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  • The Voices of Publius and the Strategies of Persuasion in The Federalist
  • Todd Estes (bio)

Few writings in American politics have been as celebrated or as scrutinized as The Federalist, the eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published serially between October 1787 and May 1788. Scholars have dissected the papers from a variety of disciplinary angles and toward a multitude of purposes. The result has been a profusion of scholarship. As Lance Banning notes, “The Federalist comes down to us today with what must surely be the thickest overlay of scholarly interpretation ever lavished on a set of essays written with astounding speed and for a quite specific purpose.” On the same point Bernard Bailyn writes, “The endless outpouring of scholarly writing on the series . . . [approaches] an exquisite refinement of analysis that would have amazed the harried authors, who wrote polemically, to help win a political battle.”1 [End Page 523]

Much of the scholarly focus on The Federalist has been on alleged differences in the philosophies of Publius and on the relative importance of various schools of thought and individual thinkers on the series. Some scholars have labeled Publius a “split personality.” And much effort once went into settling competing claims about the disputed authorship of some of the numbers. But these questions are no longer compelling. Most scholars admit the presence of multiple intellectual influences, the authorship question seems clearly settled, and most also stress the basic unity of Publius. As one historian has concluded, “The Federalist is not a house divided.” Although Madison and Hamilton divided fiercely in the 1790s, we must not anachronistically read that later dispute backward in time when the two men were collaborators.2

But there is another angle of inquiry that merits pursuit: reading and analyzing the essays as campaign documents and considering them not in light of political theory or intellectual origins, but as works whose original purpose and principal objective was to help the Federalists achieve victory in the ratification contests of 1787–88. To be sure, this focus is not new, but is so easily obscured in the excess of scholarship—much [End Page 524] of it concerned with other questions—that it deserves revisiting.3

Meanwhile, it is still productive to ask how Publius participated in that campaign linguistically; that is, how did he go about shaping a rhetorical strategy to mobilize public opinion? And how did he voice his responses to the anti-Federalists in the ratification debate? Daniel Walker Howe took an illuminating step by analyzing the rhetorical appeals of The Federalist in terms of faculty psychology, or “the study of the human powers.” In particular, Howe focused on the way Publius directed his arguments, on different levels, to three types of readers—the rational, the self-interested, and the passionate—by the use of a flexible rhetoric. Similarly, Terence Ball analyzed the “linguistic turn” Publius took in the series to redefine words such as virtue, republic, and representation, whose meanings were contested in the ratification debate. Michael P. [End Page 525] Kramer demonstrated that Publius thought about the role of language in both practical and theoretical terms, especially the ways that the ambiguity of language presented both opportunities and obstacles in creating, constituting, and explaining the new government. And John Howe suggested that Federalists used language as a means of political innovation, ushering in an era not only of a new political science but also of a new political language.4

This article builds on these and other efforts to understand Publius’s various appeals to his audience by further explicating the voices and the strategies of rhetoric and persuasion he put to use. Its chief contribution is to analyze the separate yet complementary voices of the three Publiuses. Hamilton’s voice was that of a committed partisan of ratification. He told readers in the first number that he would not pretend to neutrality or impartiality. His mind already made up, he wanted to move readers to similar conclusions with forceful, decisive, even aggressively assertive language. Hamilton’s essays, then, betray no ambivalence; they insist that readers support ratification. But his essays are also tinged with pessimism about human...


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