The Federalist, the collection of essays penned by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the pseudonym of Publius to urge their fellow citizens to support ratification of the new Constitution, is the authoritative but unofficial explanation of America’s government by those who created it. Though often assigned to high school students (and sometimes even read), it is rarely appreciated for its novel understanding of the problems free citizens face in establishing self-government that is also good government. Publius claims that the American Constitution has improved on all previous constitutions in making provision for Americans to achieve justice and the common good. By a close reading of the crucial argument in Federalist #10, Professor Muller will show how The Federalist can be used in high school classes to explain the spirit and distinctiveness of American government, and to highlight the contrast between it and other regimes.
James W. Muller is Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he has taught since 1983, and Academic Chairman of the Churchill Center in Washington, D.C. Educated at Harvard, he served as a White House Fellow (1983-84) and won the Farrow Award for Excellence in Churchill Studies (1995). He is editor of The Revival of Constitutionalism (Nebraska, 1988), Churchill As Peacemaker (Cambridge, 1997), Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later (Missouri, 1999), and the definitive edition of Winston S. Churchill, The River War: An Historical Account of The Reconquest of The Soudan, 2 vols. (St. Augustine’s Press, forthcoming, fall 2003).
Focus: The Declaration of Independence is America’s most fundamental public document, laying out our understanding of human nature and of the purpose of government. It explains why we need government and how we can distinguish legitimate from illegitimate government. If the Declaration answers the question of why we need government, the Constitution explains how our government is instituted.
Read the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation (America’s first and imperfect constitution), and the Constitution with care. Pay special attention to the ringing words in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which argues that “all men are created equal.” What is the meaning of that equality, and what is its consequence for government? In the Constitution, consider the framers’ statements of purpose in the preamble, and notice the way in which the separation of powers in the frame of American government is reflected in the different subjects of the first three articles.
- Diamond, Martin. The Founding of the Democratic Republic. (F E Peacock Publisher, 1981) Chapters 2-3
- Story, Joseph. A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States. (Lake Bluff, Illinois: Regnery Gateway, 1986.) Chapters 1-6, pp. 27-56
- West, Thomas G. Vindicating the Founders. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1997) Chapter 1, pp. 1-36, Chapters 3-4, pp. 71-109
- Articles of Confederation
- Declaration of Independence
- Constitution of the United States
Focus: The Federalist is the most famous commentary ever written on the principles of American government. Composed by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay under the pen name “Publius,” it had an important effect on public opinion during the debate over ratification of the Constitution. Those who opposed the new Constitution, who were called the Anti-Federalists, lost the debate, but they also had an important influence on American government.
Read the selected Federalist Papers, paying special attention to the argument in Federalist no. 10 for a new kind of “extended republic,” which Publius thinks better suited to solve the problem posed by faction. What is a faction, according to Publius? What are the different ways of addressing the problem posed by faction? Why does Publius reject the small republic exemplified in the history of Greece and early Rome, and sometimes preferred by Anti-Federalists?