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.


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 rest.

--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 affairs.

--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 majority.


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 democracy.


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 students?

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 current events.

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.


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.


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.


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 248 161.


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