Seminal US Texts: Reasoning & Principles

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will familiarize you with the reasoning and principles of the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers, two key texts in understanding the development of American government. Read on to learn about these seminal U.S. texts.

U.S. Government Seminal Texts

You may have heard or said yourself that there is too much fighting between Democrats and Republicans to get anything done these days. The two major political parties have been compared to divorced parents who are more concerned with getting the kids to hate the other parent than with the well-being of their children!

It's easy to become frustrated with this kind of behavior. However, did you know that the principles of U.S. law were formed from a long and fierce fight between the first two political parties in the U.S.? We even have a record of this epic battle in two sets of letters, the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers.

Context of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers is a series of letters written to major newspapers in the state of New York between October 1787 and August 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These letters were meant to persuade people that the recently formed United States should adopt the Constitution as its new legal foundation. This required ratification, or agreement, by nine of the thirteen states.

Many states were reluctant to agree to the Constitution unless it provided specific protections from federal power, and opponents of the Constitution wrote a series of letters during this same span of time and beyond, sometimes referred to as the Anti-Federalist Papers. The result was the first public debate between political parties in the U.S. The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers are key texts for understanding the reasoning and principles that eventually led to the Constitution as we know it today.

The Principle of the Federalist Papers

In the first of the eighty-five letters that would eventually become the Federalist Papers, Hamilton (writing under the pseudonym, Publius) laid out their general purpose: to convince opponents of the Constitution that its model of central government was the best way to ensure the unity, security, and liberty of the new nation.

The government of the United States in 1787 was a loose coalition of its thirteen states, bound by an agreement called the Articles of Confederation, under which the governments of each state had primary jurisdiction over most legal matters. Hamilton, later joined by Madison and Jay, argued point by point in favor of a new government, as described in the Constitution.

The Reasoning of the Federalist Papers

Hamilton, Madison, and Jay convincingly outlined the Constitution's solutions to problems that the Articles of Confederation could not adequately address. One of the these was the administration of a single military that could defend all the states against foreign attacks rather than an unorganized set of state militias, which would be difficult to coordinate in the event of such attacks.

Another benefit, they contended, was the establishment of a sense of unity and common purpose, rather than divisive loyalties to particular states. A third argument was for a commercial regulatory system that would prevent states from exploiting each other for their own economic interests.

The Principle of the Anti-Federalist Papers

The Anti-Federalists felt that a federal government could not sufficiently account for the diverse interests of the individual states and had the potential to become too powerful. The authors of the Anti-Federalist Papers, who included Samuel Bryan and Patrick Henry, were more numerous and less organized than the Federalists.

Nonetheless, they published persuasive letters of their own that argued against what they saw as major flaws in the Constitution. The authors were aware that the Constitution may eventually become the law of the land, but they hoped to alter it, and they did. Their arguments forced the Federalists to add the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments, to the Constitution.

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