Federalist No. 78

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Alexander Hamilton

Today marks the 208th anniversary of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton (it’s all about the Hamiltons, baby) and Aaron Burr, the answer to that trivia question in that amazing Got Milk? commercial. With that, we might want to take the time to revisit one of Hamilton’s most famous pieces of political thought: Federalist No. 78.

As you indubitably recall from your grammar school days, The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay and are credited with laying the foundation for many of the US Constitution’s concepts.

One of my favorites is Federalist No. 78, written by Hamilton, which describes the idea of judicial review. The concept that a judicial branch could check the legislature and executive without controlling the money or the military was a novel concept at the time. In Hamilton’s words the judiciary has “no influence over either the sword or the purse,” however, the judiciary does have its judgement.

Largely due to Hamilton’s influence, the US Constitution established the judicial review process, by which the Supreme Court may strike down a law that it rules to be in violation of the Constitution. It then can compel the Executive to enforce its ruling — even if their rules contradicts the will of the Executive. This concept was quite controversial at the time.

All’s well that ends well, though. In 1803 (shortly before Hamilton was mortally wounded and then died), the Supreme Court upheld judicial review in Marbury v. Madison.

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