In less than one year, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison churned out nearly 85 persuasive essays pushing for the American Constitution. How’d they do it? These classic creativity strategies helped.
Sure, they’re now known as pretty important Founding Fathers, but Alexander Hamilton and James Madison should also be remembered for their marketing genius.
Not accustomed to thinking of them that way? Consider the duo’s major marketing push in 1787 to convince voters to ratify the Constitution. The proposed Constitution was a potentially radical departure from the Articles of Confederation, the agreement among the original 13 states which had served as the young nation’s unifying legal document since 1781.
The proposed Constitution aimed to reduce the power of states in favor of a stronger national government. “The framers… would risk offending the state legislatures because those were the bastions of local privilege, honoring traditions that forestalled any continental vision,” writes Garry Wills in his introduction to The Federalist Papers. “A massive effort at persuasion was incumbent on those presenting such a radical plan.”
It was Hamilton and Madison who–with a little help from John Jay–spearheaded the massive marketing effort explaining why the Constitution was a good idea. Their approach embodied three classic hallmarks of creativity: they had to hurry because of a deadline; they did not aim for perfectionism; and as a team they embodied a “power combo” of disparate yet complementary skills.
The framers drafted the proposed Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. On September 17, 1787, it was submitted to the individual states for ratification.
In New York, one of the most powerful states, there was strong opposition to a Constitution which reduced states rights. So it behooved Hamilton, Madison, and Jay to launch their pro-Constitution campaign as quickly–and as relentlessly–as possible. “The Federalist No. 1”–the first of 85 pro-Constitution essays the team would write and disseminate–appeared October 27, 1787.
It was addressed “To The People of The State Of New York,” and it began: “After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting Federal Government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America.”
By January, 1788, the team had published the first 36 Federalist Papers. The remaining 49 were published by May, 1788. The trio achieved what Wills calls “a saturation bombing of the electorate, a sustained barrage of arguments appearing in the newspapers four times a week.”
Hamilton wrote 51 of them; Madison wrote 29; Jay wrote five. They managed to get the essays published in four of New York City’s five newspapers, all under the pen name of Publius. One angry reader complained about “being made to pay for the very same Publius, who has become nauseous by having been served up to us no less than in two other papers on the same day.”
Forget About Perfectionism
At the end of “The Federalist No. 1,” Hamilton explained what his general outline would be for the remaining essays in the enumerated Publius series.
What’s fascinating is that he didn’t entirely adhere to this outline.
Specifically, he omitted “a point-by-point comparison of the federal draft with New York’s Constitution,” writes Wills. The reason for the omission was Jay’s health. Jay had been the main author of New York’s constitution; so Hamilton was relying on Jay to write the point-by-point comparison.
But shortly after Hamilton published “The Federalist No. 1,” Jay was wounded in a street riot. Jay had already finished No. 2 through No. 5, but his injuries prevented him from further work. He returned to the project only once more, notes Wills, to write No. 64. But the team had to abandon its plan for the point-by-point comparison.
What’s telling is that Hamilton and Madison proceeded with their project anyway. There was simply too much urgency for them to do anything else. What’s more, history hasn’t punished them for this failure to keep a written pledge.
The great English art critic John Ruskin (who wasn’t born until 1819, long after the Constitution was ratified) argued that imperfections like this are inherent to almost any creative project, borne of proper urgency and necessity. “This dialogue between thought and labor… is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work,” explains Maria Popova in a recent edition of her Brain Pickings blog devoted to Ruskin.
A Power Tandem
The more you read about Hamilton and Madison, the more it’s evident that as a pair, they embodied many traits that characterize successful creative combinations.
Ideas tend to emerge when “someone sees a problem in a new way–often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated,” writes marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark in her book, “Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.”
For example, Kate Dill, head of experience design at Airbnb, recently explained to Fast Company that designers and MBAs make “perfect power combos.” And one key to Pixar’s creativity, co-founder Ed Catmull tells Inc., is that its Braintrust idea meetings boast a mixture of champion storytellers like John Lasseter–and a whole bunch of employees unafraid to challenge him, even though he’s the John Lasseter, the director of the first two Toy Story films.
The point is, disparate elements which can challenge and illuminate each other form strong creative combinations. Other potent combos include mess-makers and organizers; doodlers and engineers; quants and traditionalists.
As a power tandem, Hamilton and Madison each brought complementary strengths and tendencies to the table. Hamilton was a northern lawyer. Madison was a southern agrarian. Wills writes that “The Federalist” was “conceived and carried to completion by Hamilton’s energy.” A few sentences later, he adds, “Madison’s ideas are at the heart of ‘The Federalist.'”
It was Hamilton’s master plan to “saturation bomb” the people of New York with a series of enumerated documents supporting the proposed Constitution. It was Madison–who, tellingly, was not trained as a lawyer–who excelled at teaching and explaining the document to everyday citizens.