The authors of The Federalist Papers repeatedly recommend the new Constitution because it establishes a “republican” government. What then did these authors of The Federalist Papers mean by the terms “republic” or “republican”?
The best answer is Federalist # 39, where Madison surveys the plan of the Constitution. He states, “The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican.” The “genius of the American people” demands it. The Revolution was fought to secure it. such a government, and if the Constitution does not offer a republican government, it is indefensible. (Federalist # 39, 240)
Madison asks: “What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form?” (Federalist # 39, 240) Finding no good answer in existing republics (Federalist # 39, 240-241), he looks to the principles of republicanism, writing,
we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.
If office holders are chosen by an elite, or hold office at the pleasure of an elite, republicanism is degraded. (Federalist #39, 241) Madison notes that state governors and legislators serve for set terms of years, while judges serve during good behavior, which is what the Constitution calls for. (Federalist # 39, 241) The House is elected directly; the Senate indirectly, by state legislatures. The President is elected indirectly. (Federalist 39, 242:Constitution, art. 1, §§ 2-3, art. 2, §§ 1, 4) Madison also notes the prohibition of nobility. (Federalist 39, 242; see also Federalist # 84, 511; Constitution, art. 1, § 9, ¶ 8) Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had only one house, elected by the state legislatures. (Articles, art. V)
Madison notes that the Constitutional Convention undertook to create a republic:
Among the difficulties encountered by the convention, a very important one must have lain in combining the requisite stability and energy in government, with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form.
Alluding to the republican character of the Constitution as drafted, he writes:
[R]epublican liberty seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and that even during this short period the trust should be placed not in a few, but a number of hands.
In Federalist # 43, Madison notes that federal government must ensure a republican government for every state. (Federalist # 43, 275; Constitution, art. 4, § 4) Historically, a monarchy entrance into a republican confederation is always dangerous. (Federalist # 43, 276)
The Constitution did not create a pure democracy. Indeed, most people feared democracy would degenerate into mob rule. Hamilton emphasized the differences:
The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.
He reminds readers that a simple legislature, which was what the Articles provided for, is the weak point of a republic. (Federalist # 71, 433; see also Federalist # 51, 324 on “compound republics”; Constitution, art. 1, §§ 1-3; Articles, art. IX)
Because the government under the Constitution would be a truly national government much more powerful than what had existed under the Articles of Confederation, these authors went to great lengths to show that this government would answer to the people, and would be able to resist manipulation by any cabal. Supporting this contention, in Federalist # 57, Madison addressed challenge that the House of Representatives could be subverted:
[T]he principle of it strikes at the very root of republican government. The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government.
State legislatures had served well and faithfully; why would voters who have chosen legislators well not choose good men for their national legislature? (Federalist # 57, 354-55)
Madison’s Federalist # 10, the most debated of the 85 essays, is his argument that the size and diversity of the United States makes control by any one faction impracticable. He twice alludes to republics: “A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place” (Federalist # 10, 81) and
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
Madison argues that the United States is simply too large to be as a true democracy with direct citizen participation. It is a republic, governed by representatives. (Federalist # 10, 82-83)
The basic principles of republicanism then are that governmental power comes from the people. In the American case, offices are structured to inhibit seizures of power. The Constitution gave the new government more power did the Articles of Confederation, under which the states remained pre-eminently sovereign. (Article, art. II) To show that this does not threaten freedom, The Federalist Papers go to considerable length to show how the governmental structure would inhibit any perversion of its republican nature, and why this is necessary.
In Federalist # 48, Madison refers three times to “republics” in discussing the need for the separation of powers and checks and balances. He notes that those worried by executive usurpation overlook the more common legislative usurpation. (Federalist # 48, 368-69)
Using “republic” or “republican” occurring nine times, Federalist # 51 covers the need for separation of powers, showing how this bars oppression by any one faction
by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. . . . [This] method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. . . . This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government.
Continuing in Federalist # 55, Madison sees to the directly elected House as a republican bastion against corruption. (Federalist # 55, 345; Constitution, art. 1,§ 5) By contrast, delegates to Congress under the Articles were chosen by state legislatures. (Articles, art. V, ¶ 1) He hopes that in America men of higher-than-normal ideals will serve in Congress. (Federalist #55, 346) Federalist # 62 uses “republic” or “republican” five times in examining the Senate. Here Madison1 notes that the Constitution’s “compound republic” is less corruptible because of the distinct interests of Senate and House. (Federalist # 62, 377; Constitution, art. 1, § 3)
Federalist # 63, also on the Senate, makes a famous argument, that the very size and diversity of the American republic makes corruption difficult. (Federalist # 63, 385) In Federalist # 9, drawing heavily from Montesquieu, at Federalist # 14, Hamilton made the same argument. (Federalist #9, 73-76; Federalist # 14, 100-01, 104)
Federalist # 73 praises the term of presidency as republican, instilling caution in the executive. (Federalist # 73, 444; Constitution, art. 2, § 1) In Federalist # 77, Hamilton alludes to the checks on the presidency as supporting republicanism. (Federalist # 77, 463-64)
In Federalist # 78, Hamilton twice uses “republic” in arguing for an independent judiciary. (Federalist # 78, 465, 469; Constitution, art. 3, § 1) He returns to the point in arguing for protection of judges’ salaries (Federalist # 79, 474-75; Constitution, art. 3, § 1), and in praising trial by jury. (Federalist # 83, 499; Constitution, art. 3, § 2, ¶ 2) Notably, the Articles of Confederation made no provision for standing federal courts. (L. Friedman, 115-16)
Hamilton closes these essays in Federalist # 85 by comparing the proposed Constitution to that of New York state. He finds the federal Constitution superior for its express guarantees of republican government, and because of its many divisions of power, complicating any perversion of government. (Federalist # 85, 520-21, 526)
The authors of The Federalist Papers intended the new government to have adequate power to govern. In Federalist #4, John Jay, formerly Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Rossiter, “Introduction” x), warned that the Articles of Confederation had generated contempt from foreign powers. (Federalist # 4, 49-50) Under the Articles, individual states could carry on their own foreign affairs, subject to congressional veto. (Articles, art. VI, ¶ 1)
In Federalist #6, Hamilton argues that human nature requires strong government to prevent states from fighting each other. On this point, the historical record of republics is grim. (Federalist #6, 56-59) In Federalist # 8, he writes that weak government forces a nation to choose anarchy or a standing army. (Federalist, # 8, 67-69)
Federalist # 18, jointly by Hamilton and Madison, reviews the history of weak Greek
republics. (Federalist # 18, 128) They continue this discussion in Federalist # 20, reviewing the ills the Dutch confederacy suffered from weak government. (Federalist # 20, 134-36) In Federalist # 28, Hamilton says force is needed to maintain order. (Federalist # 28, 178-79; Constitution, art. 1, § 8, ¶ 15) In Federalist # 29, he argues Congress needed control over the militia to secure public order. (Federalist # 29, 187) By contrast, under the Articles, the states were to raise the national army. (Articles, art. VII)
In Federalist # 70, Hamilton uses “republic” eleven times in justifying a vigorous, unitary executive. Hamilton shows that a unitary executive is a key to orderly government. A divided executive will paralyze itself, while members evade responsibility for its actions. He compares America’s situation to Rome’s, which used unified command in crises. (Federalist # 70, 424-25) Under the Articles of Confederation, the executive was a committee growing out of the Congress. (Articles, art. IX; L. Friedman, 115-16)
In short, The Federalist Papers defined a republican government as a government which derives its power from the people, with that power being exercised through delegates. They wanted government structured to prevent any perversion of that system, and given enough power to govern. They felt that the Constitution before the state of New York met these criteria.
“Articles of Confederation.” American Historical Documents. (Harvard Classics, vol. 43). Ed. Charles W. Eliot. (New York, New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1910). 168-80.
Constitution of the United States.
Friedman, Lawrence. The History of American Law. 2e. Ed. (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985).
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, & John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. (New York, New York: Mentor/New American Library, 1961).
1 The authorship of Federalist # 62 is in doubt. Hamilton claimed authorship of essay which scholars attribute to Madison. Professor Rossiter, in his introduction to The Federalist Paper, cites this essay as “probably” Madison’s. Federalist # 63 bears the same uncertainty.