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Creating the U.S. Constitution

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The U.S. Constitution. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton found some of his ideas about how to structure a federal government soundly rejected. Yet he liked the resulting Constitution enough to become chief advocate for its approval by the states. Hamilton wrote the bulk of the essays that argued most convincingly for ratification. These essays were first published as a series in New York newspapers, under the title The Federalist.

Advocate for Strong Central Government
Hamilton did not attend the entire four-month Constitutional Convention that began in May 1787 in Philadelphia. He had been one of the strongest advocates for that convention, but he was outvoted by the other two New York delegates, who did not share Hamilton's enthusiasm for a strong federal government to unite the thirteen states. In these early years after the revolution, the former colonists were just beginning to understand how to operate outside the confines of British rule.

An Elite Class of Presidents and Senators
"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy, 1937. Hamilton's best moment as a delegate came when he outlined his ideas for government in a six-hour speech on June 18. He called for senators who would serve "during good behavior" and a chief executive, or national governor, who would appoint state governors. This "elective monarch" (in the words of note-taker James Madison), would also serve "during good behavior," meaning indefinitely, without a set elective term. Madison's reference to royalty was apt because in the same speech Hamilton declared that Britain's government was "the best in the world." Though some other delegates shared Hamilton's views about electing a long-serving, king-like president and concentrating power in an elite class of elected federal officials, it was a far more centralized plan than most people supported.

The Document
The Constitution that the delegates actually approved was full of compromises. For instance, it allowed federal judges to serve permanently "during good behavior," but limited the chief executive's and senators' elective terms to four and six years, respectively. It also introduced a House of Representatives, whose members would face re-election more frequently, and more directly represent the people. Though different from his vision, Hamilton thought it "better than nothing," particularly when he compared it to the inadequate Articles of Confederation that were then in effect. He urged every delegate to sign the document. When his two co-delegates from New York told Hamilton that ratification by his state would be an uphill battle, Hamilton decided to do something to persuade his fellow citizens.

The Federalist's Authors
James Madison, print. In October, just a month after the Convention ended, Hamilton decided to pen a series of essays making the case for ratification, to be published in New York newspapers. He outlined the project that would become known as The Federalist (and much later, called The Federalist Papers), and wrote the first essay while on board a Hudson River boat making its way between Albany and New York City. The Federalist Number 1 was published in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. Hamilton needed collaborators, and he approached first John Jay, an author of New York's state constitution, and then Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and William Duer. Duer's material did not make the cut, and Morris was too busy to participate, but Madison willingly signed on, which was fortunate, because after penning Federalist Numbers 2-5, Jay's severe rheumatism would limit him to just one more editorial.

Campaigning for the Constitution
A newspaper advertisement for The Federalist Over the next seven months, Hamilton and Madison wrote nearly 80 more essays, a total of close to 175,000 words. Hamilton's personal output was staggering, since he wrote 50 of them. The essays appeared up to four times a week, the printer often pacing the hall outside while Hamilton finished up his latest salvo. Regardless of who composed them, the essays appeared under the pen name Publius, in homage to the man who had led the people of Rome in establishing a republic after they overthrew their king. This output would spawn a political party, the Federalist Party, which existed for several years in opposition to the Jeffersonian Republicans who advocated greater rights for individuals and states.

The Federalist Point of View
The first 22 of the Federalist essays were dominated by criticism of the weak Articles of Confederation. In later pieces, Madison and Hamilton defended the strong government outlined in the Constitution, though the two authors' essays reveal a split in just how strong they wanted this new government to be. Hamilton, who preferred a powerful central administration, wrote all of the essays on the executive and judicial branches. "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government," he declared. Hamilton's last essay, influenced -- as were others -- by the work of Scottish philosopher David Hume, acknowledged the Constitution's imperfections but still urged its adoption: "A nation without a national government is ... an awful spectacle," he concluded.

A Supreme Explanation
A 1788 copy Vol. I of The Federalist, inscribed by Elizabeth Hamilton. The Federalist, later bound together into a book and sold for the equivalent of 75 cents, did not find universal acclaim. One critic wrote that, even if he could acquire the essays for free, "it is not worth it." Another said the mass of writings would "jade the brains of any poor sinner," and asked Publius to halt after 26 essays "and let the people draw their breath for a little." Even the printer of the bound volume griped that he had hundreds of unsold copies and would be lucky to make five pounds profit. Differences between Federalists and Republicans would persist. But George Washington believed The Federalist would "merit the Notice of Posterity." Despite some claims that Publius turned the tide in New York's battle over ratifying the Constitution, the real influence of The Federalist came after the Constitution's adoption. Hamilton's brainchild would became venerated as the most authoritative explanation of the Constitution's meaning. Since its creation, the Supreme Court has cited or quoted The Federalist about 300 times, more than any other interpretative document.

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Alexander Hamilton American Experience

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