Heroics

Explaining America: The Federalist

by Garry Wills
Doubleday, 286 pp., $14.95

Unhappy the land that needs heroes.

—Bertolt Brecht

Garry Wills’s new book is ostensibly about The Federalist—those eighty-five essays written in 1787-1788 to promote the ratification of the newly framed Constitution. But it is really about heroes and great men, and about the distance we have fallen in two hundred years since that near-mythical generation of founders put the country together. Indeed, not since the nineteenth century has the high-minded and noble character of the creation of the Constitution been so celebrated, and with so many different heroes. They include, first, the giants of the Enlightenment, like Montesquieu and Hume, who handed down their great thoughts to ordinary mortals, and then the Founding Fathers themselves, those “extraordinary men,” that “privileged few” (as Wills calls them), who had a vision of a new kind of virtuous politics conducted by noble men like themselves. Of these perhaps the most extraordinary were those classical lawgivers and principal authors of The Federalist, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Finally the heroes include Wills himself, armed only with his sharp mind and acerbic prose, doing battle singlehandedly against the ignorance and stupidity of the scholarly world.

Wills’s earlier book, Inventing America, raised a storm of controversy, and this book promises to do the same. It is not as carefully done or as smoothly written as the earlier work. All the faults of the first book are here exaggerated, carried to excess: the pugnacious arrogance, the uncharitable regard for previous scholarship, the use of straw men, the clever manipulation of evidence, the overrefining of distinctions, the straining for novelty, the mannered mixing of erudition and colloquialism. The book gets very technical at times, and it is not easy reading. But there is also evident in this work the same insightful glossing of words, the same sensitivity to anachronism, the same lively intelligence. And there is the same provocative emphasis on Scottish influence.

In his earlier book, Inventing America, Wills argued that the predominant influence on Thomas Jefferson and his writing of the Declaration of Independence was not John Locke and possessive individualism but rather the moral sense philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Francis Hutcheson. Wills contended that Jefferson, like the eighteenth-century Scots, was a moral sentimentalist, not a contractarian; that is, he believed that society was held together not by legal or contractual ties but by ties of affection, benevolence, and moral feeling. With the Scots having captured Jefferson’s mind so completely, “the question arises,” Wills writes in the preface to this new book, “whether any other political thinkers of our early national period were influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment.” The answer, he says, is emphatically yes.

It is not Hutcheson this time but David Hume who, Wills writes, decisively influenced the thinking of Madison and Hamilton. Wills has picked up a connection between the thought of Hume and Madison that Douglass Adair made many decades ago and has greatly expanded it; in fact he has dedicated the book to the memory …

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