Explaining America: The Federalist
Unhappy the land that needs heroes.
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 of Adair “who saw it first.” The ideas of Hume pervade the book: Wills opens each chapter with a quotation from Hume and finds in his writings the clues to understanding much of the philosophy of The Federalist. Since Hume was opposed to the radical-Whig Commonwealth tradition, which, according to recent scholars such as Bernard Bailyn, was the shaping force of Revolutionary ideology, this Humean reading of The Federalist immediately gives the book an iconoclastic, myth-demolishing character that Wills obviously delights in.
The book is undoubtedly a tour de force. It is shrewd, outlandish, probing, and bizarre all at once. It is such a bundle of brilliance and perversity, intelligence and sophistry, ingenuity and wrongheadedness that one scarcely knows how to disentangle it. Perhaps the problem of assessing intellectual “influence,” Scottish or otherwise, is the place to begin.
The problem of influence is central to all intellectual history. It was the issue on which the controversial reception of Inventing America turned, and it is bound to be important for this book too. This is unfortunate because it is a false issue. The entire debate over whether Locke or Hutcheson was a more important influence on Jefferson is wrongly framed; the question should never have been posed that way.
Wills was right about Jefferson’s being a moral sentimentalist concerned with sociability, but he was wrong in attributing these beliefs to some peculiar Scottish influence. Many Englishmen, including the colonists, were sentimentalists by 1776, and not simply because they had read Hutcheson. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century the sociability of people and the existence of some sort of moral sense in each person had become nearly presuppositions of Anglo-American culture. For every book by a great thinker like Shaftesbury, Butler, or Hutcheson on the affections and benevolence, there were dozens of long-forgotten lesser works expounding and expanding on the same themes. These themes were not merely Scottish, or even Anglo-American; they were current throughout Western culture and they flowed from common efforts to deal with a similarly changing social reality. Where do we think the French people’s “fraternity” in their Revolutionary trinity came from?
The kinds of distinctions that Wills and his critics have drawn between Locke’s or Hutcheson’s respective contributions to Anglo-American thought are too precious, too refined, too academic for the dynamic culture of the eighteenth century. Jefferson was scarcely capable of drawing such fine distinctions or of perceiving any antagonism or incompatibility between what Locke and Hutcheson had written. The ideas of both thinkers had been blended and molded to fit the developing circumstances of the eighteenth century, and by 1776 both seemed to someone like Jefferson to be part of a general liberal, enlightened consensus.
Wills can hardly be blamed for casting his books according to intellectual “influences,” for much of our intellectual history has been written in these terms: ideas, emanating from great thinkers, are more or less poured into the empty vessels that apparently are the minds of more ordinary people. But in a complicated culture at least, this is not the way ideas operate at all. Historians such as Herbert G. Gutman and William H. Sewell, Jr., recently became more aware of the inadequacy of the concept of authorial influence once they began investigating the consciousness of large anonymous groups—workingmen’s organizations and other collectivities whose members have ideas without having read any great thinkers.
Intellectual activity in a culture is not a one-way flow between the great minds and passive recipients; it is a discourse, a complex marketplace-like conglomeration of intellectual exchanges involving many participants all trying to manipulate the ideas available to them in order to explain, justify, lay blame for, or otherwise make sense of what is happening around them. Everyone, not just the great minds, participates in this complicated process. The ideas of great thinkers like Hutcheson or Hume are not unique. Indeed, such thinkers were recognized as great in their day precisely because they said more clearly and persuasively what everyone else was trying to say. If such great thinkers had not articulated the shared assumptions of the culture, then, like Vico, they would have been ignored.
Tracing the influence of particular minds or works may be a legitimate endeavor within the confined worlds of art or literature. It may be quite possible to speak of the influence of Giorgione on the young Titian or of Shakespeare’s imagery on Keats’s poetry. But such techniques of attribution are not applicable, at least not in any meaningful way, to the dynamic consciousness of a whole society. There is no possibility of proving the influence of Locke or Hutcheson on the thought of such a person as Jefferson, even if we find Jefferson quoting one or the other. For the ideas of both Locke and Hutcheson had become so mixed up in the discourse of eighteenth-century culture that by 1776 they could never be separated out and their “influence” measured. Thus when Jefferson later recalled that the Declaration of Independence rested “on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.,” he showed a far more accurate understanding of how cultural consciousness works than do those who would isolate either Locke’s or Hutcheson’s influence.
In Explaining America Wills strains to find Scottish influence even more than he did in his earlier book. If Madison refers to “the connections of blood, of friendship, and of acquaintance” among members of a legislature, Wills tells us that such seemingly “odd” talk by Madison can best be explained by Scottish influence, for “it was very prominent in Scottish thinking about politics”—and not apparently in English thinking about eighteenth-century politics, despite what Sir Lewis Namier has taught us. The “passions were a major concern for Hume,” and thus Madison and Hamilton were concerned with them too—that’s influence. When Hume wrote that people needed to be governed by sentiments other than Spartan austerity, Wills concludes that such a statement “is probably Hamilton’s direct source for the June 18 speech” in the Constitutional Convention—as if Hamilton could not have reached such a familiar conclusion on his own. When Hamilton and Madison refer to the improvements of political science in the eighteenth century, or the civilizing influence of commerce, or to government’s resting on opinion, they “must have remembered” these common eighteenth-century propositions from Hume.
It is a relief to find Wills writing that “while accepting Hume’s general framework of economic thought, Hamilton did not follow him slavishly on all points.” Unfortunately, however, for Wills’s argument these points turn out to be the most important ones. Hamilton favored a national bank and a national debt, which Hume opposed. Wills tries to make light of these differences between Hume and Hamilton, even going so far as to say that a national debt had little of the centralizing force that Charles Beard and his followers have attributed to it. He simply misses entirely the immense political significance that the public debt had for eighteenth-century Englishmen.
When Wills gets away from tracing the influence of Hume everywhere, he has some interesting things to say about The Federalist. But too often his passion to be original leads him to exaggerate and stretch his arguments. In the first two parts of the book Wills wants to show how our “stereotypes of Hamilton and Madison are misleading,” and he does this largely by creating these stereotypes out of what can only be the dated writings of Vernon Parrington or Claude Bowers. (There are no citations; Wills simply refers vaguely to “most commentaries”). If he can establish, for example, that “we tend to consider Jefferson ‘democratic’ because of his agrarian ideals, and Hamilton ‘aristocratic’ because he promoted trade and manufacture,” then his own contrary findings will appear all the more novel and astonishing.
Perhaps we can see some of Wills’s difficulties in his hopelessly contrived discussion of Hamilton’s Federalist, No. 78. Wills argues that Hamilton in this paper was not defending judicial review as everyone seems to think, but was actually justifying a kind of legislative supremacy. Wills reaches this startling conclusion only because he does not appreciate the problematical character of the radical changes taking place in American political thought since the Revolution and the particular way in which Hamilton was attempting to exploit these changes. Hamilton’s argument, though not unique to the time, was new and ingenious. He contended that judges who set aside legislative statutes contrary to a constitution were not really asserting judicial supremacy because they were only applying the more fundamental law of the constitution “legislated” directly by the people in their constitutional conventions. The judges, wrote, Hamilton (and Wills accepts his argument completely), were only acting as another sort of agent of the people, equal in popular authority to the legislative representatives of the people.
Now however fully we have come to accept this view of judicial review, it was for eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans a revolutionary doctrine, implying a wholly new way of seeing the people’s relationship to government. In the eighteenth century no Englishman or colonist would ever have suggested that the people’s representatives in the House of Commons or in the lower houses of the colonial assemblies were essentially no different in their relationship to the people from judicial magistrates. No wonder then that Robert Yates and other Antifederalists in 1788 had trouble accepting Hamilton’s logic that judges appointed by governors for life possessed the same authority of the people as legislative representatives elected annually or biennially by the people. Once a logic similar to Hamilton’s became more widely accepted in America, some began thinking that if judges were indeed some sort of representative of the people, then the people ought to elect them—which, as we know, is precisely what happened in a number of states. Wills captures none of this. Despite his wide reading in the great books of the Enlightenment, he simply does not know enough about the particular circumstances of American political thought in the Revolutionary era to get away with all he has attempted.
However, in the long final section of his book, that dealing with Madison’s Federalist No. 10, the most famous of the papers, Wills’s interpretation is right. Against all those political scientists, from Harold Laski to James MacGregor Burns, who have argued that Madison in No. 10 was proposing an “interest-group” or pluralist conception of politics, Wills correctly contends that Madison did not expect public policy or the common good to emerge naturally from the give-and-take of hosts of competing interests. Instead Madison hoped that in an enlarged national republic these competing factions and interests would, like America’s many religious denominations, neutralize themselves. This in turn would allow enlightened and rational men, men like himself, to promote the public good.
Madison did not expect the new national government to be an integrator and harmonizer of the many different interests in the society; instead he wanted it to be a “disinterested and dispassionate umpire” in disputes among these different interests and parties. In other words, Madison was not as modern as we often make him out to be. Although Wills does not mention it, Madison even said privately (he would never have dared write it in The Federalist) that he really hoped this national government might play the same role now that the British king had been supposed to play in the old empire.
But how did Madison expect the new Constitution to ensure that only rational and disinterested men like himself got into power? Here Wills has put his finger on the central point of the Federalists’ scheme: its enlarged system of representation would act as a kind of filter, refining and extracting out of the mass only those men, in Madison’s words, who possessed “the most attractive merit and most diffusive and established characters.” Madison offers us a truly noble vision of virtuous impartial leaders promoting no factious or party interests but only the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Wills loves this vision, but unfortunately he never gets beyond lengthy word-glossing and chemical analogies to explain the way this refining process was supposed to work. His discussion, like the book itself, has an airy, disembodied quality, without roots in any particular political or social circumstances. Because Wills has no appreciation of the extent to which Madison believed that most of the problems of American politics in the 1780s were caused by rampaging and faction-ridden state legislatures, he can never make full sense of what Madison was up to. It was not because of something they read in Hume that Madison and other Federalists saw in the elevated and expanded nature of the federal government a solution to the problems of factious majoritarianism in the state legislatures of the 1780s; it was instead the Federalists’ experience with America’s popular politics in the states and their sense of its social base.
The Federalists had become convinced that the factionalism and tyrannies of the state legislatures were owing to the kind of people being elected to them. Ordinary people were electing to the state legislatures too many men like themselves; too many narrow-minded representatives who thought only about the partial interests of their little districts; too many parochial politicians promoting only the paper money concerns of their debtor constituents; too many upstarts like Abraham Yates, a part-time cobbler from Albany, or William Findley, an ex-weaver from western Pennsylvania, who had never been to Princeton or King’s College and had no breeding or enlightened vision or concern for the “aggregate interests” of the country. It was just these sorts of men that Madison had in mind when he spoke of keeping out of government “unworthy candidates,” “men of factious temper” or “of local prejudice,” who “practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried.” The Federalists’ diagnosis of the problems of American politics in the 1780s was ultimately social. And their remedy was too.
By expanding the electorate and reducing the number of those elected, the new federal system not only would tend to elevate into national office those who were most cosmopolitan and socially established but would as well tend to exclude from federal positions those localist parvenus who dominated the state legislatures. If the people of a state, New York, for example, had to select only ten men to the federal Congress in contrast to the sixty-six they elected to their state assembly, they were more apt in the case of a few national representatives to ignore obscure ordinary men with local reputations and elect only those who were well bred, well educated, and well known. Election by the people in large districts would inhibit those “vicious arts” of electioneering and would therefore, as Madison’s closest ally in the Philadelphia Convention, James Wilson, said, “be most likely to obtain men of intelligence and uprightness.” This is why Wilson and Madison in the Convention always favored the direct election of the president by all the people—not because they were fervent democrats but because such an expanded electorate was more apt to result in the kind of enlightened cosmopolitan ruler they wanted.
There were lots of what we might call social “code words” flying about in The Federalist, but those who were presumably to be excluded from office by the new Constitution knew full well what the Federalists were up to. As one Massachusetts Antifederalist bitterly complained in 1788: “Those lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men, that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, expect to get into Congress themselves…and get all the power…in their own hands, and then they will swallow up all of us little folks.” Such egalitarian resentment was frustrated by the Constitution, but its day of release was coming. This social resentment was the other side of Madison’s virtuous order of distinguished men—a side that Wills never even suggests existed.
This split between cosmopolitans and localists lay at the heart of politics in the 1780s, and it has continued to do so through much of our history. And others besides the Federalists have tried to exploit it. The Progressive period, for example, was marked by the reforming efforts of cosmopolitan types, often liberal, college-educated professionals and businessmen, to wrest government from the hands of “corrupt” and “undesirable” localist elements. The Progressive reformers often did this by shifting the levels of governmental decision-making from wards, towns, and counties to the states and the nation. Commissions of educated “experts” at the state and federal level supplanted parochial politicians who presumably could not see beyond their own neighborhoods. Changing the level of decision-making in this way continues to have social implications. Although we Americans do not much like to talk about these social implications, much of our present politics still swirls around this cosmopolitan-localist dichotomy.
In 1913 Charles Beard published his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, surely the most provocative work of history ever written in America. Since then, Beard has been proved wrong on almost every count: in his simple-minded conception of motivation, in the crudity of his class division, in his use of evidence. But Beard was right in trying to strip the creation of the Constitution of its mythical and heroic character in order to make it a humanly comprehensible matter of earthly political conflict and social interests. Wills would have us forget this Beardian legacy and return to an image of high-minded demigods trying to work a miracle. Wills quite rightly stresses the immense distance of that eighteenth-century world from out own, but we make a serious mistake and unnecessarily denigrate ourselves if we think of the Founding Fathers as heroes, as something other than men like ourselves with interests and social positions to promote.