By David Lay Williams
They used to love the Federalist Papers. Now they see holes in the essays’ arguments.
June 7, 2019
Portrait of James Madison painted by John Vanderlyn. Madison was one of the three authors — along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton — of the Federalist Papers. (N/A/Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation. )
Thomas Jefferson called “The Federalist” — the collection of essays written by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787 and 1788, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution — “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Through the years, many others have echoed that high praise. The political writer George Will recently said the 85 essays, written for a few New York newspapers, under the pen name “Publius,” are surpassed as a work of political philosophy only by Aristotle’s “Politics.”
I’ve been teaching “The Federalist” to college students since I was a graduate student in the 1990s. While the arguments defending the Constitution’s provisions still stimulate students, I can report a striking change in their reactions to the work since the election of President Trump. Students today are far more skeptical of the argument in “The Federalist” that the Constitution’s famous checks and balances would be sufficient to keep a demagogue from attaining the presidency, for example — or exerting malign power should he attain office. They are dubious when Publius asserts that neither Congress nor the president could ever be susceptible to corruption, in part because of the Constitution’s structure. In short, they are more skeptical about the Constitution itself.
Smart students, of course, have always argued with some assertions in “The Federalist.” Some have always challenged Publius regarding the morally problematic compromises on slavery — the decision to allow the slave population to increase the voting power of slave states through the infamous three-fifths rule, for instance. They unsurprisingly object to the anti-democratic nature of the Senate (two senators per state, regardless of population) and the electoral college. Yet until now, there was a general sense in the classroom that these essays advanced a comprehensive, farsighted and relatively successful political philosophy — and that Americans have been largely lucky to have had the good fortune of such a founding.
But when I taught the seminar again this spring — for the first time since Trump’s election (I had last taught it in 2014) — the experience was radically different from anything had encountered before. The students approvingly noted that Hamilton was aware of the danger of states succumbing to the rhetoric of aspiring leaders who “beg[an] their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants” (Federalist 1). But they pointed out that the system Publius defends led to the election of a president who makes outlandish claims about the “tremendous crime” immigration brings, exaggerates violence in urban areas like Chicago, and retweets statements posted by white nationalists — and generally appeals to people’s basest instincts.
Publius repeatedly seeks to demonstrate how the Constitution will be uniquely capable of preventing corruption, including from “foreign gold” (Federalist 55); such corruption, he argues, would have to penetrate several branches of government to succeed undetected. (He also suggests that the incorruptibility of the Continental Congress should assure readers the proposed new government would be similarly immune to outside interference.) Yet students wonder whether the president’s failure to divest himself of various investments has specifically invited such corruption. And they wonder how Americans might even discover evidence of such corruption, given his concealment of his financial records, even after Congress has demanded it.
Publius insisted that by providing a buffer between the people and the direct election of their president, the electoral college was designed to provide a “moral certainty, that the office of president, will seldom fall to the lot of any man, who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” namely, “ability and virtue” (Federalist 68). To rebut that argument, my students point to the president’s flouting of established legal, political, institutional and moral norms, and even his penchant for petty name-calling.
The authors of “The Federalist” also thought that Congress — particularly the Senate — would tamp down the passionate excesses of the people, should they be stimulated by “artful misrepresentations” from any source (Federalist 63). But now my students watch as senators hold their tongues, terrified of being ridiculed on the president’s Twitter feed or angering Trump’s base.
Some students now see the Constitution as a flawed document, destined from the beginning to fail; for others, it has simply outlived its usefulness.
One might be tempted to explain the turn against “The Federalist,” and the Constitution, by arguing that students have been primed by leftist professors to reject everything associated with dead white men and the Western canon. But I continue to teach Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke and Tocqueville to generally approving classrooms. Students still delight in the insights to be gained from debating topics including Plato’s philosopher-rulers and Rousseau’s concept of the “general will.” Their skepticism seems limited to this one book.
The great danger in all this, it seems to me, is foreshadowed in “The Federalist” itself. In Federalist 49, Publius defends the choice to make amending the Constitution so difficult. Too many changes, too quickly, would “deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on every thing, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.” Without respect for the foundational law of the nation, he worries, the republic would become unstable and perhaps even collapse — the fate of Rome and all previous republics, as he well knew.
Americans have been working for well over two centuries to build that “veneration” that successful constitutions require — yet Trump is eroding it. His election and subsequent behavior is diminishing respect for the entire system the Framers created. And once people lose faith in the constitutional order, politics can, as Publius suggested, spiral out of control.
The Framers insisted that, despite how hard it is to amend the Constitution, the people would always retain the right to remedy future problems. But as Jean-Jacques Rousseau once cautioned, as states grow older, fixing structural problems becomes ever harder: “The people [in long-established republics] cannot bear even having someone touch their faults to get rid of them, like those stupid and cowardly invalids who tremble at the sight of a doctor.” Yet if citizens overcome that hesitation, he added, a sickly republic can be “reborn from its own ashes and, eluding death’s embrace, recapture the vigor of youth.”
The most promising way to redeem the Constitution may be for Congress to embrace the uniquely constitutional solution of impeachment, which Publius envisions as the proper response to the profound “abuse or violation of some public trust” (Federalist 68). The revelations of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III clearly establish such violations. The remaining question is whether Congress — “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country” (Federalist 10) — will do what’s necessary to save the system.