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July 9, 1788

October 04, 2021 - 4 minute read


The Federalist: A Collection of Essays Written in Facour of the New Constitution

After spending several days at Mount Vernon as General George Washington’s guest, James Madison made his way to New York to resume his seat in the Confederation Congress. On June 21, New Hampshire had been the ninth State to ratify the Constitution, making its adoption official. Madison’s own State of Virginia ratified on June 25 and on July 2 Congress announced that the Constitution had been adopted. But New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island had not ratified, nor was their ratification assured. 

New York’s ratification convention 

convened in Poughkeepsie on June 17 and unanimously elected as its President Governor George Clinton, an avowed opponent of the Constitution. A year earlier, on July 21, 1787, Alexander Hamilton had submitted an anonymous letter to New York’s Daily Advertiser, accusing Clinton of opposing appointment of delegates to the Constitutional Convention which Clinton claimed would simply “beget despair in the public mind.” Hamilton charged that Clinton has dismissed the Convention as “calculated to impress the people with an idea of evils which do not exist” and that its “deliberations, whatever might be, would only serve to throw the community into confusion.” 

Hamilton closed his missive with a warning. “A free and enlightened people,” he cautioned, should watch men such as Clinton with “a jealous eye” to examine whether they have “greater attachments” to “their own power” than to “the public good.”  

Hamilton’s attack launched a flurry of rebuttals as well as support for Hamilton that lasted throughout the summer and into the fall, prompting Hamilton finally to identify himself as the author of the initial letter berating Clinton. Then came a counterattack. In late September and early October, three articles appeared in the New York Journal challenging Hamilton’s personal character, his intellectual ability, and noting his illegitimate birth in the West Indies. The writer charged Hamilton with ingratiating himself to Washington during the War for Independence and attributing his success to his influential father-in-law, Philip Schuyler.

Distressed at the smear, Hamilton wrote to Washington, specifically pointing out that his political enemies “insinuated that I had palmed myself upon you and that you dismissed me from your family” and requesting that Washington “put the matter in its true light in your answer to this letter.”  Confessing this “hurts my feelings,” Hamilton added, “it would mortify me to be under the imputation either of having obtruded myself into the family of a General or of having been turned out of it.”

 As soon as he received Hamilton’s letter, Washington replied. Although concerned that “a political dispute has arisen between Governor Clinton and yourself” (for both of whom Washington had “the highest esteem and regard”), Washington refuted the allegations against Hamilton. “Both charges are entirely unfounded,” he declared. Nevertheless, he continued, “It is to be lamented that Gentlemen of talents and character should disagree in their sentiments for promoting the public weal; but unfortunately, this ever has been, and more than probable, ever will be the case, in the affairs of men.”

Both Clinton and Hamilton would play leading roles in the New York ratifying convention, even after it received news on June 24 that the Constitution had been ratified and “a more perfect union” adopted. By that time, the debate had raged for months, nowhere more vigorously than in New York where Hamilton had devised an ambitious project to present a methodical explication of the entire Constitution.

To effectuate his plan, Hamilton recruited John Jay, James Madison, and William Duer. A descendant of French Huguenots, Jay had serviced as President of the Second Continental Congress and as Ambassador to Spain from 1779 to 1782 where he secured financial aid for the United States. He had also served with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to negotiate the Treaty of Paris which ended the War for Independence. In 1778, he had been instrumental in drafting the constitution for the newly independent State of New York.

Duer was a British-born merchant, planter and land speculator. Like Jay, Duer had participated on the committee which drafted New York’s constitution and served in the State’s first legislature. Although his writing was “intelligent and spritely” and he drafted “two or more papers,” Madison later noted “they were not continued, nor did they make a part of the printed collection.” Madison himself was invaluable to the enterprise. His personal notes and perfect attendance at the Constitutional Convention provided a unique understanding of the arguments underlying each section of the new plan of government.

The first of eighty-five essays, later to be known collectively as The Federalist, appeared in The New York Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. Writing under the pseudonym Publius, Hamilton posed a fundamental question: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”  At stake, he continued, was “nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.”

After publication of the first seven essays, they began to appear at the rate of four per week and were completed in May 1788. Originally the series was anticipated to be between twenty and twenty-five essays, but eventually reached eighty-five. The first thirty-six were published in book form on March 22, 1788, followed by a volume comprised of the remaining forty-eight in May 1788. (One of the essays was divided into two parts, making a total of eighty-five.) The essays, including those in book form, quickly made their way into the debates of other states, arguing forcefully that adoption of the Constitution would promote “the true principles of republican government,” liberty, and property.

 

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