Books that Matter: The Federalist Papers

Course No. 4010
Professor Joseph L. Hoffmann, J.D.
Indiana University Maurer School of Law
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Course No. 4010
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Reflect on the challenges America's founders faced when setting up a new form of government.
  • numbers Survey the solution of "dual sovereignty" that the U.S. Constitution created.
  • numbers Examine the powers and limitations of the new federal government and its relationship to the states.
  • numbers Increase your understanding of the branches of government.

Course Overview

Despite their lack of official or legal status, it would be difficult to overstate the influence of The Federalist Papers. These 85 brilliant essays have served as the single most important guide to the interpretation and application of the United States Constitution for more than 230 years. Authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers offer a detailed blueprint for building a successful democratic republic, investigating such topics as:

  • The danger that factions posed in a representative democracy;
  • The balance of power between the federal government and the states (“dual sovereignty”);
  • The way a bicameral legislature would prevent the rise of tyranny; and
  • The roles of the president and the federal judiciary.

Over the past two centuries, the American government has seen its share of trials and tribulations, and the 21st century has ushered in a host of new crises, from the growing surveillance state to the political polarization exacerbated by social media. Will the American system of government survive the next crisis? Are we still governed by the same system the Framers of the Constitution envisioned? What do they have to tell us about good governance today—or our political future?

Delve into these questions and more with Books That Matter: The Federalist Papers. Taught by acclaimed professor and legal scholar Joseph L. Hoffmann of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, these 12 thought-provoking lectures take you back to the hot summer weather of Philadelphia in 1787, when the delegates from the states gathered to revise the Articles of Confederation.

What emerged from the proceedings was an entirely new Constitution representing an entirely new system of government unlike anything the world had ever seen. As you will learn, the Framers were rightly concerned about whether the 13 largely autonomous states would accept a strong, centralized federal government, and whether such a system could include safeguards to protect against the tyranny they’d just fought a war to overcome.

To answer these concerns, the authors laid out a bold vision for the new nation, drafting what became essentially the Bible of American government—perhaps America’s most significant contribution to the way that human beings choose to organize their lives, and their societies, in order to fulfill their hopes and pursue their dreams together. Books That Matter: The Federalist Papers surveys this magisterial body of work and takes you inside the strengths—and potential weaknesses—of the American government as it was envisioned in its earliest days.

Reflect on the Threat of Tyranny

Among other topics, you’ll consider what an interesting word “federalism” is. Today, we associate the word with states’ rights and the effort to limit the scope of the federal government. But when you go back in time to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Federalists were pushing for a strong federal government. Hamilton and Madison, in particular, believed that a loose confederation of 13 nation-states left America vulnerable, and that you needed a centralized governing power.

In The Federalist Papers, they made their case for the new Constitution and explicated their vision for a new American federal government that would be strong, yet not tyrannical. For instance, in Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that a pure democracy would lead to the rise of factions that would have the power and tendency to vote for narrow interests against the public good. A democratic republic, by contrast, would allow for the people to express their will indirectly.

The brilliance and innovation Hamilton, Madison, and Jay laid out depends upon a delicate balance of powers—between the federal and state governments; among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government; and even within the legislature itself. It is nothing shy of astonishing how the Framers were able to construct a system so perfectly designed to protect against both the tyranny of the masses and the tyranny of a monarch.

Unpack the System of American Government

If you accept the premise that America needed a centralized federal government, what exactly is the role of this government? Professor Hoffmann takes you through Federalist Nos. 41, 42, 43, and 44, in which Madison described and defended the list of “enumerated powers” of the federal government.

To exercise these enumerated powers, the government needed several branches to operate:

  • House of Representatives elected by the people that would be able to express their direct will;
  • Senate whose members originally were appointed by the states, offering state governments a lever of power;
  • President chosen by an electoral college; and
  • Federal judiciary whose members are appointed for life.

Not only does Professor Hoffmann explore the distinct roles of each branch of government, but he also shows how these branches evolved over time. For instance, he explains the story of Marbury v. Madison, arguably the most influential Supreme Court case of all time, in which the Court declared its power to review laws for compliance with the Constitution.

He also examines how the balance of power has shifted over the years, such as the rise of the American presidency as the most powerful political leader in the world; the changing interpretations of the interstate commerce clause; and the way the Supreme Court has become politicized over the years, from President Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme to the political litmus tests of judicial appointments in the modern era.

Consider the Future of the American Experiment

One of the delights of this course is the opportunity to get inside the minds of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. You understand their hopes and fears, and you get a window into their tactical brilliance in pitting parts of the government against each other for the good of the citizenry.

But this course truly comes alive because the continued relevance of The Federalist Papers in modern America, where questions of federalism still abound: Who should drive the reform of our educational system? Who should solve the problems of health care? When a natural disaster (or pandemic) strikes, who should come to the rescue? These matters, ripped straight from the headlines, are all about federalism, a word that ultimately refers to the balance of power between the states and the nation as a whole.

When the Framers created the new American federal system of government, they not only set in motion a brilliant plan to preserve and protect individual liberty against governmental oppression, but they also created an unparalleled model that is being studied, adapted, and adopted by people and governments around the world today.

By the end of Books That Matter: The Federalist Papers, you will gain a sense of what Hamilton, Madison, and Jay might make of America today, whether the American experiment has gone astray, and what The Federalist Papers might be able to teach us to solve the problems of today—and tomorrow.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 33 minutes each
  • 1
    A Blueprint for American Government
    Understanding The Federalist Papers starts with understanding who wrote them and why they were written. In this opening lecture, go back to 1787 to meet Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to find out what challenges they faced in communicating the need for the new U.S. Constitution. x
  • 2
    A Democracy or a Republic?
    The Framers of the Constitution believed pure democracy was something to be feared for the way it would lead to the rise of factions, which would in turn tear apart the system. Was it possible to create a new model that offered the benefits of representative democracy without the problems of factions? See how the Framers tackled this conflict. x
  • 3
    A Federation or a Nation?
    When the Framers gathered in Philadelphia to write a new constitution, they essentially were representing a loose federation of nation-states. Their original charge was to modify the Articles of Confederation, but there was a solid case for a strong central government. Examine this dilemma and the compromises that Madison and Hamilton made. x
  • 4
    American Federalism
    Given all the conflicts and compromises of 1787, how did the American federal system come about? How did the Framers solve the issues of the day while preserving flexibility for the future? Review the enumerated powers of the federal government and see how power was balanced between the federal government and the states. x
  • 5
    Dual Sovereignty
    The system that emerged under the new constitution gave the federal government the ability to determine the scope of its own powers. What checks did the system place on the federal government? Who gets to decide when the federal government has violated its powers? Reflect on the powers of the states and the American people. x
  • 6
    Popular Sovereignty and States' Rights
    The idea of popular sovereignty-the power of the American people-reshaped the relationship between the states and the federal government. In this lecture, consider the ever-changing relationship of the states to the federal government. See how the institution of slavery was the catalyst for a crisis. x
  • 7
    The Separation of Powers
    In Federalist Nos. 47 through 51, James Madison explains why the concept of separation of powers" is so important for the future of the American government. Dig into these five amazing essays to understand what the familiar term "separation of powers" really means-and why he was so optimistic about America's future." x
  • 8
    The Federal Legislature
    James Madison believed the legislature posed the greatest threat to the integrity of the system the Framers had so carefully designed. In Federalist No. 48," "Federalist No. 51," and elsewhere, he laid out warnings about the legislature seizing too much power, as well as the solution of a bicameral legislature. Delve into this thorny issue." x
  • 9
    The President of the United States
    Shift your attention from the legislature to the chief executive, the single most powerful government official in the world today. But, as you will learn in your exploration of The Federalist Papers, the Framers had a different view of the presidency. Review Alexander Hamilton's essays about the office and the powers of the president. x
  • 10
    The Federal Judiciary
    Round out your study of the branches of government with an in-depth look at the federal judiciary, one of the three branches of the federal government. The Framers believed the judiciary was the branch least likely to infringe on the liberty of the American people. Reflect on its role and its power, and then review the most important constitutional law case in American History: Marbury v. Madison. x
  • 11
    The Evolution of American Federalism
    The story of the Constitution is one of both stability and change. In this lecture, take a look at some of the most important ways the Constitution has evolved over the past 230 years. Consider whether the changes have largely honored the original spirit of the Constitution or broken faith with the vision of the Framers. x
  • 12
    The Future of the United States Constitution
    What does the future look like for America's democratic republic? As you have seen, one of the most important trends has been the gradual increase in federal power, but the tension between federal and state power remains. Is there still a future for republican government? What might a Second Constitutional Convention look like? And would we want to find out? x

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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Joseph L. Hoffmann

About Your Professor

Joseph L. Hoffmann, J.D.
Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Joseph L. Hoffmann is the Harry Pratter Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, where he has taught since 1986. He received a J.D. (cum laude) from the University of Washington School of Law. After law school, Professor Hoffmann clerked for the Honorable Phyllis A. Kravitch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and for then-associate justice William H. Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme...
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Books that Matter: The Federalist Papers is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lesson in our nations history Prof. Hoffman did a fantastic job discussing the issues raised as our country transformed from a loosely form confederacy to a nation. It is historical but no less important today than it was over 200 years ago.
Date published: 2020-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Something to think about I purchased this course because I believed knowledge of the construction and meaning behind our form of government would be essential during these times of partisan, unbelievable and misleading information concerning our leaders and their actions. The course did not disappoint and I feel now that I have a better example of what should be happening to compare with the actions that are happening. One criticism is that the professor spent too much time quoting the Federalist papers rather than paraphrasing to make his point. I'm sure with enough time I would be able to generate other complaints, but I'd rather just thank The Great Courses for a job well done.
Date published: 2020-10-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The lecturer quotes the writings a lot and often does so without any textual support. I find this method of delivery quite boring. The guidebook on the other hand is rather useful.
Date published: 2020-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well organized, informative, and thought provoking Like the last chapter in a good novel, I hated to finish the last lecture in this series. I started reading The Federalist Papers many years ago but never finished. In brief, concise segments this teacher explains the essence of this pivotal work and its relevance to U.S. history and our unique, sometimes chaotic, political system. Well worth your time. In a few months, my husband and I may watch it again. It has given me better perspective as a voter.
Date published: 2020-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining, informative and Objective I thououghly enjoyed Prof. Hoffman's course. He was entertaining and I learned a lot. But best of all, he was objective and did not have a bias either way. Refreshing as some course professors have an agenda. I highly recommend this course for anyone of any political viewpoint.
Date published: 2020-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cogently taught; vital for our time! I suspect that many persons might balk at purchasing this course for fear that it would be "too dry." Happily, I can assure you that it is not! Professor Hoffman does a most admirable job of explaining the major arguments found in this important collection of arguments for adopting the Constitution offered by Founders Madison, Hamilton, and Jay in a clear, forceful, and interesting manner. Given the serious trouble the American Republic is in these days, every American ought to review the ideas behind, and the proposed operation of, the federal government created in the US Constitution. It is very interesting to see and consider the many ways Americans have, over the intervening centuries, changed both the intent of the Constitution through amendments, by vastly expanding the powers of the executive branch, by the Congress effecting delegating many of its powers to the executive (and to the many agencies unforeseen by the Founders), and by using the judicial branch to decide key issues in lieu of them being resolved by either the state legislatures of the Congress. The last two lectures in this 12-lecture course are, in fact, devoted to showing how some of these changes came about, but Professor Hoffmann leaves it to each viewer's opinion as to whether some -- or all -- of the changes are desirable. While the Constitution, as originally constructed, did give us a remarkable form of government that SHOULD have ensured a balanced and well-performing national government, it was the Founders' grave error of not anticipating the rise of political parties -- and the effect this would likely have on the character and focus of persons elected to the Congress -- that has subsequently gravely weakened the balanced functioning of the federal government. Nor did they foresee how alliances between "factions" -- our parties -- in the Congress and the presidency could create powerful incentives to pursue the self-interest of some over and against the needs of the country as a whole. While it was their intent that both the Congress and the executive care for the whole commonwealth, we have seen throughout our history -- and no more powerfully than the present -- how sectional competition for resources and power has effectively left some portions of our country and of our people under-represented and under-cared for. Personally, both as an American historian and as a person who has held both local and state elected office in my lifetime, I am deeply concerned about some of these changes. I believe we have seriously erred in giving too many powers to the executive branch while deeply weakening the congressional oversight the Founders thought critical to ensuring that the executive and its agents were staying true to the "faithful execution" of the laws and Constitution. This is a thoughtful course which invites thoughtful reaction, and I strongly endorse it for that reason. Thank you, Dr. Hoffmann, for this enlightening tour of this important collection of papers!
Date published: 2020-09-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Detailed explanation I wish we'd had this course in my Constitutional Law class in law school! The lecturer is sharp and precise, and covers a really impressive array of topics. The reason for not rating this 5 stars is that the discs, even though brand-new, have several skips in the middle lectures that are annoying. The subject matter, though, is worth five stars, if not more.
Date published: 2020-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Packed with Well Presented Information I began four courses at once. This was the first one I finished. I loved every moment of it. The presentation was excellent; the professor was clear and precise and I learned a great deal. What a pleasure to listen to this course.
Date published: 2020-09-06
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