Ratifying the Constitution

16a. Federalists

James Madison
Along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, James Madison penned The Federalist Papers.

The supporters of the proposed Constitution called themselves "Federalists." Their adopted name implied a commitment to a loose, decentralized system of government. In many respects "federalism" — which implies a strong central government — was the opposite of the proposed plan that they supported. A more accurate name for the supporters of the Constitution would have been "nationalists."

The "nationalist" label, however, would have been a political liability in the 1780s. Traditional political belief of the Revolutionary Era held that strong centralized authority would inevitably lead to an abuse of power. The Federalists were also aware that that the problems of the country in the 1780s stemmed from the weaknesses of the central government created by the Articles of Confederation.

For Federalists, the Constitution was required in order to safeguard the liberty and independence that the American Revolution had created. While the Federalists definitely had developed a new political philosophy, they saw their most import role as defending the social gains of the Revolution. As James Madison, one of the great Federalist leaders later explained, the Constitution was designed to be a "republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."

3¢ stamp commemorating Alexander Hamilton, the leading Federalist
Leading Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, was commemorated with his portrait on the 3¢ stamp.

The Federalists had more than an innovative political plan and a well-chosen name to aid their cause. Many of the most talented leaders of the era who had the most experience in national-level work were Federalists. For example the only two national-level celebrities of the period, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, favored the Constitution. In addition to these impressive superstars, the Federalists were well organized, well funded, and made especially careful use of the printed word. Most newspapers supported the Federalists' political plan and published articles and pamphlets to explain why the people should approve the Constitution.

In spite of this range of major advantages, the Federalists still had a hard fight in front of them. Their new solutions were a significant alteration of political beliefs in this period. Most significantly, the Federalists believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States did not lie in the abuse of central power, but instead could be found in what they saw as the excesses of democracy as evidenced in popular disturbances like Shays' Rebellion and the pro-debtor policies of many states.

How could the Federalists convince the undecided portion of the American people that for the nation to thrive, democracy needed to be constrained in favor of a stronger central government?

On the Web
A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison
A firsthand account of a slave born on James Madison's Montpelier estate in 1799. It offers excellent accounts of Washington D.C. under construction and especially the War of 1812. This is a unique look at one of the country's first presidents through the eyes of a marginalized American.
The Federalist Papers
A collection of the writings of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison during 1787-88. These papers lay out the ideology of the federalists during the creation of the U.S. Constitution. All of the papers were signed "Publius," but each man had a hand in their creation. These are the roots of American government.
Alexander Hamilton: Champion of Federalism
Thanks to the smash Broadway musical, Alexander Hamilton has emerged as one of the most celebrated of all the founding fathers. Read more about the champion of Federalism and the founder of our banking system.
What would Benjamin Franklin think if he knew a ballistic missile submarine would someday be named for him? The USS Benjamin Franklin is 8,250 tons of U.S. military might.
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Jefferson versus Hamilton
How did the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton shape the political system of the United States?

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