You probably know that line about the Federalist from the Act One finale of Hamilton, “Non-Stop,” in which Aaron Burr repeatedly asks Hamilton, “how do you write like you’re running out of time?” In the musical, his indefatigable pen is treated as a virtue (and yes, I have at times listened to the number on repeat to motivate my own writing). By contrast, scholars frequently point out that the eighty-five Federalist essays were not widely reprinted when they were first written in late 1787 and early 1788, even if they have since garnered attention as a clear statement of the views of (some of) the Founders on the meaning of the Constitution.
The most common point of evidence used against the influence of the Federalist is the frequency with which essays were reprinted (or lack thereof). The last thirty-four numbers, we know, were only printed in three newspapers each, all of them in New York City. So much for national influence! But I want to re-frame the question about the Federalist with a question that’s so simple (and possibly too clever by half) that it seems not worth asking: what if Publius, the pseudonymous author, went on too long to be considered widely influential? To be clear, I mean this question in a lighthearted way, and the research/analysis I’m about to share could sit in Merriam-Webster as an example for the word “inchoate.” But let me walk you through some numbers.
In the past few weeks, the revisions on my book manuscript have led me into the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (DHRC), the amazing compendium of documents about the ratification debates. Because I’m most interested in what was happening in the newspapers, I’ve spent the majority of my time working with the volumes on newspaper debates. As part of that work, I started a spreadsheet to track how often essay series were reprinted across the states, using data from the DHRC appendices for Volumes XIII-XVII.
The DHRC included sixteen essay series where the same author (that is, the same pseudonym, regardless of how many individuals penned the essays) published at least two numbers under the name. The Federalist, obviously, was by far the longest series—coming in second was Centinel, which eventually numbered eighteen essays. Let’s start though just with the Federalist. Here’s what a chart of its reprintings looks like:
Very quickly the pattern that most of us know becomes apparent. Early numbers were reprinted not only in New York but also other cities, but that number quickly dwindles to the point where only New York City papers were publishing the essays. If you work out the average for the series, it comes out to just under five reprintings per number. And it never achieved the peak of a few other series. The most reprinted Federalist, Nos. 2 and 3, appeared in thirteen newspapers, while Landholder and An American each had numbers reprinted more than twenty times, and Centinel’s most popular essay (No. 1 in that series) appeared in nineteen newspapers.
But all of that takes the various series as whole entities. As I noted above, though, the Federalist went on for almost seventy more essays than any other series during the ratification debates. So I charted the reprintings of the Federalist and all other series up through No. 18 (where the Centinel ended).
Now the Federalist (highlighted as the slightly thicker light-blue line in the chart) looks a bit less like an outlier. To be sure, it was not the most reprinted, but Hamilton, Madison, and Jay held their own when we line them up with other series in this way. Number 18 of the Federalist appeared in six newspapers, something that only two others (Nos. 19 and 23) would achieve, so it’s after this point—when all other essayists set down their pens—that the reprintings decline to the level which scholars lament as a lack of influence. And if we look at the data in one more way, by comparing the Federalist to the average reprintings for each number of essay series (through No. 12, which six series achieved), it doesn’t look that bad at all.
Through its twelfth essay, the Federalist actually achieved a slightly better than average circulation to newspapers. In other words, when you line them up essay-by-essay, the Federalist looks like many other essay series. The problem, so to speak, might simply be that Publius kept on writing and writing and writing.
So why did the reprinting drop off? Here are a few possibilities, based in part on historical evidence and in part of logic:
- Once a newspaper dropped the series, the editor was unlikely to pick it back up later.
- The editors of 1787/1788 newspapers had no way of knowing that certain essays would take on iconic importance with the fullness of time. This is something that our historical analysis clouds, because we’ve learned from legal scholars and intellectual historians that later essays (most famously No. 51, or perhaps No. 78, to give just two examples) are of critical importance to understanding the Hamilton/Madison perspective on the Constitution. But how would a random printer in Boston, Charleston, or Albany know that in the moment? All they knew was that they hadn’t reprinted anything in weeks and weeks but they kept seeing Publius in the New York papers.
- The series lasted so long in time that states had time to meet in convention and ratify the Constitution before the last few dozen essays appeared, obviating the need to reprint them. Federalist 51, for example, first appeared in New York City on February 8, 1788. Two days earlier, Massachusetts had voted to ratify the Constitution, so by the time news arrived in Boston, its numerous newspapers had little need to reprint its arguments … or any others that followed.
- Related to the above, outside of New York City, a significant number of newspapers were printed in Pennsylvania (16), Massachusetts (13), and Connecticut (9), all of which ratified the Constitution relatively quickly. So Publius lost places where the Federalist might “pad” its reprinting numbers.
These are admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculations, so I’d caution not to make too much of what’s here. And I, like others who have written about the publication history of the Federalist, absolutely agree that it’s a vital source for understanding the thinking that went into the Constitution (at least via Madison and Hamilton). Nonetheless, I do think it’s important to think about reprinting of essay series in a very granular context. We can set the Federalist side by side with other publications, and think about whether that comparison changes how we view its popularity in the moment of 1787-1788.
 Trish Loughran is particularly insightful on this question in her The Republic in Print, in which she argues persuasively that the Federalist posits a national union that didn’t exist and portrayed the Constitution as a logical solution to the nation’s problems even as it received little attention because of a fractured political and print culture. Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 105-58.
 The newspaper figures come from Edward Connery Lathem, Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, being a tabular guide to holdings of newspapers published in America through the year 1820 (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers, 1972), 6-9.
Originally published by The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.