Federalist 51 – Protecting the Rights of the People?

 by Natalie Bolton and Gordon Lloyd


To assist teachers in teaching the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Professor Gordon Lloyd has created a website in collaboration with the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University on the Federalist and Antifederalist Debates. Professor Lloyd organizes the content of the debates in various ways on the website. Two lesson plans have been created to align with two of the most noted essays high school students are encouraged to read, Federalist 10 and Federalist 51. Within each lesson students will use a Federalist Paper as their primary source for acquiring content.

Guiding Question:

How does Madison advocate for protections or safeguards for the rights or liberties of the people?

Learning Objectives:

After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  1. Explain how Madison, in Federalist 51, advocates for having a) separate branches of government, b) legislative checks and balances in the same level of government, c) a compound republic or a division of powers between the general government and state governments and (d) a multiplicity of interests and sects in society.

Background Information for the Teacher:

The years were 1787 and 1788. Along with the debate over the Constitution that was taking place in the state legislatures, an “out-of-doors” debate raged in newspapers and pamphlets throughout America’s thirteen states following the Constitutional Convention over the Constitution that had been proposed.

Origin of The Federalist

The eighty-five essays appeared in one or more of the following four New York newspapers: 1) The New York Journal, edited by Thomas Greenleaf, 2) Independent Journal, edited by John McLean, 3) New York Advertiser, edited by Samuel and John Loudon, and 4) Daily Advertiser, edited by Francis Childs. Initially, they were intended to be a twenty essay response to the Antifederalist attacks on the Constitution that were flooding the New York newspapers right after the Constitution had been signed in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. The Cato letters started to appear on September 27, George Mason’s objections were in circulation and the Brutus essays were launched on October 18. The number of essays in The Federalist was extended in response to the relentless, and effective, Antifederalist criticism of the proposed Constitution.

McLean bundled the first 36 essays together—they appeared in the newspapers between October 27, 1787 and January 8, 1788—and published them as Volume 1 on March 22, 1788. Essays 37 through 77 of The Federalist appeared between January 11, and April 2, 1788. On May 28, McLean took Federalist 37-77 as well as the yet to be published Federalist 78-85 and issued them all as Volume 2 of The Federalist. Between June 14 and August 16, these eight remaining essays—Federalist 78-85—appeared in the Independent Journal and New York Packet.

The Status of The Federalist

One of the persistent questions concerning the status of The Federalist is this: is it a propaganda tract written to secure ratification of the Constitution and thus of no enduring relevance or is it the authoritative expositor of the meaning of the Constitution having a privileged position in constitutional interpretation? It is tempting to adopt the former position because 1) the essays originated in the rough and tumble of the ratification struggle. It is also tempting to 2) see The Federalist as incoherent; didn’t Hamilton and Madison disagree with each other within five years of co-authoring the essays? Surely the seeds of their disagreement are sown in the very essays! 3) The essays sometimes appeared at a rate of about three per week and, according to Madison, there were occasions when the last part of an essay was being written as the first part was being typed.

1) One should not confuse self-serving propaganda with advocating a political position in a persuasive manner. After all, rhetorical skills are a vital part of the democratic electoral process and something a free people have to handle. These are op-ed pieces of the highest quality addressing the most pressing issues of the day. 2) Moreover, because Hamilton and Madison parted ways doesn’t mean that they weren’t in fundamental agreement in 1787-1788 about the need for a more energetic form of government. And just because they were written with certain haste doesn’t mean that they were unreflective and not well written. Federalist 10, the most famous of all the essays, is actually the final draft of an essay that originated in Madison’s Vices in 1787, matured at the Constitutional Convention in June 1787, and was refined in a letter to Jefferson in October 1787. All of Jay’s essays focus on foreign policy, the heart of the Madisonian essays are Federalist 37-51 on the great difficulty of founding, and Hamilton tends to focus on the institutional features of federalism and the separation of powers.

I suggest, furthermore, that the moment these essays were available in book form, they acquired a status that went beyond the more narrowly conceived objective of trying to influence the ratification of the Constitution. The Federalist now acquired a “timeless” and higher purpose, a sort of icon status equal to the very Constitution that it was defending and interpreting. And we can see this switch in tone in Federalist 37 when Madison invites his readers to contemplate the great difficulty of founding. Federalist 38, echoing Federalist 1, points to the uniqueness of the America Founding: never before had a nation been founded by the reflection and choice of multiple founders who sat down and deliberated over creating the best form of government consistent with the genius of the American people. Thomas Jefferson referred to the Constitution as the work of “demigods,” and The Federalist “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.” There is a coherent teaching on the constitutional aspects of a new republicanism and a new federalism in The Federalist that makes the essays attractive to readers of every generation.

Authorship of The Federalist

A second question about The Federalist is how many essays did each person write? James Madison—at the time a resident of New York since he was a Virginia delegate to the Confederation Congress that met in New York—John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton—both of New York—wrote these essays under the pseudonym, “Publius.” So one answer to the question is that how many essays each person wrote doesn’t matter since everyone signed off under the same pseudonym, “Publius.” But given the iconic status of The Federalist, there has been an enduring curiosity about the authorship of the essays. Although it is virtually agreed that Jay wrote only five essays, there have been several disputes over the decades concerning the distribution of the essays between Hamilton and Madison. Suffice it to note, that Madison’s last contribution was Federalist 63, leaving Hamilton as the exclusive author of the nineteen Executive and Judiciary essays. Madison left New York in order to comply with the residence law in Virginia concerning eligibility for the Virginia ratifying convention. There is also widespread agreement that Madison wrote the first thirteen essays on the great difficulty of founding. There is still dispute over the authorship of Federalist 50-58, but these have persuasively been resolved in favor of Madison.

Outline of The Federalist

A third question concerns how to “outline” the essays into its component parts. We get some natural help from the authors themselves. Federalist 1 outlines the six topics to be discussed in the essays without providing an exact table of contents. The authors didn’t know in October 1787 how many essays would be devoted to each topic. Nevertheless, if one sticks with the “formal division of the subject” outlined in the first essay, it is possible to work out the actual division of essays into the six topic areas or “points” after the fact so to speak.

Martin Diamond was one of the earliest scholars to break The Federalist into its component parts. He identified Union as the subject matter of the first thirty-six Federalist essays and Republicanism as the subject matter of last forty-nine essays. There is certain neatness to this breakdown, and accuracy to the Union essays. The first three topics outlined in Federalist 1 are 1) the utility of the union, 2) the insufficiency of the present confederation under the Articles of Confederation, and 3) the need for a government at least as energetic as the one proposed. The opening paragraph of Federalist 15 summarizes the previous fourteen essays and says: “in pursuance of the plan which I have laid down for the pursuance of the subject, the point next in order to be examined is the ‘insufficiency of the present confederation.'” So we can say with confidence that Federalist 1-14 is devoted to the utility of the union. Similarly, Federalist 23 opens with the following observation: “the necessity of a Constitution, at least equally energetic as the one proposed… is the point at the examination of which we are now arrived.” Thus Federalist 15-22 covered the second point dealing with union or federalism. Finally, Federalist 37 makes it clear that coverage of the third point has come to an end and new beginning has arrived. And since McLean bundled the first thirty-six essays into Volume 1, we have confidence in declaring a conclusion to the coverage of the first three points all having to do with union and federalism.

The difficulty with the Diamond project is that it becomes messy with respect to topics 4, 5, and 6 listed in Federalist 1: 4) the Constitution conforms to the true principles of republicanism, 5) the analogy of the Constitution to state governments, and 6) the added benefits from adopting the Constitution. Let’s work our way backward. In Federalist 85, we learn that “according to the formal division of the subject of these papers announced in my first number, there would appear still to remain for discussion two points,” namely, the fifth and sixth points. That leaves, “republicanism,” the fourth point, as the topic for Federalist 37-84, or virtually the entire Part II of The Federalist.

I propose that we substitute the word Constitutionalism for Republicanism as the subject matter for essays 37-51, reserving the appellation Republicanism for essays 52-84. This substitution is similar to the “Merits of the Constitution” designation offered by Charles Kesler in his new introduction to the Rossiter edition; the advantage of this Constitutional approach is that it helps explain why issues other than Republicanism strictly speaking are covered in Federalist 37-46. Kesler carries the Constitutional designation through to the end; I suggest we return to Republicanism with Federalist 52.

Taken from the Federalist-Antifederalist Debate.

Preparing to Teach this Lesson:

Prior to teaching this lesson the teacher should cover content related to the Articles of Confederation and its weaknesses. The teacher should familiarize her/himself with Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the following days outlined below. Gordon Lloyd has presented the content of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as a Four Act Drama. Additionally, the teacher should cover content related to Federalist and Antifederalist debates that occurred prior to Federalist 51 being published.

Three activities are outlined below and should be implemented in order.

Activity 1: Federalist 51 as a Wordle.

Activity 2: Interpreting and evaluating Federalist 51 using a guided reading graphic organizer.

Activity 3: Discussing Federalist 51 in a Socratic seminar.

For all activities, students will use Federalist 51. To assist students in reading Federalist 51, a paragraph-by-paragraph summary has been provided by Gordon Lloyd.

Analyzing Primary Sources:

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on “Making Sense of Maps” and “Making Sense of Oral History” which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Suggested Activities:

Activity 1: Federalist 51 as a Wordle

Time required for activity: In class activity 20 minutes.

The teacher will open day one of the lesson by sharing that Federalist 51 is one of 85 essays advocating for the ratification of the United States Constitution. Federalist 51 was written by James Madison and published on February 6, 1788 under the pseudonym Publius. In this essay, Madison informed the reader of the safeguards to maintain the separate branches of government and to protect the rights of the people.

Teacher can show the Wordle of the full text of Federalist 51 and describe a Wordle to students.

Note: Wordle is an electronic application that allows “word clouds” to be generated from text. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. (Taken from

The ten most often words used by Madison to write Federalist 51 are listed below in order of use.

  1. Government
  2. May
  3. Society
  4. Rights
  5. Must
  6. Department
  7. Security
  8. People
  9. Power
  10. Interests

Analyze the Wordle of Federalist 51 that shows only the 10 most prominent words and predict what you think Madison will write about in Federalist 51 using the Think-Pair-Share handout.

Teacher will instruct students to record their response in the “think” section of the Think-Pair-Share handout. Students will then share their response with another student. As students share with one another they should write those ideas they had in common in the “pair” section of the hand out and put a (+) by those ideas. Students should then write any ideas they had that were different in this section and put a (-) by those ideas. Students should then write any new ideas that were raised and put a (*) by those ideas. Finally, the students will select one idea to share with the entire class and write it in the “share” portion of the handout. The teacher will then ask each pair to share their final idea with the class. Students should record any new ideas shared by the entire class in the “share” section of the handout.

Activity 2: Interpreting and Evaluating Federalist 51

Time required for activity: In class reading assignment and completing guided reading graphic organizer, one 45 minute class period. Students may complete individually or in small groups.

The teacher should remind students that Federalist 51 is one of 85 essays advocating for the ratification of the United States Constitution. Federalist 51 was written by James Madison and published on February 6, 1788 under the pseudonym Publius. In this essay, Madison informed the reader of the safeguards to maintain the separate branches of government and to protect the rights of the people.

Guided Reading Graphic Organizer

To help students understand the main ideas that emerged from Federalist 51, ask students to read Federalist 51 and complete the guided reading graphic organizer. All questions in the guided reading graphic organizer are interpretative questions in the first column and evaluative questions in the second column. Note: The evaluative questions will also be used for Activity 3: Socratic Seminar.

Students may read the full text of Federalist 51, a highlighted version of Federalist 51, or a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of the essay written by Gordon Lloyd.

Interpretative Questions:

  • Why does Madison fear “a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department” of government?
  • How can government, as Madison claims, be “the greatest of all reflections on human nature”?
  • How does “the multiplicity of interests” in American society protect the rights of its citizens?
  • Is the author arguing that the federal government should be as accountable to any given minority as to the majority?
  • Since Madison argues the Constitution would protect the rights of the minority, is he justified in believing that “a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good”?

Evaluative Questions:

  • Is Madison’s opinion of the role of self-interest in the conduct of one’s life realistic?
  • Do you believe the controls against the abuse of power by a single government department have been effective?
  • Does the federal government equally serve majority and minority interests today?
  • Is there a role for states anymore?

Depending on student content vocabulary readiness the teacher may need to review vocabulary used in Federalist 51. A teacher resource has been created using the Federalist 51 summary to review vocabulary using a word wall. The teacher will tell students that the class will be adding several words to the word wall today. Word walls are a literacy strategy that may be used before reading (explicit teaching and modeling, during reading (guided practice) and after reading (guided practice). 

Activity 3: Discussing and Evaluating Federalist 51

Time required for activity: One 45 minute class period

After completing the guided reading handout on Federalist 51, students will evaluate the effectiveness of Madison in communicating to the public the rationale for a) separate branches of government, b) legislative checks and balances in the same level of government, c) a compound republic or a division of powers between the general government and state governments and (d) a multiplicity of interests and sects in society.

Students will eventually have to list and defend ten words that Madison should prominently use to communicate the main ideas of Federalist 51 (see Assessment). To assist students in preparing for the assessment, students will participate in a Socratic seminar. Students will use their guided reading graphic organizer completed in Activity 2 to prepare for the Socratic seminar. See the handout to learn more about Socratic seminar.

The basic procedure for a Socratic seminar follows:

  1. Students should receive text that they will use for the Socratic seminar and should read, analyze, and take notes on the text.
  2. During class, students are randomly divided into two concentric circles: an inner circle and an outer circle.
  3. The students in the inner circle are posed with a question and then engage in a discussion of the text in the context of the question for approximately ten minutes, while students in the outer circle silently observe the behavior and performance of the inner circle.
  4. After the discussion of the text, the outer circle assesses the inner circle’s performance and gives ten minutes of feedback for the inner circle.
  5. Students in the inner and outer circles now exchange roles and positions.
  6. The new inner circle holds a ten-minute discussion using the same questions and then receives ten minutes of feedback from the new outer circle.

During the Socratic seminar students should make sure they do the following:

  1. Speak loudly and clearly
  2. Cite reasons and evidence for their statements
  3. Use the text to find support
  4. Listen to others respectfully
  5. Stick with the subject
  6. Talk to each other, not just to the leader
  7. Paraphrase accurately
  8. Ask for help to clear up confusion
  9. Support each other
  10. Avoid hostile exchanges
  11. Question others in a civil manner
  12. Be prepared

Suggested text students may respond to for the Socratic seminar follow. Madison uses several “key phrases” in Federalist 51 to encourage and persuade the public to support the signing of the Constitution. Consider how the phrases below were used to gain public support:

Text #1 to respond to: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Text #2 to respond to: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.”

Text #3 to respond to: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Text #4 to respond to: “But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.”

Text #5 to respond to: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Text #6 to respond to: “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

Text #7 to respond to: “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.”

Text #8 to respond to: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.”

See the Socratic seminar rubric handout and observation form to assess students during the Socratic seminar.

Depending on student content vocabulary readiness the teacher may need to review vocabulary used in Federalist 51. Teachers can remind students to refer to the word wall during the Socratic seminar.


After you have studied the essay, Federalist 51, list the top 10 words you would encourage Madison to use in his writing to influence the public to ratify the Constitution. Briefly explain the importance of each word to reinforce the main ideas Madison was trying to stress in Federalist 51. Explanation for each word should be 3-5 sentences in length. Students should consider in their responses how the rights of the people can be protected from government.

Extending the Lesson:

Extension 1: List the top 10 words you would encourage Antifederalists to use in their writing to influence the public to not ratify the Constitution. Briefly explain the importance of each word to oppose the main ideas Madison was trying to stress in Federalist 51. Explanation for each word should be 3-5 sentences in length.

Related EDSITEment Lesson Plans:

Selected EDSITEment Websites:

Standards Alignment:

  1. CIVICED (9-12) I
    What are Civic Life, Politics, and Government?
  2. CIVICED (9-12) II
    What are the Foundations of the American Political System?
  3. CIVICED (9-12) III
    How Does the Government Established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy?
  4. CIVICED (9-12) V
    What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?
  5. NCSS-10
    Civic ideals and practices. Citizenship in a democratic republic.
  6. NCSS-4
    Individual development and identity.
  7. NCSS-5
    Individuals, groups, and institutions.
  8. NCSS-6
    Power, authority, and governance.

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