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In the winter of 1791–92, James Madison compiled a set of reading notes that scholars long assumed were meant to support the “party press” essays he soon published in the National Gazette, the new Republican newspaper edited by his college friend, the poet Philip Freneau. But as Colleen Sheehan has argued, Madison also conceived these “Notes on Government” for a more ambitious project: to draft a treatise on republican government that would apply the lessons of the American experience to problems that had long fascinated political theorists. The table of contents that opens the notebook indicates the outlines of the argument. The treatise, alas, remained unwritten – a reminder of the fact that Madison preferred to do his best political writing for himself, rather than the reading public. Alexander Hamilton, his co-author as Publius, felt fewer inhibitions and proved a more spirited polemicist. Had Madison gone back to Virginia in the fall of 1787, to aid in the ratification struggle in his native state, rather than returning to the Continental Congress, his twenty-nine contributions to The Federalist would never have appeared. Without Federalist 10 and 51 and a few other essays to guide our thinking, the modern concept of a “Madisonian constitution” might never have formed. Who knows: had Hamilton written nearly all of The Federalist, with a little assistance from John Jay, we might have been stuck with a “Hamiltonian constitution” all along.
For well over a century, the authorship of the individual essays of The Federalist was a matter of great uncertainty. The initial source of this uncertainty simply reflected the conventional practices of eighteenth-century political writing, when most polemical pieces, especially those appearing in newspapers, were published pseudonymously. When Alexander Hamilton, the instigator and chief author of The Federalist, chose Publius as the penname, he was paying homage to Valerius Publius Publicola, the sixth-century BCE aristocrat who was a chief founder of the Roman republic. His two co-authors, James Madison and John Jay, would have welcomed his choice. Madison in particular would have saluted Publius’s distinguished republican credentials. A major part of Madison’s preparations for the Federal Convention of 1787 involved his comparative study of “ancient and modern confederacies” and his thorough assessment of the failings of popular government recorded in his famous memorandum on the “Vices of the Political System of the United States.” Madison returned to that project shortly after the Convention adjourned on September 17, 1787. Within the next few years, he developed an even more ambitious plan – apparently never fulfilled – consulting writings either from antiquity or about it to provide the framework for a study of modern republican government.
The eighty-five Federalist essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison as 'Publius' to support the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–88 are regarded as the preeminent American contribution to Western political theory. Recently, there have been major developments in scholarship on the Revolutionary and Founding era as well as increased public interest in constitutional matters that make this a propitious moment to reflect on the contributions and complexity of The Federalist. This volume of specially commissioned essays covers the broad scope of 'Publius' work, including historical, political, philosophical, juridical, and moral dimensions. In so doing, they bring the design and arguments of the text into focus for twenty-first century scholars, students, and citizens and show how these diverse treatments of The Federalist are associated with an array of substantive political and constitutional perspectives in our own time.
Martin Diamond, the late political theorist, closed a famous essay by reflecting on the “profound distinction” that the essays of The Federalist “made between the qualities necessary for Founders and the qualities necessary for the men who come after” (1992, 35). Whereas the act of founding the American constitutional republic had demanded an exceptional exercise in reason, he observed, the conduct of politics thereafter would depend on nothing more exalted than the ordinary play of interest. Diamond's distinction nicely captures the idealized image of constitution making that many scholars still intuitively, and perhaps even uncritically, share. In this view, considerations of stability and justice alike should encourage constitution makers to transcend the particular interests they represent. If they cannot be expected to step behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, where they will be uninformed of the social position they will occupy in the new regime, they should at least recall (to borrow a phrase from John Marshall) that it is a constitution they are drafting, not some ordinary piece of legislation. The establishment of a successful constitutional regime thus demands substantial self-restraint; its authors have to expect more of themselves than they do of their successors, the “posterity” for whose benefit framers, in the heroic account, struggle.
A satisfactory political theory of constitutionalism can well agree, with Diamond, on the importance of the initial deliberative processes through which a constitution is adopted. But such a theory can hardly stop there. It also calls for a satisfactory interpretation of constitutional history.
Modern commentators on the U.S. Constitution of 1787 generally share two broad but closely related sets of assumptions about its origins. First, we tend to ascribe a high measure of coherence and purpose to the original intentions and understandings upon which the framers and ratifiers of 1787–8 acted. We regard the Constitution not only as the bundle of bargains required to replace the “imbecile” union of the Articles of Confederation with an effective national government, but also as the expression of a deeper body of norms, values, and expectations that together constituted a coherent and integrated theory of a federal republic. This belief has in turn sustained seemingly endless searches for the true sources of these norms in different intellectual traditions, modes of thinking, or “discourses.” Second, in reconstructing this theory, scholars often emphasize the extent to which the Constitution was designed to establish a set of self-enforcing and self-correcting mechanisms that would preserve the general stability of the constitutional system against the vicissitudes of time and fortune. The constitutional scheme of checks and balances (embracing both the separation of powers and federalism) was contrived to maintain an enduring equilibrium while permitting gradual adjustments to take place (through either Article V amending procedures or judicial review) without blunt trauma. This scheme would neutralize the “mischiefs of faction” that so alarmed James Madison and other framers, thereby demonstrating that it was entirely realistic to extend the republican form of government to the dimensions of an expanding national empire of quasi-sovereign states.
This volume investigates the nature of constitutional democratic government in the United States and elsewhere. The editors introduce a basic conceptual framework which the contributors clarify and develop in eleven essays organized into three separate sections. The first section deals with constitutional founding and the founders' use of cultural symbols and traditions to facilitate acceptance of a new regime. The second discusses alternative constitutional structures and their effects on political outcomes. The third focuses on processes of constitutional change and on why founders might choose to make formal amendments relatively difficult or easy to achieve. The book is distinctive because it provides comprehensive tools for analyzing and comparing different forms of constitutional democracy. These tools are discussed in ways that will be of interest to students and readers in political science, law, history and political philosophy.