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Introduction to The Federalist Papers

If you listen to political pundits on radio or TV, you may think that the U.S. Constitution is very difficult to understand.  Some pundits and politicians say the federal government has overstepped, even abused, its authority.  Others believe the federal government is not doing enough to "help the people," and it needs to expand its power and authority.  A recent example of the federal government expanding its authority is federal health care insurance. 

Twenty years ago, I decided to discover the "real" meaning of the Constitution, without the opinions of political pundits, politicians, or even 200+ years of court decisions.  Since the Constitution is a contract, my goal was to discover what the contract meant to the people who ratified it.  In December, 1994, I picked up The Federalist Papers and discovered that it held the answers I was seeking. 

The Federalist Papers were written as newspaper articles published in New York state.  They were written in support of the new Constitution, which had been drafted during the summer of 1787.  They urge New York to ratify the Constitution by explaining both the extent and limits of the federal government's power, including:

  • three branches of government

  • checks and balances

  • necessary and proper laws

  • supreme law of the land

Although these discussions are very informative, it is pretty easy to learn about these topics by reading other books.  What makes The Federalist Papers unique is its in-depth study of the psychology of human behavior and how the Constitution was constructed to block behavior that is harmful and oppressive to society and the people.

It is essential that we understand the reasoning behind the Constitution because it takes passion to defend it and demand that the federal government stay within its limited powers.  I've found that passion within the Papers.  I can fight for a limited federal government because I understand the human damage done by the abuse of power.

Let me give you an example of how understanding psychology can save a life.  Forty years ago, I learned that "kindness kills alcoholics."  When I first heard the phrase, I was shocked.  Then I began to delve into what it means.  Now, nearly everyone knows about "enabling" an alcoholic and how a person can make life so comfortable for an alcoholic that they never get better and end up drinking themselves to death.  In other words, "kindness kills alcoholics."

The fact that "kindness kills alcoholics" seems counter-intuitive.  How can being "kind" to a person kill them?  The dynamics of human interaction is not straight forward and obvious.  Fortunately, our Founding Fathers studied history and discovered psychological truths that manifested 2,000 years ago, 200 years ago, and remain truths in the 21st century. 

One of the most difficult-to-accept psychological truths is that all societies eventually devolve into tyrannies.  The writers of The Federalist Papers understood this natural human behavior.  To help us stave off tyranny for as long as possible, they drafted a Constitution that has blocks against tyrannical actions by the federal government and they left us The Federalist Papers, to forewarn us about approaching tyranny.

Of course, when I picked up the Papers, I had no idea that I had opened the best psychology text that I've ever studied.  I thought I was just going to learn a bit about the U.S. Constitution.  But Federalist Paper Number 1 was absolutely mind-blowing.

During the 6 months before I picked up the Papers, I had watched hundreds of hours of C-Span.  This is where I was hearing all those political pundits and politicians.  To me, some of them made perfect sense.  Others made no sense at all.  I couldn't understand how people who all claimed to understand the Constitution could have such divergent opinions.

Then I read Federalist Paper Number 1, which said, "Conscientious patriots understand the importance of deciding whether to adopt the new Constitution.  And they know their decision will affect all human societies.  It would be wonderful if we based our decision only on the best interests of our society, unbiased by less noble interests not connected with the public good.  Although we may sincerely wish this, it can't be expected.  The Constitution affects many special interests and changes many local institutions.  Subjects other than its merits will be discussed.  The debate will include passions and prejudices unrelated to discovering the truth and meaning of the Constitution."[Federalist Paper #1, paragraph 2]*

This describes what I was hearing on C-Span.  The author understood that people brought biases and selfishness to the discussion of the new Constitution.  He enters the debate fully aware that people are not above placing their petty interests above the good of the whole country.  The author's awareness of psychology of the debate made me want to learn more from him. 

He goes on to say: "Many politicians will oppose the new Constitution.  Some politicians are afraid that the Constitution will decrease the power and benefits of their current State offices.  Others think that they can have more power if the country is in turmoil or is broken up into several small countries.

"However, I don't plan to talk about political motives.  I don't know if a person's opposition is due to self-interest or ambition even if their views seem suspicious.  Even opponents of the new Constitution may be motivated by upright intentions.  And much of the opposition will spring from blameless, if not valid, motivations.  Jealousies and fears will lead arguments astray into honest errors in thinking.

"A false bias can be created for a variety of good reasons.  Wise and good men often argue on both the wrong and right side of society's most important questions.  This fact should teach moderation to anyone who thinks they are always in the right in any argument.

"There's a further reason for caution.  People who support the right side of a question can also have ulterior motives like ambition, avarice, personal animosity, and party opposition." #1[3-4]*

This honesty was compelling.  The author was cautioning me to think critically, even about his arguments.  So, as I read the Papers, I often thought about both what I know about history and, even, events in my own life, to see if I agreed with his assessment of human psychology.  And I quickly got the opportunity to do just that. 

Paragraph #5 of the first Paper answered a group-psychology question I had had for many years:  How did Hitler rise to power? 

"...Dangerous ambition is more often masked by a zeal for the rights of the people than the zeal for a firm and efficient government.  History teaches us that most men who have overturned the liberties of republics began their career by proclaiming their devotion to the people.  They gain position by arousing people's prejudices and end as tyrants." #1[5]*

"I want to help the people."  This is how dictators throughout history gained a foothold.  And I was seeing politicians on C-Span with the same declaration.  The author of Federalist Paper #1 cautioned me to not condemn their motivations but to carefully assess how their "help" might affect the country and the people as a whole.  As I studied the Papers, I realized that "helping" the people was, at best, an act of enabling and, at worst, a power grab.  It is never a reason to overstep Constitutional authority.

I hope I've peaked your curiosity about the discussions within The Federalist Papers.   Almost every Paper contains the same level of insightful discussions as Paper Number 1.  As I studied them, I continued watching C-Span.  I was amazed by how often the same discussions I saw on C-Span appeared in the Papers.  It was a reminder that human nature never changes.

*All quotes are from The Federalist Papers: Modern English Edition Two, 2008, Mary E Webster.

Additional Notes


 Outline of the topics in The Federalist Papers.

      1         Call to Study New Constitution
Federal Government’s Responsibilities

      2-5.    Dangers Facing the United States: Foreign

      6-10    Dangers Facing the United States: Domestic

      11-13    Advantages of Staying United

      14        Summary of Issues Covered

Problems in Current American Confederacy

      15-17   No Federal Authority Over Individual Citizens

      18-20   Weaknesses in Other Confederacies

      21-22   Problems in Articles of Confederation

Federal Power Needed to Fulfill Responsibilities

      23-26   Defense: Foreign

      27-29   Defense: Domestic

      30-36   Taxation

Drafting Constitution

      37-40   Constitutional Convention

      41-44   Federal Powers

      45-46   State Powers

      47-51   “Separation of Powers” Within Government

Structure of Proposed Government

       52-58   Legislative: House of Representatives

       59-61   Legislative: Congress

       62-66   Legislative: Senate

       67-77   Executive

       78-83   Judiciary

       84-85   Miscellaneous Issues

Authors of The Federalist Papers


During my research into The Federalist Papers, it seemed to me that since they were written more time has been devoted to discovering who wrote each Paper than to the content of the Papers.  This is a distraction that the authors tried to avoid by writing them anonymously.  The Papers either stands on its own as a relevant document or it does not.  Authorship is irrelevant to their arguments and their importance.

During the 20 years I've spent studying The Papers, I've come to believe the Holy Spirit inspired them.  Therefore, the anonymity of the authors is appropriate.  As has happened periodically throughout history, the document actually exceeds any one individual's talent.  


AA teaches "principles before personalities."  Studying The Papers is a perfect example of the importance of this concept.

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