federalist writers, while not a cohesive, focused group like that that of Hamilton, Jay and Madison, were articulate critics and described serious concerns.
Written by Madison, The Federalist #10 ranks as a classic of political science. Prior to Madison it was generally believed that representative government could only work in small societies, where factionalism, the tendency of people to form cliques or other groups based on mutual interest, language, culture or other commonalities could easily constitute a majority and oppress minority groups.
With Federalist #10 Madison stood this conventional wisdom on its head. Distinguishing republican government from pure democracy, he explained that an extended republic would not only make it possible to govern a large territory through a system of representation but would also obviate the dangers of faction by virtue of its size.
1. In Federalist #10, what does James Madison identify as the primary threat to government?
2. How does he suggest that threat best be dealt with?
3. What does Madison mean by “tyranny of the majority”?
1. This document outlines Madison's plan to structure a popularly elected government that can both protect private rights and provide public order and security. Is this realistic? Does Madison have too high of expectations for the government? Has the government lived up to Madison's expectations?
Borden, Morten, ed. The Antifederalist Papers. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1965.
The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. New York: J. and A. M'Lean, 1788. (many reprints available)
Kernell, Samuel, ed. James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government. California: Stanford University Press, 2003.