The Federalist Papers were written and posted in New York newspapers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, arguing for ratification of the new Constitution. Even after that monumental work of 85 letters, which was (and is) studied centuries afterward, the New York delegates voted to approve ratification with 30 for and 27 against!

 In Papers 41-43, Madison writes about the powers given to the legislative. He groups all of the powers in Article 1 Section 8 into 6 different groups: “1. Security against foreign danger; 2. Regulation of the intercourse with foreign nations; 3. Maintenance of harmony and proper intercourse among the States; 4. Certain miscellaneous objects of general utility; 5. Restraint of the States from certain injurious acts; 6. Provisions for giving due efficacy to all these powers.” (Federalist Paper #41) Madison, under the shared nom de plume of Publius, seeks to answer “[w]hether any part of the powers transferred to the general government be unnecessary or improper” (#41) with a resounding no! Here is one highlight from each letter, that I think are important to understand today:

Madison speaks on the absolute necessity for a United America very determinedly. He states that “America united, with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” (#41)  If disunited, he warns, “the face of America will be but a copy of that of the continent of Europe. It will present liberty everywhere crushed between standing armies and perpetual taxes. […] Every man who loves peace, every man who loves his country, every man who loves liberty, ought to have it ever before his eyes, that he may cherish in his heart a due attachment to the Union of America, and be able to set a due value on the means of preserving it.” (#41) While he was applying this to the necessity of the powers of the first class, “security against foreign dangers” (#41) This is very applicable today, in the midst of America’s disunity and polarization.

In his discussion of the “second class of powers, lodged in the general government, consists of those which regulate the intercourse with foreign nations, to wit: to make treaties; to send and receive ambassadors, other public ministers, and consuls; to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations; to regulate foreign commerce, including a power to prohibit, after the year 1808, the importation of slaves, and to lay an intermediate duty of ten dollars per head, as a discouragement to such importations.” (#42) He explains why these are given to the Federal government, including why the treaties of the Federal Government are higher in supremacy than the State’s laws. (See Article 6.1.2: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land”) “If we are to be one nation in any respect, it clearly ought to be in respect to other nations.”

In the discussion about the power to regulate commerce between the States, he said it was in place to stop the States from putting import taxes on each other. He also argued that it had to control the trade between states as well as with foreign nations because to do otherwise would be to attempt to “to subvert a mathematical axiom, by taking away a part, and letting the whole remain.” (#42) This is interesting simply because of the effects of this power, seen in cases like Wickard v. Filburn, Heart of Atlanta Motel, U.S. v. Lopez, and Printz v. U.S. However, he has a clear point too.

Letter #43 was as long as #41 and #42 combined, and is full of good explanations and reasoning. One part that Madison talks about is when talking about how Congress has the power to “To declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture, except during the life of the person attained.” (Constitution, 3.3.2) He talks about the balance that they strove for there. The government clearly needs to punish and enforce treason! As he says, “As treason may be committed against the United States, the authority of the United States ought to be enabled to punish it.” (#43) On the other hand, you can claim many things are “treasonous” even if they are just the critical truth. This, Madison understands, and so says, “as new-fangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions, the natural offspring of free government, have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other, the convention have, with great judgment, opposed a barrier to this peculiar danger, by inserting a constitutional definition of the crime, fixing the proof necessary for conviction of it, and restraining the Congress, even in punishing it, from extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author.” (#43) I think the balance they found there is extraordinary.

It was hard to just pick one thing from each paper, and I recommend that everyone reads these few letters, at the very least. I was also struck at what things he took as commonplace, or common sense, that are argued today. However, there are things he said in the papers that are no longer issues for us today! In addition to being a great explanation of the reasoning for and behind the Constitution, the Federalist Papers gives us a window into their time, debates, and thoughts.