The Non-Traditional Case for the Authorship of the Twelve Disputed "Federalist" Papers: A Monument Built on Sand?

  1. 1. Joseph Rudman

    Carnegie Mellon University

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This paper discusses the controversy over the authorship
of twelve of the "Federalist" papers as seen and studied
by over twenty non-traditional authorship attribution
practitioners. The "Federalist" papers were written during the
years 1787 and 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and
James Madison. These 85 propaganda tracts were intended to
help get the U.S. Constitution ratified. They were all published
anonymously under the pseudonym, "Publius." The general
consensus of traditional attribution scholars (although varying
from time to time) is that Hamilton wrote 51 of the papers,
Madison wrote 14, Jay wrote 5, while 3 papers were written
jointly by Hamilton and Madison, and 12 papers have disputed
authorship — either Hamilton or Madison.
In 1964, Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace, building on
the earlier unpublished work of Frederick Williams and
Frederick Mosteller, published their non-traditional authorship
attribution study, "Inference and Disputed Authorship: The
Federalist." It is arguably the most famous and well respected
example from all of the non-traditional attribution studies. It
is the most statistically sophisticated non-traditional study ever
carried out. There even has been a 40 page paper explicating
the statistical techniques of the Mosteller and Wallace study
(Francis). Since then, hundreds of papers have cited the
Mosteller and Wallace work and over two dozen non-traditional
attributiion practitioners have analyzed and/or conducted
variations of the original study.
These practitioners wanted to test their statistical approaches
against the Mosteller and Wallace touchstone study. Mosteller
and Wallace set the boundry conditions for the subsequent work
— e.g., not using the Jay articles as a control. Their
experimental design and overall report is never questioned.
Most of these later practitioners do not select or prepare the
input text as rigorously as Mosteller and Wallace — whose own selection and preparation was not as rigorous and complete
as it should have been.
Text Selection
(1) "Federalist" Papers
This section discusses the way the Federalist papers were
originally published (76 in newspapers and 8 in the book
compilation) and which editions the practitioners chose for
their non-traditional studies — how 84 papers became 85 and
how some papers had different numbers in different editions.
The effect that the lack of Hamilton and Madison holigraphs
had on the studies is discussed. The choice of edition has the
potential of profoundly changing the results of the studies.
Project Gutenberg Etexts are usually created from multiple
editions, all of which are in the Public Domain in the United States,
unless a copyright notice is included. Therefore we do NOT keep
these books in compliance with any particular paper edition,
usually otherwise.
(Front Material of Gutenberg Etext #1404)
The compounding problem of down-loading texts via the
internet is explicated — e.g., one of the texts includes every
variant of every paragraph. It is shown why none of the
Federalist studies used a 'valid' text of the Federalist papers.
The question, "Does this incorrect input data invalidate the final
'answer?'" is discussed.
(2) The Control Texts
(a) The "Known" Hamilton Sample
This sample cannot contain questionable Hamilton writings.
This sample must also fulfill the other criteria of a valid sample
— e.g., same genre, same constricted time frame. There also
should be a sub-set of this sample set aside for later analysis
in order to guard against the charge of cherry picking the
style-markers. This is not the same as the Mosteller and Wallace
"training sample."
(b) The "Known" Madison Sample
In addition to discussing the way the Madison sample was
constructed, what was said about the Hamilton sample will be
applied here.
Does the lopsided number of Hamilton papers over Madison
papers (51 to 14) pose a problem for the studies? Were the
Hamilton and Madison control texts from outside the Federalist
papers chosen correctly? Why are these "outside" controls not
used by most of the other practitioners? This section goes on
to discuss the control problems that arose with the Mosteller
and Wallace study and have been perpetuated through the
subsequent studies. This section also discusses the other control
problems introduced in these studies.
Text Unediting, De-editing, and
The cumulative effect of NEARLY A THOUSAND SMALL
CHANGES [emphasis mine] has been to improve the clarity and
readability of the text without changing its original argument.
(Scigliano, lii)
(1) The "Little Book of Decisions"
In the Mosteller and Wallace study, a "little book of decisions"
is mentioned. This "book," originally constructed by Williams
and Mosteller, contained an extensive list of items that Mosteller
and Wallace unedited, de-edited, and edited before beginning
the statistical analysis of the texts — items such as quotations
and numerals. Unfortunately, neither Williams and Mosteller
nor Mosteller and Wallace published the contents of this "little
book of decisions" and only mention five of their many
decisions in the published work. [Mosteller and Wallace 7, 16,
38-41] The little book has been lost and cannot be recovered
or even reconstructed [Mosteller]. This paper goes on to discuss
the many ramifications of the "little book" on their study and
the subsequent studies. Also, how the loss of the "little book"
casts a shadow of "scientific invalidity" over the Mosteller and
Wallace work — i.e., it cannot be replicated. Their "little book"
was not used by any of the following studies — making
meaningful comparisons moot.
(2) Other Decisions
This section goes on to list many of the unediting, de-editing,
and editing items that need to be considered. It lists several of
the mistakes made by the many practitioners and what these
mistakes mean to the validity of the studies (e.g.):
(a) Wrong letters
(b) Quotes — e.g., 131 words of Federalist 5 are a quote from
Queen Ann, 334 words of Federalist 9 are a quote from
(c) Footnotes — the author's and the editors'
(d) Numbers
(e) Foreign languages
(f) Spelling
(g) Homographic forms
(h) Contracted forms (i) Hyphenation
(j) Word determination
(k) Disambiguation
(l) Editorial intervention — internal (e.g., Hamilton on
Madison) and external (e.g., from the first newspaper copy
editor to present day editors)
(1) Acceptance of Results by Non-Traditional
Are practitioners (statisticians and non-statisticians) so blinded
by the statistical sophistication that the other elements of a valid
non-traditional authorship study are ignored?
(2) Acceptance of Results by History Scholars
Do professional historians accept, deny, or show indifference
to the body of work that supports the Mosteller and Wallace
study? Why did I spend hours searching for a Mosteller and
LAWRENCE study of the Federalist papers?
(3) Do the multiple flaws in all of these
non-traditional studies invalidate the results.
Is the case put forth by Mosteller and Wallace and buttressed
by the other non-traditional practitioners nothing but a
"Monument" built on sand? What effect does showing the flaws
in the Federalist studies have on non-traditional studies in
general — i.e., if the best is suspect, what about the rest!
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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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  • Language: English
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