In the fall of 1787 Alexander Hamilton was facing a crisis. The recently concluded Constitutional Convention had been charged with revising the Articles of Confederation to provide a framework for the government of the newly independent United States. But after four months of contentious debate in Philadelphia, the delegates presented to the American public a Constitution that proposed a much stronger federal government than many citizens had expected. Opposition to the new Constitution was immediate and fierce, and it was by no means certain that the document would be ratified by the minimum nine states necessary for it to take effect.
Hamilton and other supporters of the Constitution (known as federalists in the political parlance of the time) realized that a failure to ratify would be a disastrous setback for the fragile new union of former colonies. Hamilton’s own state of New York was home to some of the most intense opposition, so he fell back on a strategy that had worked for him in the past: he took up his pen and faced his opponents with a barrage of words.
Hamilton’s first installment appeared in the New York Independent Journal newspaper on October 27, 1787. It was relegated to a column on page 2 (page 1 was reserved for paid advertisements, mostly for newly imported goods like tobacco, Tenerife wines, and fur “muffs and tippets”) and titled “The Federalist. No. I. To the people of the state of New-York.” Hamilton exerted his influence to have the series reprinted by three of the other four New York papers.
Hamilton also recruited two collaborators for his ambitious undertaking: fellow New-Yorker John Jay, and Virginian James Madison. Jay wrote numbers 2-5 but then fell ill and was unable to contribute any more. Hamilton and Madison wrote the remainder of the series, which eventually numbered 85 essays. All three authors published their essays under the pseudonym Publius. Writing anonymously was standard practice in the 18th century, especially for newspapers and magazines, and pen names drawn from classical history were fashionable. But the Federalist authors’ choice was deliberate, referencing Publius Valerius Publicola, founder of the Roman Republic.
Newspapers were 18th century America’s best medium for communicating time-sensitive information to a target audience. But the media-savvy Hamilton also desired a wider geographic distribution of the Federalist essays. So he convinced John and Archibald McLean, printers and publishers of the Independent Journal, to publish the essays in book form. Had the McLeans realized what they were getting into, they might have turned down Hamilton’s offer. The publishers were originally told to expect about 25 essays in total, but as Hamilton and Madison kept on writing, the project grew to more than three times its original size. The McLeans published the first volume, numbers 1- 36, in March 1788, in an edition of 500 copies.
The essays were still being published in newspapers during the spring of 1788. Hamilton’s brief introductory note in volume I explained that
A desire to throw full light upon so interesting a subject has led, in a great measure unavoidably, to a more copious discussion than was at first intended. And the undertaking not being yet completed, it is judged adviseable to divide the collection in to two Volumes, of which the ensuing numbers constitute the first. The second Volume will follow as speedily as the Editor can get it ready for publication.
The second volume appeared in May 1788, with the concluding numbers 37-85.
Numbers 78-85 first appeared in the McLean volume II and were later reprinted in various newspapers.
In June 1788 New Hampshire became the ninth state to vote for ratification of the Constitution. The contentious states of Virginia and New York soon followed suit. So Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s intense writing efforts had paid off. But The Federalist in book form was not a commercial success. The authors distributed copies to members of the Constitutional Convention and to other friends and associates, but hundreds were left unsold. There were so many extra copies still in storage a decade later that the 1799 “second edition” published by John Tieboult was actually just leftover copies of the McLean edition with the title page replaced.
ZSR’s copy of the first edition is likely one of the association copies handed out by the authors. It is signed on the title page by Henry Remsen, Jr., whose father, Henry Sr., was Under-Secretary during John Jay’s term as Foreign Secretary. Henry Jr. himself was later private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson.
Although the first edition of The Federalist did not make money for its publishers, its existence assured the lasting legacy of the writings of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. The book that nobody wanted to buy in 1788 was by the beginning of the 19th century hailed as one of the most important works of American political philosophy. By the middle of the century, the first edition was a collector’s item. ZSR’s copy was acquired by 19th century railroad magnate Samuel F. Barger and later by Charles H. Babcock, who donated his extensive rare book collection to Wake Forest.
Ron Chernow Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004)
Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building 1770-1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)
Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)