Learning from Publius
The greatest obstacle to reading The Federalist Papers is that we all think we know what the book is about before we even open it. It contains 85 articles, mostly written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, designed to persuade the ratifying convention of New York state to support the new Constitution. Much of the text is given over to defending the institutional innovations proposed by the Philadelphia convention, such as a bicameral legislature, two-year terms for members of the House of Representatives, six-year terms for members of the Senate, a Supreme Court with judges appointed for life, an Electoral College for choosing the chief executive, and a single rather than a dual executive power. Most of these issues are so deeply settled that it might seem little is gained from attempting to relitigate them.
But this impression is a false one. The Federalist is more — much more — than a period piece. Far from being an occasional document written for the limited purposes of securing ratification of the new Constitution, it initiated nothing less than a revolution in political thought — one that fundamentally redefined how we understand popular government. Consider Hamilton's golden sentence from the very first of the papers:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
The Federalist asks us to put ourselves in the context of world history, and therefore to look to the past — not simply the American past, but the history of political institutions — to determine the scope and magnitude of what the founders were proposing to do.
In order, then, to consider our beginnings, we need to return to the beginnings of our beginnings by going back to the ancient republic as a standard by which to judge our own. Only when considered in this light can we begin to understand the revolutionary aspirations of The Federalist and thus come to a better appreciation of what is living and what is dead in this remarkable text.
THE CLASSICAL REPUBLIC
From its inception, the boldness and novelty of the American founding lay in its attempt to revive an ancient constitutional form — a republic, or res publica — in a very different political reality. In referring to themselves by the pen name "Publius," The Federalist's authors were self-consciously co-opting the name of one of the legendary founders of the Roman republic. Publius was the companion of Junius Brutus, who played a pivotal role in the overthrow of the Tarquins — the traditional kings of Rome. Brutus was the man later designated by Niccolò Machiavelli as the wisest man in Rome for his simulation of stupidity while awaiting a moment to rise up and overthrow the tyrants and establish the republic. But it was Publius — who acquired the cognomen "Publicola," or "lover of the people" — who was, above all, responsible for putting the newly founded republic into a stable condition.
Yet the language of republicanism did not transfer itself directly from ancient Rome to colonial America. Republicanism was rehabilitated in 15th-century Italy by Machiavelli and other Renaissance philosophers. Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy was the greatest of all commentaries on the greatest historian of the Roman republic, and central to Machiavelli's understanding of Roman republicanism was the conflict between the patricians and the plebeians. Rather than a symptom of disorder or decay, Machiavelli regarded "tumult" between the classes as the principal source of Roman liberty.
Long before Karl Marx, Machiavelli was the supreme analyst of class conflict. Yet it was not conflict as such, but managed conflict that he regarded as the central characteristic of the free republic. No one, he asserted, can "call a republic disordered where there are so many examples of virtue; for good examples arise from good education, good education from good laws, and good laws from those tumults that many inconsiderately damn."
The revival of republicanism in modern times was also heavily influenced by the English Whigs of the 17th century — often referred to as "Commonwealthmen" — who opposed what they regarded as the tyranny of the crown and the ministerial usurpation of political power. Works like James Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) and Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1698) offered an image of England as an idealized republic based on virtue, economic equality, and political liberty. After Sidney's execution in 1683 for his involvement in the Rye House Plot, republicanism was linked to the cause of political resistance and martyrdom. Often borrowing the language of Machiavelli and the Florentine civic humanists of the previous century, these radical figures extolled the ancient English constitution as a republic of virtue in which none of the three estates of the realm — kings, lords, or commons — would be able to exercise sufficient power to tyrannize over any of the others.
It was through the Commonwealthmen that the language of republicanism entered into American political discourse in the generation before the revolution. Their language, deeply influenced by John Locke, was a highly domesticated form of Machiavellianism. To the English Whigs, a republic was still compatible with the constitutional monarchy that was the outcome of the Revolution Settlement of 1689. But to be a republican in the American setting meant to be in opposition to British authority — not only to the king, but to Parliament and the entire apparatus of British imperial rule. The American Revolution thus divided Americans between "patriots" who supported an independent republic and "loyalists" who defended the mother country and the English constitution.
To be sure, exactly what kind of republic America would be was a hotly debated topic among the American founders. And modern scholarship has not, on the whole, been kind to the Federalists on this front. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt argued that the Federalists' attempt to limit direct political action on the part of the citizen body was a betrayal of the republican spirit that had animated the Revolution. To her credit, Arendt (unlike many) tried to take the American Revolution seriously as a true revolutionary moment. But she suggested the Constitution ultimately failed to uphold that revolutionary spirit because, as she saw it, "political freedom, generally speaking, means the right 'to be a participator in government', or it means nothing." This sentence could almost have been the urtext for the Port Huron Statement, which was published the year before Arendt's book.
The same story is told at much greater length, and in far more scholarly detail, in John Pocock's massive Machiavellian Moment. One of the singular (if not perverse) achievements of Pocock's book was the virtual exclusion of Locke from the founding period. The heroes of Pocock's story are Machiavelli and his English disciple, James Harrington. On Pocock's account, Machiavelli helped create the language of what would become the English country party, with its focus on land, arms, and virtue as the three-legged stool on which republican ideology was based. The enemies of republicanism were the Humean and later Hamiltonian languages of commerce, self-interest, and empire. Like Arendt, Pocock saw himself as restoring a lost political tradition — not exactly a revolutionary tradition in Arendt's sense, but one of civic engagement and responsibility.
Even the more sober-minded Gordon Wood, in The Creation of the American Republic, gave a mixed verdict on the Federalist revolution. The final section of the final chapter of the book is titled "The End of Classical Politics," and it contends that the Constitutional Convention was responsible for overthrowing the ideals of classical republicanism on which the revolution was based and installing a new science of politics. Wood appears to have agreed with Pocock and Arendt that there was something radically new about the constitutional framing that charted a new direction in American politics, but that this direction was distinctly anti-republican. For Wood, the question was how the world of classical politics gave way to a new managerial and administrative style — the new liberal political order.
THE NOVELTY OF THE FEDERALIST
The authors of The Federalist knew from the beginning they were facing a problem. The conventional wisdom — repeated by both Baron de Montesquieu and their Anti-Federalist critics — was that republics were only possible in small territories like Switzerland or the city-states of northern Italy. The Constitution's opponents repeatedly cited the authority of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws to argue that a vast territory of the kind imagined by the framers would inevitably slide into monarchy or even despotism. After all, in a large state, the center of government must of necessity be distant and removed from the people it is supposed to represent, and there is no way of holding such a government accountable to its electors.
At the same time, the authors of The Federalist faced the assumption that any people who were to govern themselves must be relatively homogenous in terms of their manners, habits, and customs. A republic, it was said, is not only a set of institutions, but an ethos — a shared way of life thought possible only among people with common moral habits and dispositions. Large states produce luxury, a term that for much of the 18th century was synonymous with corruption. Only small states were likely to produce a society where there were no extremes of wealth, influence, or education, and so to produce the kind of moderation (some would call it "mediocrity") necessary for a simple, sturdy, and virtuous people.
Given these formidable challenges, what were the authors of The Federalist to do? They did what revolutionaries the world over have always done: They changed the terms of the question. A republic would no longer be what the best minds of the Western tradition, from Plutarch and Cicero to Machiavelli and Montesquieu, had said it was. From now on, a republic would be how the new Publius chose to define it. This was a conceptual innovation as bold as anything ever attempted in the history of political ideas.
The Federalists' greatest departure from the ancient republic concerned the scope of the new republic. The theory of classical politics focused on the regime as the republic's "soul." In this sense, the ancient philosophers meant something like the way of life, or the collective ethos, of the city that each citizen was thought to share in. The concept of the regime, as Joseph Cropsey argued in his seminal essay, "The United States as Regime and the Sources of the American Way of Life," is what a people "stand for," or what they look up to — what constitutes their ends and purposes. For this reason, the regime was seen by the ancients not only as a set of institutions, but as habituation into certain shared moral habits and beliefs. The republic was an all-encompassing educational program as much as a political institution. In contemporary parlance, classical republicanism was totalitarian, since it did not distinguish between state and society; both formed the ensemble of relations that constitute the republic.
Modern constitutionalism, by contrast, is by definition predicated on a series of distinctions between the economy and the polity, the individual and the citizen, and, most importantly, the church and the state. These distinctions grew out of the failures of classical theory to resolve the pervasive fact of moral, and especially religious, disagreement. In place of soul-swelling visions of justice and the common good, philosophers like Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbes, and the authors of The Federalist came up with the modern idea of government as establishing the conditions of political legitimacy by securing agreement on the rules of the game. Government, as they understood it, would withdraw from the higher-order tasks of forming character and educating citizens, and instead confine itself to the "low but solid" task, as Leo Strauss put it, of protecting persons and property. Henceforth, moral and religious beliefs would no longer be regarded as concerns of the state; they would be left to the private discretion of individuals. Government would no longer aim at eliminating the causes of moral conflict, but on managing it. It would be less interested in fostering the virtue of political leaders than in restraining the arbitrary use of power.
The Federalist's authors understood that their republic would be a first in political history. Their proposal for a new kind of constitution — one based on an extended republic composed of diverse factions and interests, with representative institutions designed to create the requisite checks and balances on power — introduced a new theory of republicanism that had no previous model to which it might refer. And they were not afraid to trumpet their novelty. As Madison put it in Federalist No. 14, referring to the leaders of the American Revolution:
Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.
And yet the authors of The Federalist did not create a new constitutional order out of thin air; instead, they transformed the meaning of existing terms in order to solve problems for which their predecessors had failed to find answers. Their idea of a republic as a regime extensive enough to ensure the multiplicity and diversity of interests found in large states but without the disadvantages of concentrating power in the hands of a distant ruler was a first in the history of political theory. The era of its ascendance has rightly been called (by Jack Rakove) the "Madisonian Moment."
THE COMMERCIAL REPUBLIC
From its beginnings, this new Madisonian republic offered two bold innovations. The first was that the republic would be a commercial one based on the rights of property and the protection of individual liberty. Madison made this point in Federalist No. 10: The task of government, he contended, is not to impose lofty standards of justice and morality — the ends, for example, of Plato's Republic — but to control and mitigate the dangers of faction. Madison would define faction with the clarity of a modern analytical philosopher. "By a faction," he wrote, "I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Madison then went on to explore two means of restraining the development of factions. The first was to eliminate the right of association that makes factions possible — something he rejected as a cure worse than the disease. The second was to try to manage public opinion by giving all citizens the same common interest — a solution he rejected as unattainable. Here, Madison accepts the basic idea of Scottish philosopher David Hume that all societies, from the freest to the most despotic, rest on opinion, and that it is from opinion that factions are formed. "As long as the reason of man continues fallible," Madison wrote, "and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed." These different opinions form the basis of the various factions that constitute society:
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
For Madison, it is not only from the fallibility of reason, but from the diversity of our faculties — using "faculty" in the 18th-century sense to mean distinct mental powers — that factionalism arises as the greatest obstacle to achieving social unity.
Yet rather than regarding this diversity as grounds for despair, Madison took it as a source of his new republicanism. The task of government, he maintained, should not be to eliminate the causes of faction, as the ancient writers had argued, so much as to control for their effects. The most obvious of these effects was diversity in property. A primary task of statesmanship in the modern commercial republic, then, would not be to impose equality of property, but to manage the differences between their different kinds.
Accordingly, the protection of rights — especially property rights — would be given pride of place in the new commercial republic. It would not be the virtuous republic imagined by the ancients or some of the Anti-Federalists — Samuel Adams, still an heir to his Puritan forebears, said that America would be a "Christian Sparta"; instead, it would foster a less noble yet more enlightened form of character based on the diverse interests that constitute society.
An interest-based society, Madison argued, would have a generally tranquilizing effect on these passions. It was intended to offer an alternative to the dominance of certain passions associated with fame, honor, glory, and heroic immortality. A society dominated by the pursuit of interest could be counted on to be less noble and courageous, but also more prosperous and secure. It would emphasize such virtues as deliberation, moderation, fair dealing, and compromise. It would be competitive yet peaceful, seeking something less grand but more lasting. This peaceful competition between groups would form the basis of what would later be called "interest-group liberalism."
THE REPRESENTATIVE REPUBLIC
The second great innovation was The Federalist authors' principle of representation — which Hamilton boasted was one of the innovations of modern political science:
The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.
Publius' distinctly indirect approach to representation introduced nothing less than a revolution in the basic understanding of republican government. It meant that the voice of the people in decision-making over the things that most affect their lives would be severely constrained. The famous definition of a republic involved — as Madison put it in Federalist No. 39 — "a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people" (emphasis added). But the republicanism proposed in The Federalist would allow only for indirect representation, which meant, to quote Federalist No. 63, "the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share in" governing directly.
This was indeed a first in history: a republic based on the exclusion of the people from any voice in public deliberation. "The novelty of the undertaking immediately strikes us," Madison wrote in Federalist No. 37. But what does it mean to say that power is derived only indirectly from the people, and that the people would be excluded in their collective capacity? How had a republic, whose greatest representative was dubbed "the lover of the people" — become a government that attempted to keep the people out of government?
At the core of The Federalist is a conceptual distinction between democracies based on the direct rule of the people and republics governed indirectly through the principle of representation. "It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy," Hamilton wrote, "without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy." Madison echoed Hamilton's sentiment: "Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." As if to add insult to injury, they offered a further caution against the dangers of general assemblies in Federalist No. 55: "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
Classical political theory had imagined small-scale, participatory republics that would optimize conditions of trust and cooperation between citizens acting in concert for the common good. The classical democracy aimed to be a society of friends or comrades (hetairoi) joined in a life of equality and virtue. The greatest modern expression of this view was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, which imagined a society in which the entire citizen body legislated in common in order to reach the common good.
Publius turned this idea on its head. The smaller the society, he asserted, the more susceptible to a kind of permanent tyranny of the dominant faction, whether this be the many over the few or the few over the many. The remedy was not to attempt to eliminate factions, but to control them. Extend the sphere of society to incorporate a large and diverse community of interests, The Federalist's authors argued, and you minimize the chance that any one faction will be able to tyrannize over all the others. Only a large-scale society, composed of various and competing factions and interests, governed not directly by the people but indirectly through their representatives, would be capable of preventing any one group from gaining a monopoly of power.
Even if everyone agreed that some scheme of representation was better than direct democracy (and indeed, that direct democracy was impossible in a large republic), there was still a case for some kind of descriptive representation — that is, the view that representative assemblies should be a mirror of the society they claim to represent. Only when representatives share the same feelings, interests, and beliefs as their constituents, the argument goes, will representative government be considered truly accountable. This idea still has its defenders: A version has recently been advanced by the political scientist Jane Mansbridge in her aptly named article "Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent 'Yes.'" On her account, representatives should be chosen on the basis of their group identity, whether it be race, gender, or ethnic affiliation, although how far down the rabbit hole of group identity she is prepared to go she seems reluctant to say. The animating idea behind her argument, however, is that only group representation makes democratic accountability truly possible.
The authors of The Federalist considered this argument before rejecting it. By drawing representatives from broad-based constituencies rather than narrow economic or identity groups, they hoped to enlarge the perspective of potential legislators. Their concern was not simply with representative government, but with good government. If representative assemblies simply mirrored the existing classes, interests, and identities of society, the result would be to reproduce the very group conflicts that led to the dissolution of earlier experiments in democracy. Large electoral districts, by contrast, would encourage candidates to think beyond narrow social and economic interests and to consider the larger public good. The purpose of representation, Madison argued, was not to hold up a mirror to society, but "to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens." The principle of representation was thus intended to provide a means for combining popular government with the selection of the best or most able candidates — of combining consent with wisdom.
In his book The Principles of Representative Government, Bernard Manin argued that there is something inherently aristocratic about the principle of election. There is some truth to this, although I think the term "meritocratic" would have been more accurate. The Federalist's question was how to combine republican government with some idea of merit or excellence. Unless one were to adopt the method of pure sortition, or government by lot, there must be some method of separating the wheat from the chaff. To use another metaphor, representation is akin to the process of smelting, where the gold is extracted from the ore. Because representatives are chosen by the people, they remain officially tied to their constituencies. But since they undergo a process of competitive election, they can be free to use their own judgment in making decisions. This is what Madison meant at the end of Federalist No. 10 when he spoke of "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."
THE MIXED CONSTITUTION
As we have seen, Madison's program for representation presupposes a society composed of diverse interests and forms of property: In a society where a single interest prevailed, a complex system of representation would be unnecessary.
This attention to the importance of property provided the basis for Charles Beard's famous "economic interpretation" of the Constitution. According to Beard, the Federalists were obsessed with threats to private property — Shays's Rebellion weighed heavily on their minds — and were convinced of the need to control the masses. He argued that they designed a Constitution intended to protect the interests of the propertied classes of which they were themselves members. Although Beard's reading of the Constitution has been widely debunked (for, among other reasons, the fact that the opponents of the Constitution had virtually identical class interests to its defenders), it has nevertheless retained a hold on the scholarly imagination among serious historians like Vernon Parrington and popularizing populists like Howard Zinn.
The relation of property to representation was taken up, among other places, in Federalist No. 35. Hamilton argued there that legislators would be broadly representative of the different economic interests of society, which he reduced to two: the interests of manufacturers and mechanics on the one side, and the interests of landowners on the other. The mechanics and manufacturers, he observed, will find their "natural patron" in the wealthy merchant, just as the various landowners will find their patron in the wealthier landlords. Hamilton's language of deference and patronage seems oddly uncharacteristic of a man who was keenly aware of the possibilities of social mobility in a commercial society, but he supported his views by reference to "[e]xperience," which "confirms that artisans and manufacturers will commonly be disposed to bestow their votes upon merchants and those whom they recommend."
Yet Hamilton added another interest to society that does not square at all with Beard's economic analysis. Standing between or above the classes will be the group Hamilton believed to be the "impartial arbiter" of society: those of "the learned profession" who, through education and enlightenment, will have a broader and more impartial grasp of the whole. "Will not the man of the learned profession," he wrote, "who will feel a neutrality to the rivalships between the different branches of industry, be likely to prove an impartial arbiter between them, ready to promote either, so far as it shall appear to him conducive to the general interests of the society?"
Hamilton's idea of a learned class mediating between the various economic interests of society is the closest point of contact between the ancient and the Federalist republic. The ancient philosophers all understood the mixed constitution as a balance between the many or the poor and the rich or the few. Standing between them was a class that the ancients referred to as the "gentlemen" — in Greek kalokagathoi. This class was a patriciate of inherited wealth, made up of individuals whose way of life was guided by an idea of the noble or the beautiful. Their education included training in the fine arts of poetry, music, and philosophy, to say nothing of the use of spears and the handling of horses. These gentlemen attained their status through education and were devoted to the management of public affairs. Theirs was the rule of an educated elite guaranteed by the presence of monarchic institutions above and democratic institutions below.
The idea of a learned class with no particular economic interest is inconceivable under a Marxist sociology that regards all thought as an expression of material interests, but it is plausible that those who have the benefit of a liberal education form a class of their own, distinct from other social interests. What Marx could not see was that what unites people of a certain education is not what they share with the uneducated, but what they share with one another. By the "learned professions," Hamilton did not mean philosophers or even necessarily the liberally educated, but mainly lawyers. Law was Publius' answer to the ancient idea of the liberal arts. To be sure, legal education is not the same as liberal education, but this passage expressed Hamilton's desire to reconcile popular government with something like liberal learning. He maintained a hope — at best observed only partially — that there would be a natural deference to persons of wealth, but more importantly to persons of education.
On this question of a "natural aristocracy" of talent and intellect, Hamilton and his archrival, Thomas Jefferson, were on the same page. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson expressed his hope that this group would dominate the new federal government. "The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society," he wrote. "May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?"
Hamilton's and Jefferson's belief in the mediating power of this natural aristocracy is evidence of their dependence on the ancient model of the mixed constitution inherited from Aristotle and Polybius, in which the different orders of society achieve some kind of institutional representation. Their contemporary model was the English constitution, with its mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy — the classical formula for the one, the few, and the many. And their "oracle" for the mixed constitution was none other than "the celebrated Montesquieu." "The British Constitution was to Montesquieu what Homer has been to the didactic writers on epic poetry," Madison wrote. In a phrase with only barely concealed irony, he added that "this great political critic" seems to have regarded the constitution of England as "the mirror of political liberty."
But Madison added two important qualifications to the English model. First, unlike the English constitution, all the offices of government under the new Constitution would be dependent on election, either directly by the people or indirectly through their chosen representatives. It was not clear whether the English hierarchy of orders or estates was compatible with a people whose founding document proclaimed all men to be equals. The American Constitution would thus explicitly prohibit titles and hereditary offices. The people's representatives would be chosen not from classes, but from constituencies.
Second, rather than advocating a strict separation of powers, as many of the Anti-Federalist writers had demanded, the proposed Constitution would see a considerable overlap, if not actual mixing, of powers. Madison pointed to the various state constitutions as all providing for the "blending" of political powers. In offering a correction to how Montesquieu was often interpreted, Madison contended that the separation of powers "did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other"; it is only when "the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department" that "the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted." Pace contemporary advocates of the unitary theory of executive power, who would insulate the presidency from legislative veto and even impeachment, Madison expected that the different branches of government would exercise a jealous vigilance over one another.
Despite the points of contact between The Federalist and the ancient models of republicanism, then, the differences between them are stark. The ancient republic was based on a permanent division between the few and the many, the rich and the poor. This class division seemed insuperable. The Federalist's authors, by contrast, employed a far more sophisticated sociology. They regarded society as divided between competing groups and interests of all sorts. Their theory of the diversity of interests favored a society governed not by a landed gentry, but by a commercial middle class, whose members possessed entrepreneurial skills and were at liberty to pursue their economic initiatives.
The wellspring of such a regime was not the employment of leisure, but the desire of each to improve his material well-being, which required an enhanced role for individual freedom and upward mobility. It was the diversity of interests that channeled a politics of class struggle into a peaceful competition between social groups. Class struggle, the Federalists understood, is a recipe for civil war; the competition between interests, on the other hand, is a recipe for political order and stability. The American republic would be a thoroughly bourgeois republic.
THE FEDERALIST AND US
The Federalists' argument has been remarkably successful in defining the terms of modern self-government. They instituted nothing short of a conceptual revolution in political thought. Like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, who said that words mean whatever he wanted them to mean, a republic has become largely what The Federalist's authors said it was. Today, every form of democratic government is representative in nature and based on the principle of individual rights and a diversity of interests.
Yet Publius' innovations have not gone unchallenged. The modern world seems disaffected with the principles of the representative republic. It has long been a complaint that our representatives are remote and unresponsive. Some even believe that we are experiencing a crisis of representation that requires new forms of direct political participation. Experiments with mini-publics, crowdsourcing techniques, and sortition are some of the more extreme solutions they offer.
Not surprisingly, critics of the representative republic come from two camps. Those on the left complain that the commercial republic favors the interests of the wealthy and does not do enough to redistribute wealth downward. They have a point. Publius' goal, as we have seen, was not to abolish classes, but to find a way to represent them. The goal of The Federalist's authors was not to redistribute wealth or to remake society, but to thwart a kind of Marxian politics of class struggle, and in this they have been largely successful. The American founding was both more modest and more successful than later revolutions — the French, the Russian, etc. — that claimed to remake society from the ground up. The American founders rejected not only ancient egalitarianism represented by Sparta, but also (implicitly) later experiments in socialism.
For Publius it was politics, not economics, that remained primary. That politics has an independence from economics is something Beard and his followers could never understand. But Marx was correct in one respect: He criticized the American founders for creating only a political and not a social revolution. The Federalist's authors did not aim to eliminate classes and redistribute wealth, but to achieve balanced representation and limit the uses of power. This was an act of heroic self-restraint akin to Ulysses having himself bound at the mast. Their decision not to address "the social problem" made the founders more, not less, revolutionary than their French and Russian counterparts.
Critics on the right, meanwhile, often complain that the Madisonian republic has not been sufficiently attentive to the claims of civic virtue — and of the forms of social capital — that make for a healthy moral climate. No regime can afford to be indifferent to the character of its citizens. The problem facing the Madisonian republic was whether there remained any room left for such traditional republican themes as equality, virtue, and the common good. There is an almost complete silence about religion and religious education in The Federalist, even though this was then (and probably still remains) the primary source of moral instruction. Was the American constitutional republic to be the first in history that ignored the moral education of its citizens?
A related and perhaps even greater oversight of The Federalist was its failure to consider the production of future leaders and statesmen. "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm," Madison wrote in what has proved to be a massive understatement. The authors of The Federalist had good reason to downplay the need for great statesmen: They were fearful of the dangers posed by demagogues and other "charismatic" leaders, and attempted to deter them through a complex system of representation and constitutional checks and balances. This system was not only designed to limit the role of executive power, but to create leaders of limited scope and ambition. The image of the Constitution as "a machine that would go of itself" described a political system that could operate by its own laws and processes without the need for creative statecraft.
The Federalists offered two kinds of answers — neither satisfactory — to this set of concerns. The first focused on the role of the gentlemen, or a liberally educated elite, who would be the object of the natural deference of the people. In the 20th century, Leo Strauss attempted to resurrect the politics of the gentleman as an antidote, or "counterpoison," to the problems of mass society. "[L]iberal education," Strauss wrote, "is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant. Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society." In our recent history, President George H. W. Bush — an Ivy League graduate with a genuine sense of noblesse oblige — may have been the last gentleman in American politics. This is a genuinely admirable type, but it is not clear that our educational institutions are any longer designed to produce such individuals. Whatever traction this idea of the gentleman may have held in earlier times, it now seems to belong to the benighted world of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. We cannot solve the problems of today by appealing to 18th-century snobbery.
One option the Federalists decided not to adopt was the creation of a national university for the education of future statesmen. In his book The Founders and the Idea of a National University, George Thomas shows that the notion of such an institution was widely discussed in the founding generation and supported by both Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, Federalists and Anti-Federalists. "In a republic," George Washington wrote, "what species of knowledge can be equally important and what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?" Despite numerous attempts to advance the idea, the proposal foundered on the belief that the states, not the federal government, should be responsible for education. The idea of the republic as a school for citizenship is something that would thus remain planted nearer to the local than the national level. Given the experience of countries such as France, with its École nationale d'administration and its creation of an inward-looking political elite, it is not clear that we should mourn the failure of the attempt to create a national university.
The second solution offered by The Federalist focused on the institutional designs that would sift candidates through a set of filters, including the indirect method of appointing senators, the complex method for making federal judicial appointments, and the role of the Electoral College in electing the president. The idea was to insulate candidates from popular pressures so that they might have free rein to exercise their own judgment. Here, too, it is not obvious that these institutions have helped with either the selection or the education of future statesmen.
These electoral mechanisms were created to insulate candidates from populist passions and to prevent the rise of demagogues. But rather than creating leaders with exceptional skill and initiative, they have more often promoted conformity and the narrowest form of conservatism. Like the process of peer review for an academic article, the successful candidate is likely to be not the most original or the most creative, but the one who has ruffled the fewest feathers or created the fewest waves. In more recent history, political parties — at least prior to the rise of the primary systems, initiatives, and referenda — performed a similar filtering function. But as Frances Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro argue in their book Responsible Parties, the decline of the party system has not led to an enhancement of democracy, but to the erosion of voter confidence and the election of outlier candidates.
The authors of The Federalist seem not to have planned for those moments when skills of a higher order would be needed to preserve republican self-government not from abroad, but from itself. Their belief that proper institutional design could serve as a prophylactic against decay has proved inadequate. While the Federalists were steeped in a culture that read Plutarch and thought constantly about fame and political greatness, they seem to have believed that such models would not be needed in the future. This was a topic that Abraham Lincoln discussed in his Lyceum Address, which dealt with the rise of ambitious demagogues:
It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others?
Lincoln's concern was whether a combination of great ambition and a commitment to the preservation of democratic government was still possible. Can those from "the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle" be safely declawed for domestic use, or will such types remain a permanent threat to free institutions? These are questions to which The Federalist gave no answer, but which require our urgent attention if the system passed down to us from those brilliant progenitors is to continue to serve future Americans.