Standing the Ground: The Crises of the 1790s and the Philosophies of the Federalist Papers

Maria Vostrizansky (Alma College)

After the end of the Constitutional Convention, there was a national debate surrounding whether states should ratify the Constitution or not. In support of the proposed Constitution, the Federalist Papers had been originally published in New York and distributed among the public under the name of Publius. This series of a total of eighty-five papers, written by John Jay (1745-1829), Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), and James Madison (1751-1836), has become a significant source of constitutional interpretation, and contributed to its ratification in 1788 through the authors’ use of persuasion from their own political philosophies.[1] With the ratification of the Constitution and a newly established nation, the next decade had presented numerous challenges domestically and internationally. This contributed to many of the nation’s leading political figures responding in order to confront these conflicts and ensure the nation’s survival with the continuation of upholding the fundamental government structure, as laid out within the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. With the philosophies seen throughout the essays being tested due to numerous crises in the 1790s, it becomes essential to further examine the consistency of Publius’ opinion overtime compared to previous arguments made within the Federalist Papers.  

Throughout the course of our nation’s existence, there have been many scholars who have examined the Federalist Papers through posing a variety of questions and have analyzed its significance, alongside having a further understanding of the authors’ philosophies and core ideas within their essays which have shaped the nation. However, it appears that many of these scholars have yet to question whether the authors of the Federalist Papers had continued to hold the same philosophical or political beliefs, as seen within each of the individually written essays, overtime after its publication and with ongoing crises occurring in the nation throughout the next decade. 

Historians have commonly examined the Federalist Papers by analyzing the philosophical influences of the authors’ fundamental beliefs and established principles.In Philosophy, The Federalist, and the Constitution,Morton White aims to examine the philosophical thoughts and influences of the three writers taking on the pseudonym of Publius for the publication of the Federalist Papers. White draws attention to the influence of previous philosophers, such as John Locke and David Hume, who impacted these writings in the development of American thought.[2] Through his attempt to understand the mind of Publius, White analyzes specific writings from the authors themselves as well as going into detail about normative ethics, psychology of motivation, and overall theories of human nature and knowledge which contributed to the authors’ philosophical beliefs.[3] Through his work, White seeks to prove his proposition that the moral principles present within the Federalist Papers are constructed from the rationalism behind epistemology, the theory of knowledge, inspired by Locke. On the other hand within examining the thoughts of Publius, White views the principles of psychology and political science within these writings were formed upon empiricist epistemology, knowledge derived from experiences, influenced by Hume. White notes that “[the authors of the Federalist Papers] were so well read in philosophy that they sometimes lead us to think they will probe more deeply than they could possibly probe while pursuing their main object, that of successfully defending the Constitution of the United States” in his final remarks.[4]

Scholar Edward Millican analyzes a variety of authors, essays, and the overall intentions of the Federalist Papers within his book One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea.[5] He highlights each of the philosophies behind the minds of Jay, Hamilton, and Madison as seen within each of the authors’ individual essays published. Overall, Millican views the Federalist Papers as a body of intellectual thought that served as a powerful influence and justification for the ratification of the Constitution, as these essays overtime became recognized as a milestone in the evolution of political theory and contributed to the newly established government system for the union. He goes on to further argue that the authors had put forth the philosophies and principles which contributed to the modern nation-states through his own analysis of the Federalist Papers and the ideas surrounding American nationalism. Millican contrasts with other historians, such as White, who poses questions about the Federalist Papers concerning the influence upon the authors, rather than the influence of these essays themselves upon the American political system which Millican directs his focus throughout his work.

In the scholarly journal, “The Voices of Publius and the Strategies of Persuasion in the Federalist,” Todd Estes examines the different styles of writing and certain convictions of the three authors behind the name of Publius for the purpose of persuading others to support the ratification of the Constitution.[6] Estes settles on his own conclusion that out of all the writings published on the subject matter of American politics, very few of these writings have been viewed as significant for its contribution to the ideas and foundations of core American principles within the Constitution, yet he argues the Federalist Papers were one of these noteworthy pieces of writing. In his analysis, Estes directs his focus on examining the differences among Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in their own philosophies and the relative importance of various schools of thought throughout the essays. Compared to that of Millican, Estes is examining similar questions in discussion of the Federalist Papers, but to some degree comes about different answers in his own interpretation of the political influence these essays had. For example, Estes presents an angle of inquiry, not focusing on the intellectual origins of the authors but rather the original purpose and overall intentions achieving support for the ratification of the Constitution through the compelling voices of Publius.

A similar historical interpretation, in comparison to Estes, is “A Rhetoric for Ratification: The Argument of “The Federalist” and Its Impact on Constitutional Interpretation” by Dan T. Coenen. The historian’s main focus is to evaluate the important role the Federalist Papers play in constitutional interpretation and draws attention to its authors as well, who had continued to use their own work as an example in reference to current events during this time period of the birth of the nation.[7] Coenen notes that these essays, in its advocation for the ratification of the Constitution, incorporate different styles of rhetoric and persuasive tactics for the motive of winning support from the states and its citizens. Overall, Coenen demonstrates the Federalist Papers’ key role in seeking to further interpret the Constitution through examining the variety of rhetoric styles incorporated for the purpose of persuading the American people that this document is crucial for the survival of the newly established nation, alongside fundamental laws and the guarantee of certain basic rights for citizens, similar to that of Estes who highlights the strategies in use of various schools of thought.

W. B. Allen analyzes the Federalist Papers in a clear approach to further understand the underlying principles that shaped the newly formed United States government, in his book The Federalist Papers: A Commentary: “The Baton Rouge Lectures,” as these combined essays are essential in examining the nation’s principles and practices in current day due to its influence on the American political structure.[8] For his intended audience, Allen quickly disputes common approaches to the essays such as “[The Federalist Papers] were propaganda for the era, and they don’t say anything about how American government operates now”.[9] Instead, he highlights the significance of the papers being written and whether the authors were successful in their own approaches of supporting the ratification of the newly written Constitution, alongside its contribution to political theory. Allen goes as far as to say that the Federalist Papers intended to create and establish a way of life for Americans within communities during the time of its publication, whether a citizen found themselves directly involved with the United States government or not.[10] In studying each individual essay, Allen addresses specific papers in the context of doubts surrounding the Constitution, political philosophies, the establishment of a strong government, mechanics of liberty, and the governance of a young nation. 

In comparison with other historians, William Allen holds opposing arguments. Such as in comparison to Morton White, who takes note of philosophical influences seen in these essays but ultimately argues that it affects each author of the Federalist Papers in a different way as the three men can be separated from each other’s own individual thoughts, in his examination of philosophical influences and core beliefs.[11] However, Allen takes the stance that “[The Federalist Papers are not] separate arguments. They are one argument with separate steps, and therefore, we might as well treat them as if they had all come from the mind of a single writer.”[12] In his historical analysis, Allen is one of the scholars to view the Federalist Papers in a broader perspective with the persona of “Publius” representing the unifying force between the three authors and their central arguments.[13] White often refers to Publius in a general sense when discussing the three authors as whole but continues throughout his work separating them from one another in their viewpoints when necessary, depending on what current philosophical influences and principles he is examining more closely within these essays. That’s not to say White and other historians who’ve made similar arguments, such as Todd Estes, do not have any overlap with Allen’s central arguments. However, some historians have their own interpretations and approaches to the Federalist Papers.   

There have been a variety of historians who have presented different interpretations and analyses of the Federalist Papers, whether it is examining the influences upon the three authors’ philosophical beliefs and political principles or interpreting the influence these essays had on the formation of the American political system and society of the new nation. After the successful ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the following decade would present numerous crises for the newly established union and pose challenges for the nation’s leading political leaders, including the men behind the persona of Publius.[14] By interpreting specific essays within the Federalist Papers and understanding responses to historical events during the 1790s, one can see that the philosophies of the authors did not change overtime in comparison to their original arguments made within their essays.

In A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism, Carol Berkin interprets crises that impacted the fragile and newly formed nation during the 1790s as leading political figures, such as the founding father Alexander Hamilton, during this time had attempted to navigate and unify the nation following the ratification of the Constitution.[15] Berkin directs her focus on multiple significant crises which includes the Whiskey Rebellion, the Genet Affair, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The historian examines how the current Federalist leaders acted in their attempt to handle a present crisis for the sake of ensuring the nation’s survival and stability of the American political system the founding fathers created. Berkin also goes on to further analyze the aftermath of each crisis and its contribution to the growth of American nationalism as she highlights the achievements of American political leaders, who sought to lead the United States government and citizens through these hardships at hand and do everything possible to prevent the collapse of the union. Berkin’s overall argument made throughout her work is that the Federalist leaders were proven to be successful in their achievements, as well as further establishing constitutional and governmental authority, and demonstrating that true American sovereignty prevailed.[16]

Following the economic devastation the new nation faced after victory in the Revolutionary War, a whiskey tax was imposed in hope of generating revenue to help pay off war debts and became the first federal tax in place on a domestic product in the United States in 1791 under the Washington administration, with Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of Treasury.[17] Little did George Washington’s administration know that this federal tax would result in the outbreak of a rebellion among the farmers and sympathizers within some of the states occurring through 1794.[18] Previously during the Revolutionary War, American consumption of whiskey increased and farmers had been accustomed for some time to distilling their grown mixtures of grain to produce large quantities of whiskey.[19] When this tax was enforced, many farmers saw this as an unfair taxation which would impact the cost of all distilled spirits. The vast majority of protesters of this tax came from western Pennsylvania and conflict quickly grew as protestors often sought to intimidate and act out violently towards federal officials collecting the tax.[20] With the peak of the rebellion and the crisis getting out of hand with armed citizens challenging federal taxation, Washington took it upon himself to send peace commissioners and assembled a vast number of men from nearby states for a federal militia to quell the uprising. 

The Whiskey Rebellion became one of the first tests of federal authority in the United States. The actions taken by the federal government to put an end to this civilian uprising became proof that it had the ability to clamp down upon any violent resistance to any constitutional law that would be passed. In his analysis of the Federalist Papers, one of Millican’s central arguments focuses on the ideas surrounding the birth of American nationalism from the philosophical arguments and principles present within these essays. In relation to another scholar, Berkin makes the argument that the very nationalism which Millican discusses became stronger in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion.[21] 

The Whiskey Rebellion became one of the first significant domestic crises the nation faced which presented a variety of challenges, whether to one’s political beliefs or morals, and resulted in the responses from many of the nation’s political leaders, Alexander Hamilton being one of them. Out of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton was the one who had more of a connection to the whiskey tax as he contributed to Congress agreeing to integrate the debt among the states and the nation into one single debt and then had pushed for the excise tax on distilled spirits that were produced domestically to pass.[22] This is not a surprising suggestion on his part based on his political belief on taxation, as seen in Federalist Paper No. 21 that was published in 1788.[23] In this essay, Hamilton writes “It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit, which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed– that is, an extension of the revenue.”[24] As he makes the assumption that the consumption of a product would decline, Hamilton had thought that to ensure revenue was collected then the federal government must avoid setting an outrageous tax.[25] Previously in Federalist Paper No. 12, Hamilton discusses in his view the advantages of having a higher tax on imported alcohol and having ardent spirits be under federal regulation as “that article would well bear this rate of duty; and if it should tend to diminish the consumption of [alcohol], such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society.”[26] It can be plausible that Hamilton may have contradicted himself as he defended the whiskey tax, which would seem to be not as unpleasant compared to other taxes, due to the fact that he previously believed harsh taxes should be avoided, yet many farmers and civilians were against this and it resulted in a rebellion. Yet, Hamilton was for proposing a tax on alcohol to limit consumption and the importation, as seen in Federalist Paper No. 12, and simply did not care for how this tax might harm the farmer population for the greater good of the nation to help with lessening the amount of debt from the Revolutionary War.[27] With a clear involvement and connection to the whiskey tax, it appeared to be in Hamilton’s best interest to continue to uphold his own values in the handling of the national debt based on the current crisis at hand, as previously seen within some of his individual essays, rather than modifying beliefs during this challenging time for the nation. Despite the challenges brought on by the Whiskey Rebellion, it is clear that Hamilton’s original philosophies and principles seen in some of his work within the Federalist Papers did not change with the onset of this historical event that took place during the 1790s.

With the onset of the Whiskey Rebellion, a new crisis was occurring in 1793 concerning the ongoing French Revolutionary War and American neutrality known as the Genet Affair.[28] The Frenchman by the name of Edmond Charles Genet had been sent by France to the United States in order to gain American support, as France was currently in a war against Britain and Spain. Yet, Genet’s actions of challenging the foreign policy decisions of the United States President and respecting neutrality led to a major political and international dispute between the two nations. Due to this crisis, the United States was forced to take a stance and construct a consistent policy for the nation to follow in the event of staying neutral and out of foreign conflicts that could harm the nation. 

The crisis of the Genet Affair caused many political leaders and American citizens to reassess the nation’s previous alliance with France and obligations under the Treaty of 1788.[29] During a time when public opinion began to influence policy making more, the Washington administration had found itself in the middle of having to abide by its citizens’ support and at the same time passing proclamations to further defend the nation’s neutrality. Between the authors of the Federalist Papers, Jay and Hamilton had become involved in the crisis. For example, Jay had previously served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs years prior and later on negotiated with the British through Jay’s Treaty in 1794 when he was Supreme Court Chief Justice.[30] For Hamilton, he was one of the political figures who aided Washington in making decisions concerning Genet.[31] 

Despite the crisis of the Genet Affair in the 1790s, Hamilton and Jay continued to hold onto their political beliefs as the two had both mentioned similar concepts within their essays, a part of the Federalist Papers detailing preserving peace, foreign influence, and the principles of neutrality which became challenged during the current time of distress. As the two authors had a connection to the crisis at hand, it would seem to be more reasonable to Hamilton and Jay to continue to support their own ideas present in previous writings rather than respond with a new and different viewpoint during this crisis.

In Jay’s Federalist Paper No. 2 titled Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence, he argues that in order to ensure security and prosperity for the nation then it must not consist of divided states but rather come together as a union and establish a unified federal government.[32] Jay writes, “The prosperity of America depended on its Union… They who promote the idea of substituting a number of distinct confederacies in the room of the plan of the [Constitutional C]onvention seem clearly to foresee that the rejection of it would put the continuance of the Union in the utmost jeopardy.”[33] Later in Federalist Paper No. 3, Jay discusses his thoughts on the necessity of having a strong national government which would have more power to preserve peace, protect the nation from foreign aggression, and would be more able to negotiate with foreign nations in the event of an international conflict.[34] With just causes of war, he notes that “it appears equally clear to me that one good national government affords vastly more security against dangers of that sort than can be derived from any other quarter.”[35]

In Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 11, he discusses the United States engaging in trade with European nations.[36] Hamilton makes the claim that in order for the nation to preserve its control over commerce and gain access to trade opportunities, then foreign nations must be required to trade and negotiate with the Union as a whole. In relations with foreign nations, Hamilton later on writes that “The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”[37] 

Both authors advocate for a strong government for the sake of preserving the Union while interacting with foreign nations, whether it being through trade, negotiations, or an international conflict. Within his historical work, Allen makes the claim that the arguments made by the three separate authors are essentially coming from the same mind (under the name of Publius).[38] Therefore, he would be one to make the argument that both Hamilton and Jay had held similar views with the onset of the Genet Affair as their essays correlate with one another in discussion about the benefits of having a strong federal government in place for a variety of different reasons, in this case for foreign affairs. Thus, the arguments made within the Federalist Papers concerning interactions between foreign nations were upheld by the authors over time rather than altering previous beliefs despite the occurrence of another crisis within the 1790s. 

With the results of the French Revolution and the nation under the new administration of John Adams, the Federalists within Congress had sought to pass a naturalization bill in order to regulate aliens as well as a new law seeking to make any seditious writing against the United States government illegal which became known as the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).[39] With the fear of more aliens supporting France, during a time of war, continuing to increase throughout the nation and the federal government, there was an increase of nationalism among Americans with the protection of the nation’s foundation and the current administration felt the need to take some precaution with wartime measures.[40] However, these acts that were passed by Congress and signed by President Adams were met with fierce opposition among citizens as well as some of the founding fathers, most notably James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as seen in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.[41] With another crisis at hand, the Alien and Sedition Acts presented long term consequences for the nation with its aim to limit the freedom of speech and of the press as well as contributed to laying down the foundation for the concept of nullification which would pose conflicts decades later.

In Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 45, he discusses that the current established Union through the proposed Constitution will continue to support the citizens’ happiness as well as maintaining a balance between the states and federal government.[42] Madison rhetorically asks if “the solid happiness of the people is to be sacrificed to the views of political institutions of [the form of the Union]?” and later on states that if “the Union itself inconsistent with the public happiness, it would be, Abolish the Union.”[43] With the Constitution, Madison writes that the main purpose of the government is to uphold the peoples’ wellbeing and happiness, and therefore would be seen as a legitimate government if it were to sustain this.[44] In defense of public opinion and the First Amendment, Madison (with the help of Jefferson) had written the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts as the two men deemed these acts as unconstitutional, and supported the idea of states having control over what federal laws it deemed constitutional and would be able to interfere in order to avoid possible consequences resulting from unconstitutional laws being passed.[45] In the examination of the Federalist Papers and his later publications, it is clear that Madison did not compromise his political beliefs and values in the event of the crisis posed by the Alien and Sedition Acts due to his clear opposition of these acts which was seen as a compromise to his political and philosophical beliefs seen within his individual essays.

Looking at the events that transpired the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, which not only called into question the nation’s foundation but also tested its political leaders’ adherence to the principles and values that they stood for, including the authors of the Federalist Papers. It is clear that philosophies and ideologies did not evolve in relation to their original arguments made within their essays despite the occurrence of numerous crises the nation had faced. The Whiskey Revolution demonstrated that, despite his opposition to high taxes, Hamilton nevertheless adhered to the beliefs outlined in Federalist Paper No. 12, as he believed the taxes were imposed for the nation’s greater good. Similarly, the Genet Affair illustrated that Jay was compatible with the ideals set out in Federalist Paper No. 2, arguing that a unified federal government is required to maintain the nation’s security and prosperity. Moreover, in light of the dilemma created by the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison did not compromise his political principles outlined in Federalist Paper No. 45 which covers the balance of power between states and the federal government. Thus, it can be seen that despite the crises that the nation had faced during the 1790s, Publius stayed consistent with their political and philosophical beliefs as seen within their essays.

About the author

Maria G. Vostrizansky is currently a Junior pursuing a BA in History and Political Science from Alma College. After graduating from college, she plans to continue with higher education. She would like to continue to research and write, alongside a possible career in teaching undergraduate students in the future.

Recommended citation

Vostrizansky, Maria G. “Standing the Ground: The Crises of the 1790s and the Philosophies of the Federalist Papers.” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 12, no. 3 (Nov. 2022).

[1] Douglass Adair, “The Authorship of the Disputed Federalist Papers,” The William and Mary Quarterly 1, no. 2 (1944): 98–122.

[2] Morton White, Philosophy, The Federalist, and the Constitution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[3] White, Philosophy, the Federalist, and the Constitution, 5-9.

[4] White, Philosophy, the Federalist, and the Constitution, 225.

[5] Edward Millican, One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990).

[6] Todd Estes, “The Voices of Publius and the Strategies of Persuasion in the Federalist,” Journal of the Early Republic 28, no. 4 (2008): 523-58.

[7] Dan T. Coenen, “A Rhetoric for Ratification: The Argument of “The Federalist” and Its Impact on Constitutional Interpretation,” Duke Law Journal 56, no. 2 (2006): 469-543.

[8] W. B. Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary: “The Baton Rouge Lectures” (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2000).

[9] Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary, 1.

[10] Ibid, 27-30.

[11] White, Philosophy, the Federalist, and the Constitution, 25-31.

[12] Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary, 69-72.

[13] Ibid, 69.

[14] Pauline Maier, “Narrative, Interpretation, and the Ratification of the Constitution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 2 (2012): 382–90.

[15] Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017).

[16] Ibid,245-249.

[17] Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[18] Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, 1-8.

[19] W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979), 53.

[20] Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, 1-15.

[21] Berkin, A Sovereign People, 7-80.

[22] William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (New York, NY: Scribner, 2006), 27-63.

[23] Charles R. Kesler, The Federalist Papers (New York, NY: New American Library, 1961), 134-139.

[24] Ibid, 138.

[25] Berkin, A Sovereign People, 15.

[26] Kesler, The Federalist Papers, 90.

[27] Ibid, 88-91.

[28] Berkin, A Sovereign People, 81-150.

[29] Harry Ammon, “The Genet Mission and the Development of American Political Parties,” The Journal of American History 52, no. 4 (1966): 725–41.

[30] Todd Estes, The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and The Evolution of Early American Political Culture (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).

[31] “Editorial Note: The Recall of Edmond Charles Genet,” Founders Online, National Archives (1995): 685-692.

[32] Kesler, The Federalist Papers, 31-35.

[33] Ibid, 35.

[34] Ibid, 36-40.

[35] Ibid, 38.

[36] Ibid, 79-86.

[37] Ibid, 82.

[38] Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary.

[39] Douglas Bradburn, “A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts,” The William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2008): 565–600.

[40] Berkin, A Sovereign People, 203.

[41] Ibid, 202.

[42] Kesler, The Federalist Papers, 285-290.

[43] Ibid, 286.

[44] Ibid, 285-290.

[45] Bradburn, “A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts”.


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