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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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 4.8 out of 5 by 24.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An interesting approach. Good in setting context. A few minor errors: 1. Jefferson was not at Constitutional Convention- he was in Paris 2. Madison was most definitely not a good orator. He won his arguments by being more knowledgeable and well prepare. His voice was small and hard to hear 3. The area set aside for the nation’s capital was to be a maximum of ten miles square, NOT ten square miles. I thought the course by Thomas Pangle, which is more theoretical, is the better of the two but the student would be well-served taking both courses.
Date published: 2020-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course! Prof. Hoffmann deserves high marks for distilling the important aspects of the 85 articles and essays comprising The Federalist Papers into the twelve concise, well-organized, and well-delivered lectures that constitute this course. He speaks plainly and directly, has real enthusiasm for this subject matter, and provides insightful and valuable comparisons of the constitutional order we have created today to that contemplated by the Federalist Papers's authors. I listened to the audio version of this course, which I found entirely satisfactory. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A good elementary treatment This course is a straightforward explanation of the Federalist Papers, with little that could not be learned by reading the documents themselves. The course is appropriate for those with little or no background In the subject. Those that seek to explore the intellectual and philosophical background to the papers, or an evaluation of contending schools of scholarship concerning them, will be disappointed.
Date published: 2020-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my absolute favorite courses! Let me get right to the point. I love learning about Colonial American politics and history, but prior to beginning this course, I really knew little about the great works of Hamilton and Madison, both their public and private lives. Even though I own a copy of The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers I lacked a personal guide until now. Professor Hoffmann is that guide and it is a joy to listen and learn about this extremely complex and fascinating chapter in our history and how the influence of The Federalist Papers continues to reverberate, especially in the political climate of today. A fabulous course!
Date published: 2020-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must in all schools Understanding the thinking behind the structure of our government provides an outstanding foundation for understanding the issues we face today. Every student should be required to read this.
Date published: 2020-07-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Rebuking Voices From a Quaint and Distant Past This is standard civics fare and has value as far as it goes. But the course is inadequate to the exigencies of the present. If we would but listen, The Federalist Papers are rebuking voices from a quaint and distant past. That is the main failing of these lectures: Prof. Hoffman doesn’t convince us that The Federalist Papers are not anachronistic today. He is a nice lecturer, clear and articulate, but he doesn’t grapple with the chasm between what the founders envisioned and what we have been facing for the last 3½ years. We are incredulous at the notion that the structure of the Constitution ensures that only the most qualified persons are elected to the presidency or to the Senate. Prof. Hoffman quotes Madison in Lecture 8: “We should trust that our federal officials will act in a manner worthy of our esteem and confidence.” Would that it were so! We have strayed immensely. The executive branch of the federal government is headed largely by people who have no appreciation for, and couldn’t care less, what the founders intended. For example, to the extent any in the federal executive branch today have any understanding of the concept of dual sovereignty, they use it in a completely ad hoc manner. They throw to the states the handling of Covid-19, even though interstate commerce is directly and substantially affected and that crisis cries out for a coordinated federal response. And they send federal troops to act as police officers into American cities to foment discord for perceived political advantage. These are only a few of the burning dual sovereignty issues of the day that Professor Hoffman does not address. (In fairness these lectures may have gone to press before all these issue were presented, but nowhere does Prof. Hoffman specifically address any of the severe and pressing Constitutional issues raised in the last 3½ years.) But have we strayed irretrievably? The more optimistic view is that the people will correct course in the next election, as Madison and Hamilton envisioned. The people will decide, among other things, whether this administration has gone too far in subverting the Constitution. But the pessimist asks: what if the integrity of the elections themselves is undermined by that same overreaching federal government, which is doing everything it can to suppress the vote, and has shown beyond doubt that it has no boundaries in attempting to gain electoral advantage, including illicit or illegal means, to the point of even soliciting and accepting help from a foreign adversary? The Federalist Papers don’t tell us. But neither does Professor Hoffman, and he’s been living with these issues since January 2017, like we all have been. I have some other problems with these lectures. On a minor note, Prof. Hoffman in Lecture 4 has Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia in 1787, but he was in Paris as minister to France. In Lecture 11, Prof. Hoffman says that the federal government led by President Washington began formal operations on March 4, 1789. In fact, Washington was not sworn in until April 30. These facts aren’t hard to check. More significantly, in Lecture 9, Hoffman almost smugly quotes Hamilton to argue that impeachment is merely a “political,” not legal, process. But that does not mean that Hamilton used the term “political” as we use it today. Hamilton was writing before political parties had been formed. Today, the term is used pejoratively by one party when it seeks to denigrate the other party’s position or what the other party is trying to do. Hamilton, as Prof. Hoffman notes, meant “political” to mean not necessarily criminal, but as relating “chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself,” a distinctly nonpartisan concept. Calling the impeachment process “political” legitimately cannot be used to justify a vote not to impeach, or a vote to acquit, when the president has clearly engaged in conduct injurious to the society itself. Contrast the hypothetical situations where a president has an extra-marital private affair, versus where the president seeks to undermine national security for the purpose of assisting his own reelection efforts. While neither is necessarily a statutory crime, under Hamilton’s concept of what a “political” process means the former would not warrant impeachment and removal, while the latter does. Even though these are fresh issues in front of Prof. Hoffman, he chooses not to go there. The course and we are the poorer for his timidity. In discussing the president’s self-pardon power in Lecture 9, Prof. Hoffman cites Hamilton as explaining that after removal in an impeachment process, the person removed would still be liable to criminal prosecution. Since, Prof. Hoffman tells us, that couldn’t possibly happen if a president could pardon himself, then the president must not be able to pardon himself. But that’s exactly why a president would need to pardon himself – because he still could be liable to prosecution. So this doesn’t tell us anything about Hamilton’s view (or Prof. Hoffman’s view) on whether a president can pardon himself. But as Prof. Hoffman says, that will be an issue for the Supreme Court, perhaps soon. More than anything, this course reminds us of how far we have strayed from what Madison, Hamilton and Jay had in mind. I’m disappointed that Prof. Hoffman does not grapple with the ongoing Constitutional crisis we are living. I would like to see a country where The Federalist Papers are again relevant, but lectures like these don’t get us there.
Date published: 2020-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent presentation and presented Very topical Congress is NOT doing it's job. They are to legislate what is BEST for the country NOT defer to the Executive.
Date published: 2020-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Why Democracy Works! I have been enjoying the Federalist Papers Course and highly advise everyone learn about our constituents, regardless of political party. Our history and survival of democracy is to the great credit of our brilliant forefathers! So relevant to today’s political climate.
Date published: 2020-07-22
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