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Review of "The Federalist Papers" by

Three of the Founding Fathers of the USA explain in wise and inspiring detail why the draft US Constitution should be adopted

Summary

20 August 2020

A little while ago, I became guilty of a bad behaviour. I realised I was telling other people “Do as I say, rather than as I do.”

Specifically, I was encouraging other people to read “The Federalist Papers” without having read them myself! When I focused on this, I purchased a copy and recently finished reading them.

While I prefer to do most of my reading on paper, in this case for convenience I purchased the Kindle edition. If you wish, you can download a free PDF as they are long out of copyright.

The authors

The papers were published anonymously, but are known to be by three authors, all of whom were key figures in the birth of the United States of America:

Alexander Hamilton

The success of the wonderful musical “Hamilton” has brought the name and life of Alexander Hamilton to a new generation, few of whom would otherwise have heard of him.

His single most important contribution to the country was his service as the first Secretary of the Treasury where he was the inspiration behind the US federal government taking over the debts of the individual states. This “Hamilton moment” is often mentioned when discussing the current travails of the eurozone.

James Madison

James Madison went on to become the fourth president of the USA.

John Jay

John Jay became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Overview of the book

The book consists of 85 papers, each of which was published anonymously in a newspaper in New York state under the pen name “Publius.”

For those unfamiliar with American history, after the Americans’ military success in the War of Independence, the 13 colonies, now independent states, set up a confederacy. This confederacy did not work well, and so a constitutional convention was held to draft a new constitution for the United States of America.

This draft constitution was a negotiated compromise, and many opposed it. Accordingly, the Federalist papers were written to persuade people to support the adoption of the draft constitution.

Below is a full list of the titles of the 85 papers. A quick glance shows how they systematically work through the different parts of the proposed constitution, explaining what was good about it.

Full list of the 85 Federalist Papers

  1. General Introduction
  2. Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence
  3. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence
  4. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence
  5. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence
  6. Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States
  7. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States
  8. The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States
  9. The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection
  10. The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection
  11. The Utility of the Union in Respect to Commercial Relations and a Navy
  12. The Utility of the Union in Respect to Revenue
  13. Advantage of the Union in Respect to Economy in Government
  14. Objections to the Proposed Constitution from Extent of Territory Answered
  15. The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
  16. The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
  17. The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
  18. The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
  19. The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
  20. The Same Subject Continued: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union
  21. Other Defects of the Present Confederation
  22. The Same Subject Continued: Other Defects of the Present Confederation
  23. The Necessity of a Government as Energetic as the One Proposed to the Preservation of the Union
  24. The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered
  25. The Same Subject Continued: The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered
  26. The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered
  27. The Same Subject Continued: The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered
  28. The Same Subject Continued: The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered
  29. Concerning the Militia
  30. Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  31. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  32. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  33. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  34. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  35. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  36. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation
  37. Concerning the Difficulties of the Convention in Devising a Proper Form of Government
  38. The Same Subject Continued, and the Incoherence of the Objections to the New Plan Exposed
  39. The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles
  40. The Powers of the Convention to Form a Mixed Government Examined and Sustained
  41. General View of the Powers Conferred by the Constitution
  42. The Powers Conferred by the Constitution Further Considered
  43. The Same Subject Continued: The Powers Conferred by the Constitution Further Considered
  44. Restrictions on the Authority of the Several States
  45. The Alleged Danger from the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered
  46. The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared
  47. The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts
  48. These Departments Should Not Be So Far Separated as to Have No Constitutional Control Over Each Other
  49. Method of Guarding Against the Encroachments of Any One Department of Government
  50. Periodic Appeals to the People Considered
  51. The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments
  52. The House of Representatives
  53. The Same Subject Continued: The House of Representatives
  54. The Apportionment of Members Among the States
  55. The Total Number of the House of Representatives
  56. The Same Subject Continued: The Total Number of the House of Representatives
  57. The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many
  58. Objection That The Number of Members Will Not Be Augmented as the Progress of Population Demands Considered
  59. Concerning the Power of Congress to Regulate the Election of Members
  60. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the Power of Congress to Regulate the Election of Members
  61. The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the Power of Congress to Regulate the Election of Members
  62. The Senate
  63. The Senate Continued
  64. The Powers of the Senate
  65. The Powers of the Senate Continued
  66. Objections to the Power of the Senate to Set as a Court for Impeachments Further Considered
  67. The Executive Department
  68. The Mode of Electing the President
  69. The Real Character of the Executive
  70. The Executive Department Further Considered
  71. The Duration in Office of the Executive
  72. The Same Subject Continued, and Re-Eligibility of the Executive Considered
  73. The Provision for the Support of the Executive, and the Veto Power
  74. The Command of the Military and Naval Forces, and the Pardoning Power of the Executive
  75. The Treaty Making Power of the Executive
  76. The Appointing Power of the Executive
  77. The Appointing Power Continued and Other Powers of the Executive Considered
  78. The Judiciary Department
  79. The Judiciary Continued
  80. The Powers of the Judiciary
  81. The Judiciary Continued, and the Distribution of the Judicial Authority
  82. The Judiciary Continued
  83. The Judiciary Continued in Relation to Trial by Jury
  84. Certain General and Miscellaneous Objections to the Constitution Considered and Answered
  85. Concluding Remarks

Why the book matters

The authors were well versed in history, particularly ancient Greece and Rome as well as more recent European history. They understood, and explain very well, what makes a government work or stop it working.

Their explanation of why the US Constitution is constructed the way it is helps you to understand why it has stood the test of time so well.

Their writings also clarify the distinction between words that are often confused, particularly because their meaning changes over time. The words below, as used by them, did not have exactly the same meaning as they do today.

Democracy

The authors understood this word to mean all questions being decided by a vote of the entire citizenry, as in ancient Athens. Today, we would understand this as meaning that all questions would be put to a referendum of all citizens.

Representative government

The authors understood these words in the same way as we would today. Citizens elect representatives who then take decisions, for example in Parliament in the UK or in Congress in the USA.

Many of our political arguments today derived from sloppy language, where the word “democratic” is used without being precise about what the speaker means by “democracy.” I regularly hear people saying that a government action is "not democratic" despite it being the decision of an elected legislature.

Concluding comments

At over 600 pages, this may feel like a daunting read. It is not, because it is very easy to read one paper at a time. Despite being written in the late 1700s, the language is perfectly accessible for a reader in 2020.

As well as helping you to understand the USA much better, reading this book will help you to understand what makes a representative government succeed, and vital concepts such as the separation of powers.

I recommend it to readers everywhere who wish to be engaged citizens of a free country whose people elect their government.

 

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