FDR’s “The Federalist” – A closer look at a priceless book

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.

They don’t look very impressive, but they are two of the most remarkable books in Franklin Roosevelt’s personal library. This first edition, two volume set of The Federalist printed in 1788 by J. and A. M’Lean of New York, is historically significant, extremely rare, and has never been publicly displayed. Until now. In honor of National Library Week these books will be on display at the FDR Library for a limited time.

Known today as the Federalist Papers, the 85 articles and essays contained in The Federalist were originally published as a series of editorials in the Independent Journal, a New York newspaper, under the pseudonym Publius. The actual authors were a rather distinguished group; Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay – three of the most ardent supporters of the proposed new U.S. Constitution. The articles were written to convince skeptical New Yorkers that the country needed a strong federal government. Many experts consider this one of the rarest and most important books in American political history. Only about 500 were printed. It is certainly the most detailed and compelling argument in favor of the new Constitution, providing an intellectual and political foundation on which the fledgling United States Federal Government was built.

But the new Constitution had powerful enemies as Hamilton wrote in Federalist #1

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

New York was important to the ratification process because of its size and population. The vote took place in Poughkeepsie on July 26th, 1788. But by that time the Constitution had already been ratified by a majority of the states.

The actual authorship of some of the articles has been a subject of contentious debate over the years. Scholars have investigated Hamilton’s and Madison’s notes and recent computer driven semantic analysis has led to a consensus on who wrote which articles. (full listing here) But the controversy lives on, and FDR’s precious books may help resolve one of the issues. Or re-ignite the controversy.

These books were originally owned by Timothy Ford, a well-known Federalist from New Jersey. His father Jacob was an important figure in colonial America and the Ford Mansion, used as Washington’s Headquarters during the winter of 1779, still stands as a National Historic site in Morristown. Alexander Hamilton was on Washington’s staff at the time and may have spent time at the Ford Mansion and probably knew Timothy Ford.

On the front inside cover Mr. Ford makes some very interesting notes – specifying who wrote certain chapters. He noted that:

“2nd , 3rd , 4th & 54th [articles] were written by Mr. Jay. The 10th – 14th & from 37th to 48th inclusive, by Mr. Madison – The 18th, 19th – & 20th by both Madison and Mr. Hamilton, jointly – all the rest were written by Mr. Hamilton -. This information was obtained from a manuscript of Mr. Hamiltons found after his death, among his papers.”

This does not exactly match current thinking.  While it is commonly accepted that Mr. Jay wrote articles 2, 3, 4 & 5, most scholars attribute #64 to Mr. Jay, not #54. In some early reports regarding authorship the “5” in 54 is overwritten with the number 6. This may be simply an error in penmanship. Or something new.

It is Mr. Ford’s statement that 18, 19 and 20 were jointly written by Hamilton and Madison that addresses one of the most enduring controversies. Both Hamilton and Madison claimed authorship of these three articles, and current thinking is that Madison wrote them.

In addition to Mr. Ford’s note, there is a comment written in a different ink by an R.C.H. that explains Mr. Ford’s writings were transferred when the volumes were rebound. There is a number 51 written in the same color ink, probably by R.C.H. The identity of R.C.H. is not known at this time.

In 1936 Ambassador Norman Armour sent President Roosevelt these books as a gift. We do not know how he acquired them, but he was a colorful character.

credit: Library of Congress

Norman Armour was a State Department Second Secretary working in Russia during World War I, and when the revolution broke out he helped rescue Myra Koudashev, a Russian Princess, and eventually married her. He later served as Ambassador to Haiti, Canada, Argentina and Spain during FDR’s administration and was considered one of the top Foreign Service officials. In August of 1936 he sent the two priceless books to FDR at the White House – and heard nothing in return. In December he wrote to Marvin McIntyre, one of FDR’s closest aides, and asked about the books.

Amb. Armour apparently saw Mr. McIntyre in January, 1937 and then wrote ANOTHER letter on January 20th asking about the books and finally on January 21st, McIntyre responded telling Ambassador Armour that the books had arrived and that they were “now reposing among the President’s books” and that “he was delighted with it.”

Franklin Roosevelt loved books and began collecting them as a child. At the time of his death he had approximately 22,000 volumes in his personal collection, which he gave to the FDR Library and Museum.

About 900 of those books were personally selected by FDR to be kept in the bookcases in his private study at the library. Those books were the ones he loved most, including his collection of Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the signed editions of Winston Churchill’s many literary efforts.

In the Chippendale bookcase immediately behind his desk FDR kept a fascinating set of books,  including Poems by Charlotte Bronte and poetry by Robert Browning, Following the Equator : A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain, a whole series of books by Charles Dickens, and The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. But the masterpiece in this cabinet is The Federalist.

In honor of National Library Week the two volumes of The Federalist will be on display in the Library. This is the first time these books have been publicly displayed.

You can find a complete listing of the Federalist Papers and their presumed authors here



The National Archives provides a deeply sourced background of the Federalist Papers here