Summary and Analysis Section I: General Introduction: Federalist No. 1 (Alexander Hamilton)



The Federalist papers divide logically into a number of sections, with each having a central theme developed in a succession of short chapters. Consequently, the material will be dealt with in sections. Chapter breaks are indicated for easier reference.

The eight chapters in this section laid down the historical groundwork for the arguments on specific constitutional points and political theories to be discussed in detail later.

The opening statement was bold and rather bald, characteristically Hamiltonian in style. The American people, "after an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting Federal Government," were not being called on to consider the adoption of an entirely new United States constitution, a subject of paramount importance. It involved "nothing less than the existence of the UNION . . . the fate of an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world." A wrong decision here would "deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."

Anticipating sharp criticism of the proposed constitution, and active opposition to it, Hamilton grouped dissidents into several categories. There were those constitutionally opposed to any change, no matter what. There were those who feared that a change might cost them their jobs. There were those who liked to fish in troubled waters.

The largest body consisted of men of "upright intentions" whose opposition arose "from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable, the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears." This group was "so numerous indeed and so powerful" that it might give a "false bias to the judgment" that would be fatal, leading to a "torrent of angry and malignant passions" aroused by the loudness of their voices and the bitterness of their invective. The debate on both sides should be conducted with moderation, for "nothing could be more ill judged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterised political parties."

Hamilton then clearly outlined what was going to be discussed in succeeding essays, particularly the "utility of Union."


The most interesting thing here is Hamilton's analysis of the groups opposing the proposed constitution. There were those congenitally opposed to any change, no matter what. There were those who feared losing status and their jobs under a new arrangement. There were those who always liked to fish in troubled waters, hoping to come up with something. No one denied any of this.

But Hamilton was on more questionable and highly dubious ground when he characterized the main opposition as a lot of well-intentioned men, "blameless at least, if not respectable," who had been led astray "by preconceived jealousies and fears." This large group of well intentioned but misguided men included a large number of most highly respected patriots from the days of 1776 and before: Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Sam Adams, and Governor George Clinton of New York, among others. Having blasted the opposition as ignorant, self-seeking, or wrong-headed, Hamilton urged that the debate be conducted with "moderation." This infuriated Anti-Federalists, who took it to mean, as it was intended, that they should keep quiet while Federalists held the floor. Hamilton's tact often left much to be desired.