The Federalist, published in two volumes between March and May 1788, contained 85 essays advocating ratification of the Constitution, written under the pseudonym “Publius.” All but the last eight had been published in the preceding months in newspapers in New York, a large and influential state where many people were doubtful of the proposed Constitution.
New York lawyer and Constitutional Convention delegate Alexander Hamilton realized that it was crucial to gain support for ratification in his home state. He envisioned the Federalist project and wrote the first essay, which was published in October 1787 in the Independent Journal. Hamilton recruited the assistance of John Jay, the author of the New York state constitution. Jay wrote four essays before becoming ill with rheumatism. Hamilton asked James Madison to take part in the project as well, and Madison’s first essay, the tenth in the series, was published in November in the Daily Advertiser.
Speed was necessary to sufficiently influence public opinion, and the writers gave up any idea of reviewing each other’s work before publication. Madison explained to Jefferson, “Though carried in concert the writers are not mutually answerable for all the ideas of each other [,] there being seldom time for even a perusal of the pieces by any but the writer before they were wanted at the press and sometimes hardly by the writer himself.” Although the authorship of some of the essays continues to be disputed to this day, it is estimated that Hamilton wrote 51 essays, Madison 29, and Jay five.
Madison’s Federalist essays present the Constitution as the best option for preserving liberty, thanks to the separation of powers into distinct branches (executive, legislative, and judicial), the checks and balances they impose on each other, and the partly national and partly federal nature of the central government. Madison also made the claim, surprising at the time, that a larger republic had a better chance of success than a smaller one, since there was less chance of a single self-serving interest group, or faction, taking away the rights of other groups.
The immediate purpose of The Federalist not to create a textbook on republican government but to garner support for the Constitution, particularly in New York. It was only partly successful in this mission. New York voters selected 19 delegates in favor of the Constitution and 46 against it. However, because ten states had already ratified the Constitution by the time the New York convention voted, a majority of the delegates cast votes in favor of ratification. Jefferson, after reading The Federalist in Paris, called it, “in my opinion, the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written ... in general it establishes firmly the plan of government. I confess it has rectified me in several points. (As to the bill of rights however I still think it should be added...)” While achieving only partial success as a propaganda piece at the time it was written, The Federalist has since become a classic text in American government.
"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
James Madison, Federalist 51
"I will not conceal from you that I am likely to have such a degree of connection with the publication here, as to afford a restraint of delicacy from interesting myself directly in the republican elsewhere. You will recognize one of the pense concerned in the task. There are three in the whole. A fourth may possibly bear a part."
James Madison to George Washington, November 18, 1787