The Federalist Papers

Recently, I have had the pleasure of reading Ron Chernow’s thrilling biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow is an excellent storyteller, and combined with the source material of Alexander Hamilton’s life being so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable, it is an exhilarating read. Of the many fascinating aspects of this book, one that has stood out to me is the truly staggering work ethic and output of Hamilton and other founding fathers. Men like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison lived lives of constant, daily study and relentless, merciless self-improvement.

One example of this ethic is a tidbit I would phrase as a historical “Did You Know?” piece of trivia: Did you know that Alexander Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers in his spare time, in between practicing law to support his family? I find this information truly staggering, when you consider the timeless historical feat that the Federalist Papers represent.

This is one of those short bits of information you actually have to step back and think about for a minute to appreciate. As impressive as The Federalist Papers are, as difficult as a philosophical and legal work of this magnitude must be to create, even as a full-time academic or theorist, imagine undertaking such a herculean feat of writing squeezed in between breaks at work, and when you’ve come home in the evening after practicing law all day. You may think you’re fried and need to watch some tv after a long day at the office. Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers.

And not to besmirch truly great men and historical figures, but it is worth noting the contrast between the working man Hamilton and his writing partner, James Madison. Madison was yet another founding father of Newtonian intellect, who devoted his entire life to ceaseless study and enlightenment. But there is a stark contrast between his life and Hamilton’s, having been born and raised with every advantage and privilege of having his life made smooth and easy for him to be able to devote himself and all his energies to his solitary study. His father was the largest slaveholder in Orange County, Virginia, and owned up to ten thousand acres of land. To quote Chernow, “Until age fifty, [he] lived in economic dependence on his father and even in congress fell back on income from the family plantation.” This does not undermine respect for his work ethic whatsoever (in fact it may enhance it, how many us would work so hard born with such privileges?), but it does highlight how much more freedom men like he and Jefferson had to pursue their energies, interests, and talents, while others like Hamilton had to place their intellectual work in between the mundane toils of daily work.

Which brings me to this: as much as it embarrasses me to admit, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full. I have read the famous ones when assigned to me in school, which I hope most of us have. But as a proponent of full intellectual understanding of a topic and of reading source materials to form my own judgement, as well as a full-hearted believer in the American Experiment, this is a piece of research that I feel is a gap in my knowledge. A gap which I now intend to fill.

Theodore Roosevelt called The Federalist Papers “on the whole the greatest book” dealing with practical politics. They are certainly the foundational theoretical texts of our entire national and constitutional experiment. I am approaching my study of them somewhat in the manner of a bible study. They are just too dense, and of course in somewhat antiquated English, to simply read through like you would a normal history book, or even treatise. In fact, they weren’t even meant to be read that way, as they were written and published in newspapers at a rate of several per week over the course of about eight months. That is the rate they were initially intended to be digested, and I honestly believe that is probably still the best method by which to approach them. So my plan is to read a few of them every week, one at a time, to slowly and deliberately digest and contemplate them. This will be somewhat of a process, which I will approach methodically, and take it slow and easy over the year, contemplating lessons as you would a religious text, which to believers in the Constitution and American greatness, it is. I am also going to be taking notes, to reinforce my learning, and for my own future reference. I began this process last night, and I will be sharing my notes and takeaways from select sections of The Federalist Papers here. I will begin later today.



2 thoughts on “The Federalist Papers

  1. I also read Chernow’s book and agree with your characterization. Hamilton is a fascinating and tremendously impressive figure, one of the most talented individuals who contributed to the formation of our country. It is a tragedy that his life was cut short.I think he inevitably would have been President. I, too , have a very incomplete knowledge of the Federalist Papers and aspire to read them in their entirety. I do think that many cite them in modern times without taking into account the context of the era in which they were penned. But the general guiding principles they discuss are largely timeless. Good luck with your reading plan! I read the entire Bible one time and took a year to do it, reading small amounts daily.


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