Weighing Publius' Constitutional Morality

Yet another academic book on The Federalist? While many scholars would agree with Clinton Rossiter that The Federalist is a sacred text for American politics and constitutional law, others have sought to diminish the importance of the work. In many regards, the scholarship of The Federalist resembles what the eminent historian Clyde Wilson has described as an uneven interpretative advancement of knowledge, with established efforts that improve our understanding of the text on one hand, but on the other, newer works that fail to resolve the omissions of previous scholarship. This study of The Federalist does not answer many of the longstanding questions of interpretation, but the book successfully raises new questions, and clarifies why we cannot ignore the great text, regardless of one’s perspective or ideological orientation.

Authorship and consistency of vision are issues of perennial interest to students of The Federalist, and Frank revisits these concerns with much thoughtfulness. While accepting the centrality of the The Federalist to American politics, he argues that its very success has made some of its key insights “obscure or illegible.” A shared vision of the authors who wrote as “Publius” is defended and the attempt to unlink the contributions of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay is refuted. Unfortunately, other scholars, especially George W. Carey and Albert Furtwangler, have more persuasively defended the concept of a unified Publius and disconfirmed the “split personality” thesis of earlier scholarship with greater textual accuracy.[1]

The first chapter addresses the challenge of constituency, or the means citizens assume in creating a republic. Frank acknowledges the tension between the vision of the Founders and the ever-changing needs of a diverse republic. This tension is viewed as a worthwhile, connective phenomenon by Frank, who notes:

The mythology of Founding and the appeal of our Great Lawgivers may serve in fact to keep us enthralled or captivated by the extraordinary moments of the appearance of the people’s constituent power, enthralled by the exception “in its absolute purity.”

The second chapter explicates the importance of political imagination in Publius’ project of promoting ratification of the Constitution. The role of political imagination aids the author’s thesis, but the concept deserves more refinement. Frank views American political discourse as unimaginative, although he also argues that the concept remains essential to the more enduring aspects of the American political mind. Instead of a Burkean conceptualization of the imagination as a moral guide that transcends a particular generation or political system, Frank suggests that the imagination assumes the form of “a heteronomic support to navigate the dilemmas of democratic self-authorization.” The imagination contains an element of diversity, according to Frank, but the role of “dilemmas” appear to only augment founding documents as empowering guides, without the possibility of the necessary and dynamic political restraint that must also be envisioned, if a regime is to endure.

The Federalist offers two central imaginative themes for Frank: Federalist #1’s juxtaposition of “reflection and choice” and “accident and force,” and Publius’ conversion to “the new science of politics” (Federalist #9) within the text itself. Frank accepts the famous dichotomy of Federalist #1 without reservation, and proceeds to explain its importance to the continuing political dialogue of the republic. He allows for an alternative reading, but fails to comprehend how many critics of the Philadelphia Convention could easily and correctly refute this problematic dichotomy.

The great Antifederalist “Centinel,” for example, responded that the republic should follow the wisdom of “time and habit,” suggesting the gradual evolution of political authority, guided by restraint and the acceptance of inherited practices. Centinel corrects Publius’ lack of understanding regarding political power, although these glaring limitations of The Federalist’s ill-formed political imagination are not encountered by Frank. What Centinel cherished has been described by M. E. Bradford as the “antecedent integrity” of the American republic—a neglected manifestation of political imagination itself—that existed among the states throughout the various periods of their political development before the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification process.[2] While Frank accepts Publius rather uncritically at some junctures, he is not without an understanding of the alternative, imaginative vision of the opponents of these ideas.

Thankfully, Frank departs from the once-dominant studies of James Allen Smith, Charles Beard, and Herbert Croly on the role of interest in The Federalist and American politics. Frank is, by the same token, not as preoccupied with the Progressives as are many conservatives, although he takes their criticisms of Publius seriously, avoiding a strategy of vilification. In other words, Frank offers a more prudent model of interpretation: Refrain from accepting a hagiographic view of Publius, while acknowledging that the Framers were interested in much more than personal and financial gain.

Frank’s third chapter continues this interpretative commitment by examining the role of interest as central to Publius’ theory of political obligation. He adopts Publius’ earlier plea for “the regulation of these various and interfering interests” (Federalist #10) as a primary requirement for American politics, but uncritically endorses Hannah Arendt’s notion of an intended “republic of interests.” More engagement with the contending arguments regarding theories of political economy associated with Publius would have made the author’s thesis more convincing.

The influence of Leo Strauss and his students in the interpretation of The Federalist, especially the work of Martin Diamond and Herbert Storing, is surveyed in Chapter Four. Frank herein dismisses the scholarship of Harry Jaffa and ignores the seminal contribution of W. B. Allen on The Federalist. The former is understandable, but the latter action can only be taken at the author’s peril.[2]

For Frank, Jaffa and many of his disciples are devoted to assimilating the rhetoric of Publius for the purposes of obtaining political power; such analysis has much merit. However, to neglect Allen’s extensive and focused commentary on The Federalist is to fail to confront the best and least ideological contribution of the Jaffa school to ongoing interpretative debates about The Federalist. Allen’s commentary provides the most accessible and best textual exposition of each Federalist essay available today, regardless of the occasional interpretative flaws of the book. To his great credit, Frank appropriately finds in other Straussians, especially Diamond and Storing, a deeper understanding of the “locus of authority” in The Federalist, a dynamic and enduring consideration often neglected by other students of Strauss.

Most of the final chapter of the book is devoted to The Federalist’s defense of elections provided by the proposed Constitution. Frank opines that Publius’ act of “envisioning—and institutionally interpellating—the people as an individualized and sociologically homogeneous electorate, and reducing their political agency to voting” established the new political order. He is concerned about what may have been lost in the process, but he generally sanctions the argument presented by Publius. For his part, Frank contends not only that elections are necessary events in a republic, but that these events also facilitate the governing of the regime. If some potential for popular participation was denied, an increased potential for stability was acquired. For Frank, “We the People” was transformed into “We the Electorate” by Publius, converting the “common deliberation of the citizenry” into an elitist arrangement for governing.

Ultimately, Frank agrees with Publius that republican institutions are sufficient for popular decision-making, but he is uneasy about such a conclusion. He also accomplishes his goal of “unsettling some of the prevailing notions” associated with Publius’ defense of elections specifically, and more generally, the political imagination of Publius so that Americans can “consider the tensions and foreclosed possibilities” for governing the republic that might be available.

The new approach to this subject in Publius and Political Imagination has many merits that deserve the attention of scholars. Its most important contribution is convincingly connecting The Federalist with refined views of citizenship and the continued evolution of and need for civic engagement. Jason Frank’s is a novel and engaging re-examination of The Federalist that should not go unnoticed.

[1] See George W. Carey, The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic (University of Illinois Press, 1989), and Albert Furtwangler, The Authority of Publius (Cornell University Press, 1984).

[2] M. E. Bradford, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the American Constitution (University of Georgia Press, 1993), p. 68.

[3] William Barclay Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary (Peter Lang, 2000; with Kevin A. Cloonan).