Explaining America: The Federalist

byGarry Wills . Doubleday, $14.95. Just about every serious student of America’s early political history has examined the Federalist Papers (eighty-four essays written chiefly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison), and it is generally agreed that they occupy the center of American democratic thought.
Garry Wills, to whom conventional wisdom is as congenial as cholera, has this to say about Madison’s magisterial No. 10: “It is wrongheaded in its motive, time-bound in its assumptions, inconsistent in its arguments, inapplicable in Madison’s own time, misleading in ours. Insofar as America has avoided the dangers Madison foresaw, it has done so despite him, by the very methods he denounced—by the organization of what he would have called (with alarm) direct democracy. It seems clear, then, that anyone trying to explain America in Madison’s terms will end up wide of the mark.”
And that is so, Wills maintains, because Madison’s expectations for American democracy were simply wrong. Madison thought the presidency would be “weak and vulnerable”; he expected the legislature to dominate the workings of government, with a radical House struggling against an obstructionist Senate. As for political parties, he thought them potentially ruinous, and argued on behalf of a political system that would necessarily discourage their development.
But if Madison was wrong about the course of American politics, and if his reasoning was flawed, then why do we keep reading the Federalist Papers, and why do Madison and Hamilton continue to be revered? Because, Wills argues, their theories and understandings arose out of a commitment to a “code of public virtue,” a set of values that may, more than any other organizational style or exigency, explain why the nation has survived so long and prospered so well. Virtue, in Wills’s convincing interpretation, is the key, and virtue (by which he means a willingness to subordinate personal interests to the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community”) is all, finally, that can make democracy work.
—C. Michael Curtis