Teaching the Federalist Papers
Peter Berkowitz has a column in the WSJ entitled: Why Colleges Don’t Teach the Federalist Papers.
This headline caught my eye for a couple of reasons. The first being the obvious fact that as a professor of political science, claims about the teaching of politics in US institutions of higher education are of general interest. The second being more specific: that the last couple of years (my, time flies) have had me involved in a book project that uses the Federalist Papers as a key thematic basis.* Indeed, for these reasons the column inspired several thoughts on my part. I will try and deal with a few here and more on to a few more later.
My immediate reaction to the headline was that while I can agree with the notion that the Federalist Papers could be taught more than is the case as a general proposition, that it is simply wrong to state that “colleges don’t teach the Federalist Papers.” I would note that almost every single American government reader (i.e., supplements that collect various readings for use in a basic Am Gov course) I have ever seen over the last two decades plus have almost certainly included Federalist 10, 39, and 51. Further, they have likely also included various numbers about the presidency and the courts. Typically 10 and 51 are included as appendices to American Government textbooks alongside the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In other words, contra the suggestion in the column (as well the title of Steven Hayward’s blog post) the Papers are typically treated as key founding documents.
However, Berkowitz’s column really takes a narrow critique:
At Harvard, at least, all undergraduate political-science majors will receive perfunctory exposure to a few Federalist essays in a mandatory course their sophomore year. But at Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley, political-science majors can receive their degrees without encountering the single surest analysis of the problems that the Constitution was intended to solve and the manner in which it was intended to operate.
Most astonishing and most revealing is the neglect of The Federalist by graduate schools and law schools. The political science departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley—which set the tone for higher education throughout the nation and train many of the next generation’s professors—do not require candidates for the Ph.D. to study The Federalist. And these universities’ law schools (Princeton has no law school), which produce many of the nation’s leading members of the bar and bench, do not require their students to read, let alone master, The Federalist’s major ideas and main lines of thought.
First, there is something of a disconnect between a claim that colleges don’t teach the Federalist Papers and a critique of four universities. Further, while I am sure it is possible to assess the main reading lists for Ph.D. candidates taking comprehensive exams in American Politics, I am not sure how one can definitively make claims about what students do, or do not, read in these various programs (that’s a lot of syllabi to review**). Indeed, I would suspect that things like the Articles of Confederation, Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution are not listed on those reading lists either, but that the assumption is that students will have read them (and read them in detail).
The real problem of the Berkowitz column, is not the question of whether the Papers are adequately incorporated into the curricula of major political science programs, it is the following:
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of The Federalist for understanding the principles of American government and the challenges that liberal democracies confront early in the second decade of the 21st century.
Actually, it is extremely easy to overstate the significance of the Papers as a means of understanding contemporary politics because they were not written as a timeless guide to the Constitution. Yes, the Federalist Papers represent an extremely interesting and very useful elucidation of applied political theory (and of a distinctly American character), but they should not be seen as some sort of timeless window into the exact meaning of the Constitution. At a minimum one has to recognize that they were written to convince the state of New York to ratify the constitution (which Berkowitz does note in his column, to be fair). As such, they were political commercials of a sort directed to assuage certain fears and to persuade a very select number of voters. They were not pure theory and they were not written to be the sine qua non of constitutional interpretation. To treat them as such, therefore, is problematic. The reasons why a document was written should matter, I would think, in determining the exact purpose of said document, yes?
Also, the notion that the Federalist Papers represents the guide to understanding all things constitutional is undercut by, well, reading the documents. A simple example: go consult Federalist 66 and 68 on the topic of the election of the president and the functioning of the electoral college (which I wrote about here) and tell me that the Federalist Papers perfectly foresaw how politics would work in the 21st century (or, for that matter, the early 19th). Another key example: the Papers (and, indeed, the Founders in general) utterly lacked an understanding of the role of political parties in representative democracies. I am a huge fan of the Federalist Papers and advocate their study, but pretending like the Federalist Papers actually represent a defense of a very specific contemporary view of the constitution requires a very selected reading of the document. It is especially problematic when contemporary readers treat the Papers like some type of Rosetta Stone through which one can discern a timeless meaning of the constitution (or, worse, as if they are stone tablets brought down from the mountain). Indeed, the main problem with almost all call backs to the Founders and Framers is the notion that somehow a quotation from them equals a winning argument. That’s not really how argumentation works nor it is appropriate analysis (or, for that matter, good history).
A journal article from 1951 by Douglass Adair makes an especially insightful observation about the Federalist Papers in general that serves as an interesting counterpoise to Berkowitz’s essay. Writing in the context of using the Federalist Papers to interpret the constitution he wrote: “it is a truism apparent to everyone who has reflected on American history that every generation sees mirrored in the Constitution its own deepest political interests” (50).
His proximate cause for making the statement was his analysis of the prestige assigned to James Madison’s Federalist 10. Adair notes that that essay, which we now consider a classic and document central to our understanding of the constitution, was largely ignored for a century and quarter and did not rise to prominence until historian Charles Beard made it a central piece in his 1913 analysis of the constitutional convention.
As Adair notes:
When James Madison died in 1836-just one year before the fiftieth anniversary of the Philadelphia Convention-the burning political issues of that day centered on the powers and structure of the federal union and its relation to the state governments. In this atmosphere the Federalist essays which seemed of most importance were those that dealt with the powers of Congress; the relationship between the President, the Congress, the Judiciary; and increasingly as the year 1860 drew closer, the rights of the states to nullify or otherwise protect themselves against obnoxious legislation. The Tenth Federalist was not directly in point in the fierce debates that raged over these issues before the Civil War; so although thousands of Americans must have read the essay while seeking to obtain light on the meaning of the Constitution, practically no one in this era publicly signaled it out for especial praise or comment.
In other words, the focus on specific elements of the Federalist Papers for use in contemporary political debate is nothing new. And, further, they have not all been held in identical esteem over time. Indeed, political scientist Samuel Kernell notes in his book on Madison, our views on the Pantheon of the Framers has not been consistent: “From the Civil War until the early twentieth century, Madison’s scholarship steadily sank into obscurity, even disrepute” (2003:4).
Back to Berkowitz: he is doing exactly what Adair described over 60 years ago: he wants to use the Federalist as a means of making a contemporary political argument, most specifically (it would seem) to support a generally conservative political point of view (in the contemporary sense) and specifically to the commerce clause (PPACA, anyone?):
And thus so many of our leading opinion formers and policy makers seem to come unhinged when they encounter constitutional arguments apparently foreign to them but well-rooted in constitutional text, structure and history. These include arguments about, say, the unitary executive; or the priority of protecting political speech of all sorts; or the imperative to articulate a principle that keeps the Constitution’s commerce clause from becoming the vehicle by which a federal government—whose powers, as Madison put it in Federalist 45, are “few and defined”—is remade into one of limitless unenumerated powers.
Setting aside the question of whether the individuals in question are becoming “unhinged” or not (no doubt some are, others not), but the main problem here is the assumption that Berkowitz is making: that a plain reading of the Federalist Papers is a slam dunk for his preferred point of view. However, the problem remains that while even if we agree that there are “few and defined” powers given to Congress in Article I, Section 8, we still find ourselves arguing over the meaning of one of those “few and defined” powers: i.e., what constitutes “interstate commerce.” This is the ultimate problem, not whether or not people have read enough of the Federalist Papers
(To be continued).
*The book in question, which is not quite finished but will be soon (knock on wood) is a co-authored text on the institutional design of democracies that compares the United States to twenty-nine other democracies and is tentatively entitled A Different Democracy: The United States in Comparative Perspective. My co-authors are Matthew Shugart, Arend Lijphart, and Bernard Grofman.
**Keeping in mind that in colleges and universities in general, but especially at elite institutions, syllabi are controlled by faculty and change with some regularity. While I am sure that there aren’t courses called “The Federalist Papers” in the catalogs of these schools, that doesn’t prove that the subject is not taught. Granted, Berkowitz may have done more comprehensive research on this topic than the column suggests. Still, I am unclear as to the bases of his claims.
Adair, Douglass. 1951. “The Tenth Federalist Revisited.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 8:1 (Jan., 1951): 48-67.
Kernell, Samuel, ed. 2003. James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government. Stanford University Press.