A Rhetoric for Ratification: The Argument of the Federalist and Its Impact on Constitutional Interpretation

Article excerpt


Courts, lawyers, and scholars have long assumed that The Federalist Papers supply important information for use in constitutional argument and interpretation. In recent years, commentators have questioned this view. Their skepticism grows out of two major concerns. First, Justice Scalia's challenge to the use of legislative history in the statutory context casts a cloud over judicial use of background texts such as The Federalist in seeking the meaning of the Constitution. Second, even if courts may rely on some background materials in interpreting the Constitution, there is reason to conclude that The Federalist does not qualify as the sort of material that provides useful guidance. The basic difficulty is that the authors of The Federalist wrote their essays as advocacy documents for publication in local newspapers, rather than as scholarly texts designed to lay out in neutral fashion the purposes and terms of the Constitution. Building on this historical reality, analysts have properly asked why courts should view a series of editorials, churned out to help win a heated political battle, as a key modern-day source of constitutional interpretation.

This Article explores the proper role of The Federalist in the search for constitutional meaning. It demonstrates that the essays were in fact sophisticated advocacy documents that wove together different styles of rhetoric designed to win over readers to the cause of ratification. This reality requires courts to approach the papers with a measure of caution. At the same time, the Article rejects the view that the campaign-literature purpose of The Federalist disqualifies it from serving as an important touchstone of constitutional interpretation. This is the case primarily because the authors of The Federalist, in conceiving and structuring their argument, focused on making a highly rational and highly comprehensive appeal to a broad and diverse audience. Against this backdrop, The Federalist should be viewed as setting forth something akin to a consensus understanding of the Constitution.

I.   The Context Surrounding The Federalist
II.  The Argument of Publius
     A. Attending to the Audience
     B. The Case from History
        1. The Ancients
        2. British Practice
        3. State Experience
       4. New York
     C. Publius and Practical Reasoning.
     D. The Wisdom of Compromise
     E. Imagery and Metaphor
     F. Appeals to Emotion
III. Judicial Reliance on The Federalist
     A. The Federalist as Icon
     B. The Federalist as Legislative History
     C. The Federalist as Dictionary
     D. The Federalist as Treatise
     E. The Federalist as Brilliant Philosophy
     F. The Federalist as Consensus Understanding
     G. The Consensus-Understanding View
        and Other Theories


The Federalist stands, head and shoulders above all else, as the most significant book in the history of American law and political theory. Authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist contains eighty-five essays on the origins, purposes, and teachings of the Constitution. The essays range across every major subject of constitutional interpretation: the separation of powers, federalism, the judicial role, republicanism, the proper scope of the congressional powers, the roots of legitimate government, the functions of the president, and the nature of rights. (1)

The importance of The Federalist cannot be overstated. Throughout American history it has provided a pivot point of argument in great struggles over constitutional meaning. Hamilton and Madison themselves drew on The Federalist in debates over the constitutionality of the National Bank Act and other early assertions of federal authority. (2) In the years leading up to the Civil War, Southern nullificationists and Northern unionists both invoked the essays, (3) and modern-day proponents and opponents of sweeping executive powers have done so as well. …