I have read about half of the Federalist Papers, a collection of over 80 papers written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay under the pseudonym Publius. The articles ran in New York newspapers and were intended to influence the key decision makers in New York to vote in favor of the proposed constitution for the United States. The authors included arguments for a strong central government, examples of the pitfalls of the Articles of Confederation, and stories of the necessity of a strong centralized government to protect the people and help the newly formed states establish themselves in a world of entrenched political powers across the Atlantic.
Like our vision of “original intent” the meaning of the Federalist Papers has shifted over time and they have come to represent something greater than what they originally were. Many people look back at the Federalist Papers as a type of manual outlining the thoughts, intentions, and goals of our founding fathers when writing the constitution. We see them as incredibly influential articles that shaped the understanding of the constitution and the direction our nation would move. Joseph Ellis, author of The Quartet sees this view of the federalist papers as troubling. He states, “It is highly likely the Federalist Papers have exercised a larger effect on our later perceptions of the debate over ratification than they did over the debate itself.” Ellis argues that in some ways, the Federalist Papers can be viewed as advocacy propaganda saved from the winning side of an argument and distorted by a victorious view of history.
“Even our modern inclination to see the Federalist Papers as the seminal statement of “the original intentions” of the framers is historically incorrect, since Publius represented only one side of the ratification debate–the winning side, to be sure, but a wholly partisan perspective. Finally, the Federalist Papers were aimed not at posterity but at a limited audience of the moment. As Madison later explained, Publius was intended “to promote the ratification of the new Constitution by the State of N. York, where it was powerfully opposed, and where success was deemed of critical importance.””
When we look back at the Federalist Papers we read into them what we want to see today and we find support for the ideas we already have. The articles themselves are brilliant and insightful when thinking about government and governance today, but in many ways they cannot be thought of as technical blueprint of the Constitution. They are powerful justifications for the decisions made in adopting the Constitution, but they are just another argument that we can learn from when thinking about how to structure government and the decisions made 230 years ago.