ERIC Identifier: ED292740
Publication Date: 1988-02-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching the Federalist Papers. ERIC Digest.
THE FEDERALIST is the great American contribution to literature on
constitutional government. Thomas Jefferson proclaimed it "the best commentary
on the principles of government which was ever written." In Cohens v. Virginia
(1821), Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: "It (THE FEDERALIST) is a complete
commentary on our Constitution, and it is appealed to by all parties in the
questions to which that instrument gave birth." From the 1790s until today,
lawyers, judges, politicians, and scholars have used ideas of THE FEDERALIST to
guide their decisions about constitutional issues.
The ideas of THE FEDERALIST, which are at the core of civic culture in the
United States, are essential elements of education for citizenship in the
American constitutional democracy. This digest discusses (1) main ideas of THE
FEDERALIST, (2) reasons for teaching THE FEDERALIST in secondary schools, and
(3) how to teach THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.
WHAT ARE MAIN IDEAS OF THE FEDERALIST?
THE FEDERALIST PAPERS were written and printed from October 1787 until May
1788 to counter arguments of Antifederalists against ratification of the
Constitution of 1787. Alexander Hamilton was the originator of this work and
author of 51 essays; James Madison wrote 26 of the papers; three essays were
jointly authored by Hamilton and Madison; and John Jay wrote five of the papers.
However, when these essays appeared in THE INDEPENDENT JOURNAL and other New
York newspapers, they were attributed to "Publius" (this pseudonym referred to
Publius Valerius Publicola, a great defender of the ancient Roman Republic).
The authors of THE FEDERALIST had varying and sometimes clashing ideas about
government, but they agreed strongly on certain fundamental ideas:
republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and free government.
--Republicanism. A republican government is one "in which the scheme of
representation takes place" (No. 10). It is based on the consent of the governed
because power is delegated to a small number of citizens who are elected by the
--Federalism. In a federal republic, power is divided vertically between a
general (federal) government and several state governments. Two levels of
government, each supreme in its own sphere, can exercise powers separately and
directly on the people. State governments can neither ignore nor contradict
federal statutes that conform to the supreme law, the Constitution. This
conception of federalism departed from traditional forms, known today as
confederations, in which states retained full sovereignty over their internal
--Separation of Powers. "Publius" proclaims (No. 47): "The accumulation of
all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands...may
justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." So the Constitution
separates powers of government among three branches according to function. But
this horizontal separation of powers is not complete. Each branch has various
constitutional means to participate in the affairs of the others to check and
balance powers in government and prevent one branch of the government from
dominating the others.
--Free Government. Republicanism, federalism, and separation of powers are
characteristics of free government. According to THE FEDERALIST, free government
is popular government limited by law to protect the security, liberty, and
property of individuals. A free government is powerful enough to provide
protection against external and internal threats and limited enough to prevent
tyranny in any form. In particular, free government is designed to guard against
the most insidious danger of government by the people--the tyranny of the many
over the few. Of course, it was mainly the "propertied few" that "Publius" had
in mind, but this principle applies equally to constitutional protection of
religious, ethnic, racial or other minorities against oppression by the
WHY SHOULD YOU TEACH IDEAS OF THE FEDERALIST PAPERS?
Ideas of THE FEDERALIST should be essential elements of civic education,
because they are core values and principles of the American heritage and
foundations of national unity in a pluralistic society. These ideas are also
keys to understanding how American government works.
Recent assessments of the curriculum and of students' knowledge indicate a
need to emphasize THE FEDERALIST in secondary schools. Secondary school
textbooks in history and government tend to avoid detailed examination of
political ideas in history and our contemporary society. One analyst writes:
"The lack of intellectual history in the texts has had some serious
consequences, one of which is that students get a rather profound
misunderstanding of the Constitution.... Rarely have they (the textbooks)
mentioned the political philosophy of the Framers (FitzGerald, 1980, 152).
Another deficiency of the textbook-dominated curriculum of secondary schools
is neglect of primary sources--the documents that directly communicate to
students the ideas and ways of thinking and writing of Americans in other times.
In particular, most students have little or no exposure to documents on American
political ideas, including the ideas of the Founding Fathers in such fundamental
sources as THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.
Neglect of political ideas in the curriculum has led to massive public
ignorance about the fundamentals of American constitutional government, an
ignorance whose scope was revealed in recent nation-wide studies by the Hearst
Corporation and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A
national sample of 17-year-olds showed a dismal average score of 54.4% on a
19-item test about the U.S. Constitution. Only 40% of these respondents knew
that THE FEDERALIST PAPERS were written to support ratification of the
Constitution (Ravitch and Finn, 1987, 55-58).
There is an obvious need to emphasize ideas of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS in the
secondary school curriculum. These ideas certainly fit standard educational
goals and curriculum guides for courses in history, government, and civics. They
are also core components of the American civic heritage and keys to civic
literacy. Finally, they have enduring relevance to contemporary citizenship and
government. The bicentennial of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS in 1988 is a suitable
occasion to renew and improve education on core ideas of American constitutional
HOW CAN YOU TEACH IDEAS OF THE FEDERALIST PAPERS?
Ideas of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS are congruent with the content of standard
secondary school courses, such as American history, government, civics, and
studies of Western Civilization in world history. Therefore, there is no need to
create special courses or units of study on THE FEDERALIST PAPERS because
examination of these documents can be infused into standard coursework.
How can THE FEDERALIST PAPERS be used effectively with secondary school
Use THE FEDERALIST PAPERS to teach core concepts of American constitutional
government, such as republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, judicial
review, national security, civil liberties, popular sovereignty, an energetic
executive, limited government, the rule of law, free government, and so forth.
Excerpts from selected essays can be used to explicate these civic concepts; for
example, essays 47-51 are classic discussions of the American conception of
separation of powers; essays 78-83 explain and justify novel American ideas on
an independent judiciary and judicial review; essays 9, 10, 37, 39, 51 treat the
American idea of federalism in an extended republic.
Show how core concepts of THE FEDERALIST are rooted in Western Civilization
by teaching connections of the European Age of Enlightenment to the theory and
practice of politics in eighteenth-century America. Compare these ideas and the
institutions of government around the world in the 18th, 19th, and 20th
centuries. Through this global comparative analysis, students can learn how
American ideas on constitutional government are related to civic cultures of
other times and places.
Encourage deliberation, reflection, and rational decision-making about
perennial issues of constitutional government that are raised by THE FEDERALIST
PAPERS. These essays can be used to spark debate on questions that have
permeated our constitutional history, such as how to have majority rule with
protection of minority rights; how to have a powerful national government that
is also strictly limited by law; how to maintain national security while
protecting civil liberties, including the freedom of dissenters; and how to
balance effective national government with meaningful rights for state
governments. Discussions of these issues in THE FEDERALIST can be assigned in
concert with readings about specific instances of these issues in history and
Abbreviate, annotate, and otherwise edit selections from THE FEDERALIST
PAPERS to aid comprehension and interpretation by average secondary school
students. If possible, obtain high-quality learning materials on THE FEDERALIST
PAPERS that have been prepared for use with high school students. It is unlikely
that teachers will find time to include more than a few of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS
in their courses. The following numbers are recommended as most suitable for use
in secondary school courses: 1, 9, 10, 23, 39, 41, 47, 51, 70, 78.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Broyles, David B. "Political Philosophy and Liberal Education." TEACHING
POLITICAL SCIENCE 12 (1984-85): 38-51.
Burroughs, Wynell G. and Jean West Mueller. USING DOCUMENTS TO TEACH THE
CONSTITUTION. Washington, DC: The National Archives, 1985. ED 273 547.
Dietze, Gottfried. THE FEDERALIST: A CLASSIC ON FEDERALISM AND FREE
GOVERNMENT. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1960.
Epstein, David E. THE POLITICAL THEORY OF THE FEDERALIST. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1984.
FitzGerald, Frances. AMERICA REVISED: HISTORY SCHOOLBOOKS IN THE TWENTIETH
CENTURY. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.
Gray, Leslie, and Wynell Burroughs. "Teaching With Documents: Ratification of
the Constitution." SOCIAL EDUCATION 51 (1987): 322-324.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. THE FEDERALIST. Jacob E.
Cooke, ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 1961.
Hearst Report. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC'S KNOWLEDGE OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION: A
NATIONAL SURVEY OF PUBLIC AWARENESS AND PERSONAL OPINION. New York: The Hearst
Corporation, 1987. ED 289 812.
Patrick, John J. and Clair W. Keller. LESSONS ON THE FEDERALIST PAPERS:
SUPPLEMENTS TO HIGH SCHOOL COURSES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, GOVERNMENT, AND CIVICS.
Bloomington, IN: Organization of American Historians in association with
ERIC/ChESS, 1987. ED 280 764.
Ravitch, Diane and Chester E. Finn, Jr. WHAT DO OUR 17-YEAR-OLDS KNOW? A
REPORT ON THE FIRST NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF HISTORY AND LITERATURE. New York:
Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987.
Schechter, Stephen L., ed. TEACHING ABOUT AMERICAN FEDERAL DEMOCRACY.
Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University, 1984. ED
Yarbrough, Jean. "THE FEDERALIST." THIS CONSTITUTION: A BICENTENNIAL
CHRONICLE 16 (1987): 4-9. SO 018 489.