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After the Fact: Virginia, New York, and “The Federalist Papers”

The convention in Virginia to ratify the Constitution lasted past the point when the technical number needed to ratify had been reached. If Virginia had not joined the union, leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison might not have been allowed to hold national office.

Only one major state remained, the Constitution was close to getting the broad support that it needed to be effective. The state of New York was deeply divided. The opponents of the Constitution had a strong majority and set a tough challenge for Alexander Hamilton, the leading New York Federalist. He warned that commercial areas down state might separate from upstate New York if it didn’t ratify. He accepted the conciliatory path suggested by Massachusetts; amendments would be acceptable after ratification.

The debate in New York produced the famous Federalist Papers. They were a series of 85 anonymous letters to newspapers, co-written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. They tried to assure the public of the two key points of the Federalist agenda. First, they explained that a strong government was needed for a variety of reasons, but especially for the United States to be able to act effectively in foreign affairs. Second, they argued that because of the “separation” of powers in the central government, there was little chance of the national government evolving into a tyrannical power. Instead, the separate branches would provide a “check and balance” against each other so that none could rise to complete dominance.

Although Hamilton wrote the majority of the letters, James Madison authored the ones that are most celebrated today. Madison argued that a larger republic would not lead to greater abuse of power, but actually could work to make a large national republic a defense against tyranny. Madison explained that the large scope of the national republic would prevent local interests from rising to dominance and therefore the larger scale itself limited the potential for abuse of power.

Madison was one of the first political theorists to offer a profoundly modern vision of self-interest as an aspect of human nature that could be employed to make government better, rather than more corrupt.


Source: After the Fact: Virginia, New York, and “The Federalist Papers”
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