Alexander Hamilton begins this brilliant discourse on the Constitution of the United States of America by asking his readers to consider a new Constitution because they have experienced the inefficiencies of the present form of government. He pronounces that the people are in a unique position to answer the most important political question of all: "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice." If the people are up to the challenge, their actions will have great worldwide significance.
He proceeds to show that many people will oppose the Constitution for a variety of reasons, especially if they benefit from the current form of government. Hamilton, however, is not going to address the motives of those who oppose the Constitution; rather, his intent is to make arguments that are for the Constitution. He addresses people questioning his willingness to listen to other arguments because he has already made up his mind to support the Constitution. However, he admits that, while his motives for urging ratification of the Constitution are personal, his arguments are open.
Finally, he outlines the specific issues that he will address in the Federalist Papers, namely, political prosperity and the Constitution; the inadequacy of the present government to preserve the union; the necessity of a strong and energetic government; the Constitution and its relationship to republican principles of government; the similarity of the proposed Constitution to the New York state constitution; and the protection of liberty and property under the proposed government. In addition, he is also attempting to effectively answer serious arguments brought against ratification.
Hamilton concludes the first section of the Federalist Papers by telling the people that it might seem unnecessary to plead for a strong Union, but the country is too large to establish a national system of government. In the end, however, the last question is whether the people adopt the Constitution or whether they will see the end of a united government.
Before beginning a more general analysis of Alexander Hamilton's remarks, it is necessary to provide the background of the political theory of educated men in the United States. First, most educated men, especially those who were at the heart of governing the new country, were extremely familiar with the republics of Ancient Greece and Rome (for example, see John Adam's book Defense of the Constitution, published at the same time as The Federalist Papers). From this background, the primary fear was that while a republican government was desirable in order to defend liberty, it was not possible over a large geographic area, such as the United States, because it had never been accomplished before. Rather, this problem had always been the downfall of republics (for instance, the fall of the Roman Empire). The other major pitfall of republics had been class war, something that the Founding Fathers had seen in the recent Shay's Rebellion.
More specifically regarding the text, the introduction to the Federalist Papers contains the outline of Hamilton's "argument," the basic points that he wishes to discuss for ratifying the new Constitution. He also explains his motives and those of his cohorts, explaining that this will not be a debate between two sides of the argument, but rather a coherent examination of the strengths of and necessity for the new Constitution. In this article, therefore, the most important part is the outline Hamilton provides, enabling the reader to classify the remaining 84 papers with ease.
It is also interesting to note that the "world-wide" fame that Hamilton speaks of in this essay occurred, just as the Founding Father predicted. The United States Constitution that Hamilton defended has become one of the most copied and admired documents in the history of civilization. Indeed, the Federalist itself was published in Spanish in 1811 by the Venezualan Manuel Garcia de Sana, along with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In addition, the Federalist influenced movements in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and in Europe. Not only did Hamilton's predictions come true, but his very words were influential far beyond the original thirteen colonies.
In summation, after reading Federalist 1, Hamilton, perhaps more than any of the founders, believed in the future greatness of America; he believed that this nation could be one of power and strength, that such power and strength, far from corrupting the nation's purpose or the rights of individuals, alone could bring to realization the former and protect the latter. The very use of the word "empire" in this paper is very telling. Characteristically, he looks ahead; he "dips into the future' and sees the Untied States as a world power. While this might not seem odd to the modern reader, in 1788 America was extremely vulnerable to European conquest and domination, not vice versa. His vision for America is even more remarkable under these circumstances.
1787First Federalist Papers are published
1788Nine states ratify the new Constitution
1789George Washington becomes the first U.S. president
1791Bill of Rights is ratified
Alexander Hamilton - New York statesman who ardently supported the Constitution; coauthor of the Federalist Papers
James Madison - Virginia lawyer; coauthor of the Federalist Papers; congressional sponsor of the Bill of Rights
John Jay - New York lawyer; coauthor of the Federalist Papers; first chief justice of the Supreme Court
Ratification of the Constitution
The Articles of Confederation stipulated that all thirteen states had to ratify any new constitution for it to take effect. To circumvent this hurdle, the delegates included in the new Constitution a section outlining a new plan for ratification. Once nine of the thirteen states had ratified the document (at special conventions with elected representatives), the Constitution would replace the Articles in those nine states. The delegates figured correctly that the remaining states would be unable to survive on their own and would have to ratify the new document as well.
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists
Debates erupted throughout the states about whether the new Constitution was an improvement. On one side were the Federalists, who favored the Constitution and a strong central government. The Federalists counted among their number many of the wealthier, propertied, and more educated Americans, including John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, among others.
On the other side were the Anti-Federalists, who favored a weaker central government in favor of stronger state legislatures. Not all of them liked the Articles of Confederation, but none of them wanted the new Constitution to be ratified. Generally from the poorer classes in the West, but also with the support of patriots like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, the Anti-Federalists feared that a stronger national government would one day destroy the liberties Americans had won in the Revolution. They worried that the new Constitution didn’t list any specific rights for the people.
A Federalist Victory
Several of the smaller states quickly ratified the Constitution because it gave them more power in the new legislative branch than they had under the Articles of Confederation. Other ratifying conventions didn’t end so quickly or peacefully. Riots broke out in several cities in 1787, and public debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were heated.
By mid-1788, nine states had ratified the Constitution, thus making it the new supreme law of the land in those nine states. Though the remaining four states—New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—had Anti-Federalist majorities who hated the new Constitution, they knew they couldn’t survive for long without the other nine states.
Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island
Just as the final four states knew they couldn’t survive without the other nine, the other nine realized they couldn’t thrive without the final four. The Federalists had succeeded in putting the Constitution into effect, but they knew the new national government would lack legitimacy unless all the states were on board. Ardent Federalists campaigned for the Constitution in the remaining states, and in time, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island ratified it by narrow margins.