The Federalist Papers: History, Writers & Summary

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  • 0:05 Birth of the Constitution
  • 1:30 Federalist Papers
  • 3:18 Publication & Credit
  • 4:43 Importance
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The Federalist Papers were a collection of political essays from the 18th century written by several Founding Fathers of the United States. In this lesson, we'll learn more about the Federalist Papers and why they are still important today.

Birth of the Constitution

Remember back in middle school history class, when you learned about the Constitution of the United States? Everyone knows how important the Constitution is. It sets out the way our federal government works, the basic laws and rights that all citizens have and generally shapes life in America.

But what some people don't know is that the Constitution almost wasn't accepted. In 1781, just a few years after the United States became a country, the states completed voting to ratify, or approve, a document called the Articles of Confederation. This gave all the power of government to the states.

This worked for a few years, but soon it became clear that America needed a central government that was able to tax citizens and provide both support and cohesion to the states. A group of men, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, decided to write a new document that described a federal government for the United States. This became the Constitution of the United States.

In 1787, just six years after the Articles of Confederation was ratified, the Constitution was sent out to the states for approval. But the public was divided; some people were in favor of the Constitution, while others saw it intruding upon the rights of individual states. In several states, debate over whether the Constitution should be ratified became heated.

Federalist Papers

New York was one of the states where the debate over the ratification of the Constitution was in full swing in the fall of 1787. Shortly after the Constitution was sent to the states for approval, several essays appeared in New York newspapers arguing that New York should not ratify the Constitution.

In response, Hamilton, Madison and their friend, politician John Jay, decided to write a series of articles to sway the public in favor of the Constitution. These became known as The Federalist or The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers began to appear in several New York newspapers in October of 1787, all written under the name 'Publius.' Hamilton realized that most people against the new Constitution were afraid that it took away power from the states and would drastically reduce their freedom. In response, the Federalist Papers focused on explaining in greater detail each of the parts of the Constitution and exactly what they meant. In this way, the essays served to educate as well as persuade citizens that the Constitution should be ratified.

Between October 1787 and May 1788, the three writers published 77 essays. Sometimes as many as three or four essays would appear in a week, all seemingly written by one person. Because of the volume and pace of publication, as well as the arguments, it was difficult for opponents of the Constitution to address all of the arguments made by 'Publius' in the Federalist Papers. In July of 1788, perhaps in part due to the influence of the Federalist Papers, New York became the 11th state to ratify the Constitution of the United States.

Publication & Credit

The Federalist Papers became so popular that they were published in two volumes in the spring of 1788. Along with the original 77 essays, the authors added eight additional essays for a total of 85. Several other editions were published in the years that followed.

In 1792, a French edition listed the authors of the Federalist Papers as Madison, Hamilton and Jay. This was the first time that the three had been listed as the authors, instead of the pseudonym 'Publius.' In 1810, a new edition of the Federalist Papers was printed with the names of the authors attached to each of the essays. For the first time, people could see which article was written by which man. The attributions were based on a list that Hamilton gave to the publisher, and he took credit for 63 of the essays himself.

In 1818, Madison provided his own list of the authors of each essay for a new edition. Madison didn't outright accuse Hamilton of taking credit for the essays that he hadn't written, instead saying that Hamilton might have made a mistake when writing out his list. Madison listed himself as author on 11 essays that Hamilton had previously taken credit for.

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