As we saw a few months back, the ratification of the U.S. Constitution caused no end of debate among the Colonists. The new charter called for a stronger central government than the Articles it replaced, albeit a three-sided government designed to hold itself in check.
But its passage, in September of 1787, had the effect of dividing the Colonies along political lines. Hyperbole, foolish rhetoric, and exaggeration certainly aren’t exclusive to our day, and they were rampant as the second half of 1787’s September turned to October. Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is immensely quotable, and his characterization of the time is most telling.
“The rancor ushered in a golden age of literary assassination in American politics. No etiquette had yet evolved to define the legitimate boundaries of dissent. Poison-pen artists on both sides wrote vitriolic essays that were overtly partisan, often paid scant heed to accuracy, and sought a visceral impact.”
It was against this backdrop that Alexander Hamilton, already busy with the duties of an attorney, threw himself into a project of his own creation…defending the U.S. Constitution. While Hamilton possessed a brilliant mind, he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t handle all aspects of a proper defense. So he assembled a “dream team”.
John Jay, with his sharp intellect and strong integrity, was the first choice. The two of them then selected three additional supporting writers. James Madison and Gouverneur Morris were natural choices, as both had been at the Constitutional Convention and would most clearly understand the Framers’ intents. The fifth was William Duer, with whom we are also familiar.
Morris really wanted to contribute, but was too busy. Duer began a couple papers, but they weren’t finished and didn’t make the completed set. That left Jay, Madison, and Hamilton. Jay, with his expertise in foreign affairs (he had helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783), handled that arena. Madison covered issues relating to the Republic itself. Hamilton took the executive and judiciary sections, taxes, and the military.
In the end, John Jay’s rheumatism limited him to a mere 5 essays, so the Constitution’s defense became largely a two-man show. James Madison wrote 29 essays, and Hamilton contributed the remaining 51.
The first of the essays, from Hamilton, appeared in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. Over the next seven months, these writings, penned by the anonymous “Publius”, would lay the groundwork of “Constitutional” understanding to the public.
More than 200 years later, those same essays, published as The Federalist Papers, continue to give us insight into the hearts and minds of the creators of one of the most exceptional documents in written history.
Recommended Reading: The Federalist Papers – Every American citizen should read at least two works…the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers. I’ve read the first, but sadly, only a couple of essays from the second. That will change. I’m making The Federalist the first book on my 2010 reading schedule. I challenge you to do the same.