The 5 most important federalist documents - history in graphics (2023)

The 5 most important federalist documents - history in graphics (1)

America's early days are filled with influential documents spanning centuries. One of the most important is the Federalist Papers. What exactly are the Federalist Papers and what was their purpose?

After the American Revolution, the new American nation took off under a new government. The new government operated under the Articles of Confederation after ratification by all 13 states during the revolution.

It quickly became apparent that the federal statutes severely restricted the powers of the federal government. The federal government could not create an army or navy, collect taxes, or regulate interstate or foreign commerce.

In all these cases, the federal government had to rely on the states, an arrangement that left the United States weak. There was no better example of this than the failure of the United States to pressure the British to evacuate their border forts, as promised in the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (it did not last untilJay's contract of 1794that the British finally left).

Additionally,Shay's Rebellionit also highlighted the weakness of the articles when the federal government was unable to put down a rebellion by citizens of rural Massachusetts.

This crisis led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where delegates proposed the new Constitution of the United States. Before it could enter into force, nine of the thirteen states had to ratify the document.

This should not be an easy task. Many states had reservations about the new constitution, including one of the largest at the time: New York.

To help defend the new constitution, some of the brightest minds of the day came together to convince citizens of the document's purpose. The result was the Federalist Papers.



  • What are the Federalist Documents?
  • federalist journalists
  • The Legacy of the Federalist Papers
  • Top 5 Federalist Newspapers
    • Summary of Federalist #10
    • Federalists Summary #39
    • Federalist Summary #51
    • Federalist Summary #68
    • Federalist Summary #78
  • Diploma
  • Fuentes

What are the Federalist Documents?

The Federalist Papers were a series of essays written and published to defend the new constitution and persuade its critics to ratify it.

The new constitution had many opponents, known as antifederalists. This faction generally thought that this new form of government would give the federal government too much power. Some have argued that the powers granted were even greater than those of Great Britain over the colonies.

(Video) Federalist 10, Explained [AP Government FOUNDATIONAL Documents]

This concentrated power worried people that their freedoms would be threatened. In addition, the rights of states would be severely restricted. With no guarantee of individual liberties through a Bill of Rights, major states like New York and Virginia refused to ratify the Constitution.

Immediately after the proposed constitution, opponents began attacking the document through journalistic essays. Leading anti-federalists wrote these essays under pen names such as "Brutus" and "Cato."

Three influential defenders of the constitution, known as Federalists, responded by writing 85 essays over several months, declaring their support for the constitution and explaining in detail why it was the best form of government for the new nation.

The 5 most important federalist documents - history in graphics (2)

They also wrote under the pen name "Publius", named for the Roman Publius Valerius Publicola, who was supposedly instrumental in founding theroman republic.

The trial series was originally grouped together and simply calledthe federalist. The trials were only released years later.the federalist newspapers.

New York newspapers published the essays with the express aim of persuading New York legislators to ratify the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were extremely popular, so much so that newspapers ended up reprinting them in other states.

The arguments were so compelling that Federalists in other states used them as models to defend the merits of the constitution.

federalist journalists

The three influential authors of the Federalist Papers were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

Alexander Hamilton was the first to come up with the idea for the essay series. Hamilton knew that he had to respond to critics of the Constitution. In his home state of New York, support for ratification was weak, with even the other two New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention refusing to ratify the document.

To help with the monumental task, he enlisted John Jay, an influential lawyer and diplomat, and James Madison, now known as the "Father of the Constitution," to help write the essays.

He also asked Governor Morris and William Duer for help. Morris declined the offer and Duer wrote three essays, although Hamilton did not like his work and did not want to publish it.

Of the 85 essays, Hamilton would write the most. John Jay only wrote five essays because he was sick at the time. James Madison wrote 29 essays, including some of the most influential in living memory today.

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These include Federalist 10, which makes the case for how the constitution would protect against ruling factions, and Federalist 51, which explains government control mechanisms.

Alexander Hamilton wrote the remaining 51 essays. It was a monumental achievement to write such a long and compelling script in such a short amount of time.

It is interesting to note that Hamilton and Madison joined forces in defense of the Constitution. As history shows, Hamilton and Madison's partnership did not last long, as the two soon found themselves on opposite sides, constantly clashing over their ideologies.

In some ways, Hamilton's and Madison's writings in the Federalist Papers overlapped. In fact, the similarities are so great that the authorship of twelve essays is disputed, as historians cannot say for sure whether it was really Hamilton or Madison who wrote the essays.1

Other aspects show that it is painfully obvious who wrote which essays. Hamilton's belief in a strong, centralized federal government is evident in his writing.

On the other hand, Madison's belief is evident that while he believed a federal government stronger than the Articles of Confederation was necessary, strict checks and balances of its power were necessary, and states' rights should take precedence.

The Legacy of the Federalist Papers

Centuries after they were first written, the Federalist Papers left a lasting legacy. The essays served the important purpose of explaining the spirit and intent of the new constitution.

(Video) Debating About the CONSTITUTION—Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists [AP Government Review]

Interestingly, the Federalist Papers missed their original goal. Despite persuasion from Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, the New York delegates refused to ratify the constitution until a Bill of Rights was added.

Despite their failure, the essay collections still enjoy a high reputation among historians. They serve as a gateway into the thinking of the founding fathers as to what they intended for the new constitution and for the nation as a whole.

The uniqueness of the American system should not be underestimated. There has not been another document or system of government like it in history.

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The concept of federalism, in which power is shared between the national and state governments, was also new and unique to the constitution. The founders hoped that this system would avoid the pitfalls of a purely national system (like the British monarchy) or a fully confederate system (like the Articles of Confederation).

The Founding Fathers could not foresee everything that would happen under the new system, nor the challenges that the new nation would face.

In theory, the Constitution was very clear: the federal government has very specific and enumerated powers, and other powers are reserved for the states.

In practice, the constitution proved difficult to interpret, and the struggle between the powers it gave to the national government and the powers to state governments continues to this day.

Top 5 Federalist Newspapers

While the 85 essays have stood the test of time, some are more relevant to modern times than others. The top 5 Federalist newspapers are commonly considered Federalist 10, 39, 51, 68, and 78.

Summary of Federalist #10

Of all the Federalist Papers, Essay #10 is one of the most famous. In Federalist no. 10 James Madison provided a well-reasoned argument for why the Constitution was able to prevent domination of the United States by factions and interest groups.

Madison argued that it is part of human nature to divide into factions. Inevitably different opinions on government, religion, freedom, etc. will emerge, and citizens will form factions.

Madison was not concerned with the possibility of small factions running the nation (perhaps he underestimated the power and influence of the small faction of the rich).

Rather, he was concerned about majority factions that "might sacrifice both the common good and the rights of other citizens to their overriding passion or interest." Madison greatly feared the "tyranny of the majority."

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Madison argued that the new constitution could help prevent the "tyranny of the majority." The new government would be a republic, with power shared between the states and the national government. Different levels of government, shared power, direct and indirect elections would prove to be a buffer against such a threat.

Furthermore, Madison predicted that the Republic of the United States would grow even larger. Thus, a large republic would have an even wider range of geographic, religious, social, and economic interests, making it even less likely that a true majority faction would dominate.

While there is no real protection against the power of factions or interest groups, Madison argued that the Constitution alone is capable of protecting American liberties from major factions.

Federalists Summary #39

In Federalist no. 39 James Madison wrote a defense of republican government, first describing what he called a republic and then declaring that the constitution was a federal rather than a national form of government.

Madison strongly rejected the idea that the new constitution was not republican in nature. He first defined what a republican government does, noting two main points:

  • A government that derives all its powers, directly or indirectly, from the great mass of the people
  • Administered by persons holding office for pleasure, for a limited time, or for good conduct

He also rebuked the wealthy elite aristocratic classes of society who tried to bend the government to their advantage:

"IT IS ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be drawn from the great body of society, not from an insignificant proportion or privileged class of it; otherwise, a handful of tyrannical nobles..."2

After noting how the new constitution meets the requirements for forming a republican government, Madison addressed the idea that individual states would give up their identities as part of the new government.

(Video) The Federalist Papers: The O.G. US Constitution

The anti-federalists argued that the new constitution would be aNationalStatus form instead of aFederalGovernment. This was a major problem as the states were subservient to the central government under a national government and state consolidation would occur over time.

Madison rejected this idea, arguing that each state would maintain its own sovereignty and the states would unanimously agree of their own free will to give power to the central government.

"Each state is considered a sovereign body upon ratifying the Constitution, independent of all others and bound solely by its own voluntary action."

He ultimately concluded that the new constitution was unique in that it was "neither fully national nor fully federal", which suited the United States best.

Federalist Summary #51

federalist no. 51 is also one of the best-known essays in the collection. James Madison wrote this essay and delved into the system of checks and balances within the new administration.

The Constitution divides the United States government into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. A single person rules the executive branch, the president, who is elected through the electoral college.

The legislative branch is made up of two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives. State legislatures were required to choose members of the Senate, with each state receiving two senators, regardless of the size of the state. Instead, members of the House of Representatives were to be directly elected, and states received members in proportion to their size.

The president retained the power to appoint members of the judiciary, although the nominations had to be confirmed by the Senate. The members of the judiciary were sentenced to life in prison so that the president who nominated them would have less influence over their actions, as did the senators who confirmed them.

Federalist 51 went on to describe how the system of checks and balances would preserve liberty in the United States. By giving explicit powers to the various branches, it served as a "check" against the power of the other branches.

If one branch becomes too powerful, American liberties could be in jeopardy. A balance of power between the three branches of government would help preserve the liberties and liberties won in the revolution.

Federalist Summary #68

In Federalist no. 68, Alexander Hamilton defended the method of election of the president of the United States: the electoral college.

There were many different proposals for the selection of the members of the Executive at the Constitutional Convention. Some proposed elections through direct democracy, others through state legislatures, and still others through Congress.

Also, there were different plans for how many executives there should be, with suggestions ranging from one to three. Hamilton himself preferred a single executive, but he believed that the executive should remain in office for life rather than serve terms.

These different proposals led to a compromise in the election of the president: the Electoral College. In Federalist no. 68 Hamilton outlined the thinking behind the idea. He claimed that the voters were "the men best placed to consider the characteristics most suitable for the station", which would help ensure that the president was someone worthy of the title.

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Since voters would not be able to hold political office, they would be “disconnected” outside of politics and would help prevent corruption in the electoral process.

In essence, the drafters designed the electoral college as an alternative to direct citizen elections. It was also seen as a compromise for the slave states.

Madison himself, in his notes to the constitutional convention, conceded that direct elections would have been preferable: "The people in general were, in his opinion, stronger in themselves."

However, he later joked:

“There was, however, a difficulty of a serious nature that accompanied an immediate popular election. Suffrage was much more widespread in the northern states than in the southern ones; and the latter was unable to influence the scores of blacks in the elections. Voter substitution circumvented this difficulty and generally seemed to meet with the fewest objections.”3

According to Madison's notes, the Electoral College arose as a compromise for the less populous southern states (since slaves did not count as citizens).

Given the dubious nature of the creation of the electoral college, it is not surprising that many Americans believe that it is one of the most archaic and unnecessary aspects of the Constitution.

(Video) Brutus no.1, EXPLAINED [AP Government Foundational Documents]

Federalist Summary #78

Alexander Hamilton is the author of Federalist No. 78, where he helped explain the role of the judiciary in the new constitution.

Hamilton described the judiciary as the weakest of the three branches. He wrote: “Truly it may be said that he has neither POWER nor WILL, but only discernment; and must, in the last instance, even depend on the help of the executive branch for the effectiveness of its trials”.

This fragility justifies the permanent mandate of federal judges so that they can maintain justice and public safety without fear or reprisals from other powers. He was also quick to point out that federal judges cannot be charged as long as they display "good behavior."

The 5 most important federalist documents - history in graphics (7)

In Federalist no. 78 Hamilton strongly defended the judicial review process. Judicial review is the process by which federal judges can determine whether or not a law or statute is in conflict with the constitution, the “Basic Law”. He wrote:

“A constitution is in fact a basic law and must be considered by judges. It falls to them, therefore, to determine its importance, as well as the importance of each individual act of the legislator. If there is an irreconcilable divergence between the two, the one with primary obligation and validity is preferred; that is to say, the constitution must be preferred to the law, the intention of the people to the intention of their representatives”.4

The Constitution did not expressly grant the judiciary the power of judicial review; Those were just Hamilton's thoughts and interpretations of what the document might contain.

Chief Justice John Marshall upheld the judicial review process in what is perhaps the most important case in United States history:Marbury llega a Madison (1803).


In summary, the top 5 Federalist newspapers are generally considered by historians to be:

  1. Federalist #10
  2. Federalist #39
  3. Federalist #51
  4. Federalist #68
  5. Federalist #78

Despite strong opposition, all thirteen states eventually ratified the new constitution. Interestingly, Article VII of the Constitution stipulated that only nine of the thirteen states had to ratify the document for it to enter into force for the participating states.

Only eleven states had ratified the Constitution in the first elections in 1788, which elected George Washington as the nation's leader. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution and were therefore not technically part of the new government.

The Constitution faced numerous challenges in the early days of the nation's history. The founders could not have anticipated all the challenges facing the United States, but they did their best to create a flexible document that could be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Many of the early court cases, such asMarbury llega a Madison,Fletcher contra Peck,McCulloch by Maryland, miGibbons contra Ogden, helped, among other things, to consolidate constitutional law and clarify the intent of the constitution.

To this day, politicians and juries differ on how to interpret this living document.


For more on US history, seeTimeline of United States history.


1) Maurer, Alpheus Thomas. "The Federalist: A Split Personality".The American Historical Review, Bd. 57, no. 3, 1952, p. 625–43.JSTOR,

2)Project Avalon

3) “Executive Designation Method, [19. July] 1787", Founders Online, National Archives,

4)Project Avalon


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