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  • Unmasking Publius: Authorial Attribution and the Making of The Federalist
  • Drew Starling (bio)

On 5 February 1788, as the states were debating the ratification of the American Constitution, George Washington wrote to his friend and ally in the pro-Constitution fight, Henry Knox, demanding, “who is the author or authors of Publius?”1 From the moment that the essays now known as The Federalist or The Federalist Papers began to appear in New York newspapers in October 1787 as the pseudonymous work of Publius, readers have been interested in their authorship. While the essays’ earliest readers were not even sure if Publius was one writer or many, by the early nineteenth century, new readers, armed with the knowledge that the essays were the collective work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, became more interested in learning who wrote which essays. Their ability to ascertain the identity of an essay’s author, though, was clouded by the fact that Hamilton and Madison, first, opposed the division of the essays among their authors and, then, wrote divergent attribution lists.2 And, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that historian Douglass Adair and statisticians Fredrick Mosteller and David Wallace settled the dispute over who wrote which essays.3

The point of this article is not to rehash this history, even if some of it will be reexamined. Neither is it to dispute the accepted attributions. Instead, it is to pose a new set of questions concerning the authorship of The Federalist. Namely, why were certain modes of authorial attribution chosen at particular moments in the essays’ editorial history, and to what extent have these forms of authorial attribution invited new ways of reading The Federalist?

In this article, I will examine three key moments in the attribution history of The Federalist: the original publishing context of 1787 and 1788, in which the authors first donned the mask of Publius; the context surrounding the 1792 publication of the first French-language edition of the work, which [End Page 63] was the first to name the authors on its title page; and the early nineteenth-century American context, in which the authors’ names were first publicized to an American audience and in which the essays were divided among their individual authors for the first time.

The mask of Publius was originally chosen by the essays’ authors to ensure that their arguments would be judged according to their merits, rather than in reference to their authorship, and Publius’ voice was only one among many competing pseudonymous voices in the debate over the ratification of the American Constitution. However, as the essays came to be more closely and specifically associated with the men who wrote them, they were removed from this original context, placed into conversation with new texts, and interpreted in new ways, in particular, in reference to their authors’ broader works and political thought.

What might be called the canonization of The Federalist and the new reading practices that authorial attribution helped to invite have had implications beyond the way in which The Federalist alone is understood and interpreted. Since the rise to prominence of the conservative constitutional interpretive method known as originalism in the 1980s and 1990s, originalist judges and justices have given The Federalist a significant role in determining the original meaning of the Constitution.4 Supreme Court Justices have cited The Federalist hundreds of times for the insight that it can provide either into the intentions of the framers of the Constitution or, more commonly, into the original public meaning of the text.5 And, while The Federalist may merit its privileged status as the best work of American political philosophy or as the best key for decoding the original meaning of the Constitution, I argue that it did not achieve such importance on its merits alone. Instead, it owes much of this import and the influence over American constitutional interpretation that it enjoys to its attribution to famous authors.

In recent years, some American legal scholars and historians have called upon lawyers, judges, and justices to abandon “law-office history” in favor of the methodological rigors of intellectual history in their efforts to interpret the Constitution.6...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1499
Print ISSN
1098-7371
Pages
pp. 63-95
Launched on MUSE
2022-04-29
Open Access
No
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