Explaining America

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Over the past several years, journalist Garry Wills has written extensively on a wide range of subjects from the historical (his studies of Roman culture) to the contemporary (his biographies of Jack Ruby and Richard Nixon) to the semiautobiographical (Confessions of a Conservative, 1979). Explaining America: The Federalist is the successor to his Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1979), and is the second in a projected four-volume series entitled America’s Political Enlightenment. In the third and fourth books, the author plans to examine the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

Explaining America: The Federalist extends and refines Wills’s earlier thesis that some of the most important Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thought. Through a close reading of The Federalist (1788), Wills intends to analyze the theory used to defend the Constitution and to identify the intellectual origins of that theory. The author devotes particular attention to Federalist papers Numbers 10 and 51, although he never removes them from the context of the other eighty-three essays.

In a country known for its political oratory and pamphlets, the series of essays signed by “Publius” that appeared in New York newspapers between October, 1787, and April, 1788, stood out for their style, content, and defense of the new Constitution of the United States. Published later along with some additional essays in book form, these papers are primarily the work of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. The five essays contributed by John Jay are considered only very briefly by Wills, and then only with respect to the assumptions Jay shared with Hamilton and Madison.

The general themes of The Federalist are that the government provided by the Articles of Confederation was too weak for America’s needs, that the new Constitution would establish a stronger form of government, and, what is most important, that this new government would conform to the highest principles of republicanism. Garry Wills contends that although The Federalist, especially Number 10, has been used extensively during the twentieth century to explain the American system of government, there has been a great deal of confusion over what is actually said in these essays, and thus over the relationship between the essays, the Constitution, and the government. In this book, then, Wills attempts to clarify what Hamilton and Madison actually meant in The Federalist and to demonstrate that the theories advanced by both authors were firmly grounded in the political essays of David Hume.

Wills devotes approximately the first third of his book to an attempt to persuade the reader that, in this period at least, Madison was far more “Hamiltonian” than has previously been believed, while Hamilton, in turn, was quite “Madisonian.” Although Madison’s quiet, careful style contrasted sharply with Hamilton’s more flamboyant, self-assured manner, Wills convincingly demonstrates that these men had much in common, including a shared intellectual climate. Both were partly self-educated and partly the product of university training by men steeped in the assumptions of the Scottish Enlightenment. Acquainted with each other through their work in Congress during the period of the Confederation and their association with the Annapolis Convention, both admired the political ideas expressed by Hume although neither man adhered slavishly to those ideas. Both Hamilton and Madison, Wills maintains, admired the British constitution, were sympathetic to a strong yet flexible government, and were convinced that public virtue was the basis upon which the American government must be constructed. The stereotypes of Hamilton and Madison, the author believes, have established a kind of false dichotomy that has had a detrimental influence on nearly all commentaries on The Federalist. In other words, hopelessly biased by their mistaken expectations of Madison and Hamilton, later interpreters have consistently misread or misunderstood the messages of the Federalist essays.

The crux of Wills’s book, however, is not in his relatively successful portrayal of the similarities between Madison and Hamilton during the struggle to ratify the Constitution. Rather, it is found in the ten chapters he devotes to the Federalist essay Number 51 and the eleven chapters in which he reexamines the famous Number 10.

Arguing that the creative confusion of the eighteenth century debate over the nature of constitutional government has left modern scholars with the laborious but necessary task of untangling many closely related ideas, Wills begins his examination of checks and balances with an analysis of two clusters of ideas. The main cluster, he suggests, includes the concepts of mixed government, separation of powers, and balanced government. Once these have been understood, they in turn must be related to a second cluster of ideas: sovereignty, legislative supremacy, and direct democracy.

Mixed government does not attempt to provide an ideal state but simply the best possible state under the circumstances. A mixed state has no institutions peculiar to it, and therefore its structure...

(The entire section is 2166 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

America. CXLIV, April 18, 1981, p. 328.

Choice. XVIII, June, 1981, p. 1479.

Commonweal. CVIII, May 8, 1981, p. 278.

Library Journal. CVI, February 15, 1981, p. 451.

National Review. XXXIII, September 4, 1981, p. 1030.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, January 24, 1981, p. 26.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, April 2, 1981, p. 16.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 1, 1981, p. 11.

Newsweek. XCVII, March 2, 1981, p. 75.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVII, Autumn, 1981, p. 119.