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The United States Government, much like the endlessly-rebooting Spider Man franchise, has journeyed through the years with certain fixed features that we've come to expect as iconic and unchangeable.
Things like the three-branch structure, the House of Representatives, the Senate, Aunt May, and Uncle Ben have become timeless facets of our system of Government.
(Hmm. Maybe Aunt May and Uncle Ben didn't actually exist when the Founding Fathers were doing their Founding Father thing…although we think people like James Madison would have given the thumbs up to the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility.")
Nevertheless, the Constitution has proven a stable and flexible foundation for our current government, only really requiring tweaks and edits to persist in the present. But—and this is a big but and we cannot lie—the Constitutional Government was not the first government of the United States.
Mind blown? Mind blown.
The United State's O.G. (that's Original Government) was prescribed by the Articles of Confederation. That government wasn't going so hot though, so the Constitutional Convention was held in 1786 to toss the old one out the window and start from scratch.
The various delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to create a document—and a government by proxy—that would have support from at least nine of the thirteen states in order to come into law. No biggie, right?
To get the support the Constitution needed, Alexander Hamilton rounded up James Madison and John Jay—together three of the MVPs in statecraft—to write a series of newspaper essays in support of the Constitution. (Give this a listen for a quick run-down.)
Basically, the Federalist Papers were a series of commercials for the United States, coming to an America near you.
The nation was brand new, something that its founders viewed as an experimental form of government, and a lot of them strongly disagreed on how it should even look. The Articles of Confederation had been a disaster, giving the federal government the power to make laws but not the power to enforce them, no power to hold a standing army, and a bunch of other serious weaknesses.
People were understandably worried about tyrannical rule after fighting a war to overthrow one, but the government was weak to the point of being ineffectual. It was a Goldilocks situation, with the British Empire in the role of Papa Bear's oatmeal, and the Articles of Confederation in the role of Mama Bear's oatmeal.
While the devs of the Constitution were working on the balance changes for patch 1.786, the authors of the Federalist Papers were working on writing out the patch notes. These Federalist Papers ultimately serve as a pretty essential behind-the-scenes peek at the thought process that went into forming the Constitution.
James Madison wrote Federalist Papers 10 and 51, two essays in an absurdly long 85-essay series. Both generally had to do with the structure of the United States Government, and how the proposed structure specifically would keep the power of the majority from taking control of the Government, and keeping the power of corruption down.
He argues that the most effective way to do this is to have a Democratic Republic, broken down into a three-branch system. (Rule of three, y'all.)
This was still a touchy idea, and was a stronger government than some of the delegates would have liked. This central conflict, over a strong versus a weak federal government, would fracture American politics irreparably into the two-party system.
The years to follow would have the issue even split the writers of the Federalist Papers apart, with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton going from co-writers to political rivals over the issue. While the papers weren't wildly influential in their own time, today they provide us a window into the mind-sets of some of the people behind the Constitution, flaws and all.
If you ever wanted to get inside the head of James Madison without some Magic School Bus-style trip there, Federalist papers 10 and 51 are a good place to start.
If you're fond of sitting back in your lounge chair, sipping your hot cocoa and muttering to yourself, "Man, that's one good three-branch Federal Government with a bicameral legislature," (because, you know, who doesn't like doing that?) then these documents are partially to thank.
Really, though: if these essays hadn't been as persuasive as they ended up being, it's unlikely that the US Government as we know it would exist.
Yeah. Now we have you attention, right?
When you read the Federalist papers, you'll see that they're are obviously the product of dudes that were insanely hard at work. These papers are working their little papery butts off trying to figure out how to run the dang country—they show the sweat side of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into building America.
Remember, there was a strong camp at the Constitutional Convention that opposed the plans for a strong Federal Government outright. Since the Constitution needed nine states out of thirteen to ratify the document, the writers of the Federalist papers had to defend what was largely their own idea to the country at large.
And the ideas James Madison and the other Federalists put on the table weren't shoe-ins for success. They, like everyone else, were building a government out of nothing in a room of people who were trying to do the exact same thing. And they also all had wildly different ideas on how to do it.
These papers had to be persuasive…or perish.
Today, the Federalist Papers in their entirety give us a glimpse into the thought process behind why the Constitution is set up the way it is, with insights from statesmen who were there while it was being created. It's like a time capsule…except, thankfully, it doesn't contain a grubby CD of Now! That's What I Call Music from 1998.
Reading the Federalist papers also lets us stop thinking about the Constitution and its writers as prophets delivering some kind of perfect tome of wisdom from on high. They were just normal, flawed people who were trying to respond to a series of real problems in the best ways they knew how.
By working the persuasion angle. Hard.
Ready For More?
In case you're hungry for some more Federalist Papers action after 10 and 51, ConstitutionFacts has got you covered.
Even More Federalist Goodness
We're, of course, not the only people giving a run-down of these docs—the Bill of Rights Institute does a pretty good job, too. (We think we're at least a little more lively, though.)
The Atlantic's interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda: "How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History."
In this article, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the playwright/composer for the musical Hamilton, talks about the Federalist Papers as an insight into the intentions behind the Constitution, warts and all. It's fascinating considering that the musical has really brought a document, as well as a history, that's been sort of sitting in the dark as far as popular culture goes back to life in the present.
Hiphughes' Explaining Federalist 10
A well-done, if slightly goofy, run-down of Federalist 10.
HipHughes' Explaining Federalist 51
He also did Fed 51—because the two go together like peanut butter and banana.
"Non-Stop" from Hamilton: An American Musical
This song, closing Act I of the musical, covers Hamilton's mind-bogglingly busy life between the Revolutionary War and his stint as Secretary of the Treasury. The Federalist Papers get their own pretty sizeable section towards the middle of the song.
Federalist Paper 10 Audiobook
After a lot of searching, we found a decently lively reading of Federalist 10 to listen along to.
Ratification Map of the Constitution, 1788
Here's a map showing the breakdown of the ratification process for the Constitution. By looking at the map, you can get a glimpse of how divisive the issue really was.
Advertisement for the Federalist Papers
Here's the "Coming Soon" announcement for the full book edition of the Federalist papers. It's even printed on Fine Paper and Good Type. Woo-hoo?