On Reading
the Federalist Papers

By Travis Copeland

The Federalist Papers furnish us with an indispensable background for understanding our history, rights, and laws.

Schools today have done a lamentable job of teaching American history and civics. Graduating seniors throughout the nation have a woefully inadequate understanding of the Constitution. We need more than half-informed citizens; the responsibility of governance in a democratic republic weighs heavily on the people, and their grasp of this duty, which brings together knowledge and liberal thought, must be better than basic. Besides the Constitution itself (and, naturally, the Declaration of Independence), there is one collection of documents that classical schools should make a point of encouraging their students to read. The Federalist Papers are the formative argument and intellectual bedrock for the early American experiment. Furthermore, their depth and insight make it nearly impossible for a student to walk away from an encounter with them and not be changed into a more involved, knowledgeable, and better citizen.

After the American Revolution, while the colonies transitioned to independence, the fledgling nation hammered out a new conception of a republic, of the people for the people, in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. After the convention brought the as-yet unratified Constitution before the people, a great war of words erupted over it. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, who were in favor of ratification and of bringing about the formation of a new United States under the Constitution’s law and governance, produced The Federalist Papers

Written collectively under the pseudonym Publius (a traditional Latin name derived from the word for “people” or “citizenry”), the eighty-five documents collected under this title set forth potent arguments for bringing the states under the authority of a federal government by means of the Constitution. They are particularly concerned with what will produce a just, appropriately limited, and enduring democracy. Many educational institutions, even within the classical tradition, do not read them in full, but only allude to them for the general outline of their arguments. Yet nothing could better serve a future voter and active citizen in a democratic society than a grasp of the essence of republic government and the society it creates. One primary tenet of classical education is teaching students to think independently, and thus become reflective contributors to their society.

It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide whether societies are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or are forever destined to depend for their constitutions on accident and force.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1

A republican government, according to Hamilton, is instituted to defend the people. In Federalist No. 1, the case is made for forming a new republican government, “which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government [the republic], to liberty, and to property.” It is from here that all the Papers develop and contend for the people’s rights. They are the best example of the steep responsibilities of republican citizenship, and their reading provides the civic learning that is urgently required of every generation of classical republicans.

The education provided in The Federalist Papers expands on the Constitution, providing commentary, depth, and insight otherwise unavailable. For example, both No. 10 and No. 51 engage with aspects of the U.S. Constitution, notably in the matter of factionalism. Factions do not pursue the aggregate interest of the whole people. James Madison explores the dangers of and remedies to factions for the young republic in Federalist No. 10: the people can “cure the mischief” of a faction by removing its causes, or at least controlling its effects. He states frankly the Constitution cannot prevent factions—nor was it designed to—but he does exhort every subsequent generation to avoid them, because they oppose the common good. If the Constitution is taught but The Federalist Papers are ignored, a complete civic education on issues like these, covering political philosophy and wisdom of method, will not result. Even more, in a faction-filled society, a turn back to “the people” in a wide sense of the word begins by reading Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.

The most compelling and important argument is made in No. 51. Madison or Hamilton (the author is not definitely known) sets forth his argument in the phrase, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Amongst the principles of good governance, the acknowledgement of human evil means all accumulation of power is perilous. This in turn led “Publius” to advocate for a government with separated powers and constraints on the majority. There is no better civic or life lesson than an awareness of, and practical precaution against, the dangers of massed power. Since their publication, the Papers serve to remind the American republic of its responsibility to limit the concentration of power. 

It is the civic duty of every well-educated and voting American not only to know the rights and privileges of citizenship, but also to understand the philosophy and history of those rights and their development. Without a proper knowledge of our past, we endanger our intellectual and cultural identity. Situated in a changing historical context, rights too have transformed over the two centuries of the nation, growing to include previously excluded groups such as slaves and women. While there are many accessible places to turn to learn about the formation of rights and in the early American republic, the best starting place is The Federalist Papers. On the verge of summer, students, teachers, and parents should take the opportunity to read them cover-to-cover.

Travis Copeland holds a bachelor’s degree in history and humanities, and is studying for a postgraduate history degree. He teaches at Thales Academy, a community of classical schools in North Carolina. When not writing and teaching, Travis enjoys poetry, gardening, and conversation with good company around good food.

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If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of St. Thomas Aquinas and Simone de Beauvoir, or these “Great Conversation” posts on the idea of the mind and monarchy. And don’t miss our weekly podcast, Anchored.

Page image of the Liberty Bell courtesy of Wikipedia, taken by William Zhang (source).

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