To many modern readers, the Federalist Papers seem formal, musty, old, and a bit tired—a little like a national holiday that celebrates events long past but lacks any sense of struggle and excitement, or even a clear message. But under stringent time pressure, starting in October 1787, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing under the name of “Publius,” produced the best historical record, by far, of the uniquely American contribution to political thought and practice.
It is important to see that their arguments were a product of a concrete historical drama, involving the fate of an emerging nation that was having an exceedingly difficult time governing itself. But Publius’s claims bear not only on American debates of the eighteenth century, but also on those of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first. They offer lessons for making war and making peace, and for domestic crises of many different kinds. Indeed, they provide guidance for constitutional democracies elsewhere, not least when peace and prosperity are endangered.
Publius’s project was to reconceive republicanism—a body of thought with ancient origins in Aristotle and Cicero whose modern forms had been elaborated in different ways by Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Emphasizing self-rule by the people, republicans insisted on the importance of civic virtue and generally believed that self-government works best in small, homogeneous republics. According to the argument of the Federalist Papers, however, such small republics tend to destroy themselves. The reason lay in the power of factions—well-organized private groups with passions or interests inconsistent with the good of the public as a whole.1 Publius believed that in a large republic, a heterogeneous public could counteract factional power and serve as a creative force, promoting circumspection and introducing safeguards against bias, error, confusion, and even oppression.
In Publius’s boldest words, the unprecedented constitutional design of the United States, offering checks and balances in a large republic, provides
a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit, and supporting the character of federalists.
In unifying the cause of republicanism with that of the federalists, who supported the ratification of the Constitution, Publius argues on behalf of a distinctive kind of democracy—a deliberative one. He insists that in a well-functioning deliberative democracy, a wide range of perspectives is a virtue rather than a vice, at least if the constitution has the proper structure. Publius thus explicitly repudiates most of the great republican thinkers, above all Montesquieu, who contended that in a large, diverse republic, self-governance would be impossible. Publius’s novel conception of republicanism provides a clue to the longevity and genius of the United States Constitution. It also helps to explain why it has served, for so many, as a model of self-government under law.
To appreciate Publius’s achievement, it…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.