is the author of "An Argument Open to All: Reading 'The Federalist' in the 21st Century"
The 85 collected essays that we know at least since the 20th century as The Federalist Papers have a singular pride of place in the canon of American political thought. One major reason, of course, is that the notional author, "Publius," was in fact Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, certainly three luminaries of the early American republic.
As with many canonical works, though, they may be more widely evoked than actually read and discussed. They are rarely assigned in full in college courses, and the essays that are assigned almost certainly will be taken from fewer than half a dozen of the entire body. As with any excerpted classic, this leads both to distortions produced by focusing on what may be an unrepresentative sample of the overall essays and to a simple ignorance of the potential riches that are contained in the essays that have passed into basic obscurity.
What is surprising about reading The Federalist Papers in the 21st century is how relevant each and every one is, often in unexpected ways. The essays are not necessarily blueprints over governance to be accepted without reflection. Rather, as befits the ability of those who wrote them, they consistently ask probing questions that are worth grappling with 225 years later.
There is obviously not space to do anything resembling justice to the entirety of the essays. So let me focus simply on the first essay, since, in its own way, it may be the most truly radical of them all.
Publius begins Federalist No. 1 by reminding his 1787 readers that America can indeed claim to be exceptional: that is, "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."
Mighty words indeed.
Publius believes that the American citizenry are capable of tackling the most basic questions of politics and constitution-making and coming to their own decisions; along the way, this means describing as "imbecilic" the existing system of government established by America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, only six years earlier.
So what might these words suggest to a 21st-century reader?
The central question is nothing less than whether we today believe that we are truly capable of engaging in significant "reflection and choice" about the adequacy of our 1787 Constitution. Or, on the contrary, are we destined to treat it as in essence something forced upon us by decision-makers more than two centuries ago?
In several essays, Publius emphasizes the importance of drawing on the "lessons of experience." Indeed, perhaps the most truly inspiring paragraph in the entire book is the conclusion to Federalist No. 14, in which he emphasizes that it is "the glory of the people of America" that they "have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience."
Do we really believe this today?
My own view, spelled out in two earlier books, is that the United States Constitution, because of its multiplicity of "veto points," makes its own contribution to the widespread (and correct) perception that we are trapped in a politics of gridlock that makes it unlikely, perhaps even impossible, to look to established national institutions to meet the challenges posed by 21st-century realities, wherever one might locate oneself on a broad political spectrum.
We should be as willing to confront these possible deficiencies as were Publius and his colleagues who met in Philadelphia. To do so is not to dishonor them. The most magnificent legacy they left us was precisely the confidence in an American public that could in fact think for itself and reach radical, even revolutionary, conclusions.
The Constitution includes a specific article establishing modes of amendment, including the calling of a new constitutional convention. We have obviously never done so, even though the now-50 American states have had more than 230 such conventions in their collective history, and each state has been governed by an average of just short of three constitutions.
To read Publius in the 21st century is to be reminded that there were indeed "giants in those days," but what made them so was not their ability to "get it right," once and for all, so that their descendants would merely "venerate" them and blindly adhere to paths set down in a quite different political world. They would have scoffed at the lack of self-confidence such a posture reveals. And they would be right to do so.
Sanford Levinson, a professor at the University of Texas Law School, is among the scholars taking part in Bill of Rights Day on Tuesday
at the National Constitution Center.
For more information, visit www.constitutioncenter.org/debate or call 215-409-6700.