Law & Liberty: “Publius’s Constitution, Now More than Ever”
With Colleen Sheehan, hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II
“Some have said, and this I think leads to a broad question, the Federalist Papers, really what you need to read are the convention notes, and there are various versions of those. But that’s really where you learn about the constitution. And the state ratification debate notes, which we now have like a 14 volume edition out on each state’s ratification debate, including press coverage of the debates, contemporary press coverage. And the Federalist Papers are something else that’s been overemphasized, but I think that leads to a question, which is what does Publius add, contribute, to our thinking about the constitution that wasn’t there before?”
“Well it’s the most comprehensive of all the writings during the ratification era by federalists or anti-federalists. As you know Richard because it’s published by Liberty Fund, Jerry McDowell and I put together a book called Friends of the Constitutions, Writings of the Other Federalists 1787-1788, there’s a whole slew of people who wrote to advocate ratification of the constitution. And there’s some very, very fine writing, foreign spectators, just fabulous material. I think that those essays are excellent, and James Wilson, and a number of others. But no one comes even close on the federalist or anti-federalist side to such a comprehensive examination of the principles and processes of the constitution. So what the Federalist Papers adds is people like Justice Story, and still today the Supreme Court not at all unusual to see the Federalist Papers cited in court opinions. It’s an in-depth, rich interpretation of not just the provisions of the constitution, but the meaning and purpose of the constitution. Now that is not to say that it’s pure philosophy, it’s not. It’s political philosophy, it’s very political. It has a political purpose, it’s for a particular cause. But as Publius says in one of the Federalist Papers, one of the reasons I think that they wrote anonymously, somebody asked me this just the other day, “Why did they write anonymously? Were they trying to hide something?” Well first of all of course it’s very typical in the 18th century for people to use pen names. But I think the other reason is that they don’t want to be identified as either partisan advocates for this, and for people to make a judgment just based on whether they like Madison or they like Hamilton or they don’t like them. This kind of idea that factions are often caused by attachment to leaders. You’re pro-Trump or you’re anti-Trump. If Trump is for it, you’re against it, things like that. They were avoiding that. Madison says in one of the Federalist Papers, “Think about not from whom the advice comes, but whether the advice be good.” And so they really did set a very high standard for political discourse, even though it’s political discourse about a particular cause at a particular moment in history. Jefferson called the Federalist Papers, “The best commentary on the principles of government that was ever written…””
Colleen Sheehan is the new Director of Graduate Studies in the School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and previously Director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center and Professor of Politics at Villanova University. She is author of James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government (Cambridge University Press, 2009), co-editor of Friends of the Constitution: Writings of the Other Federalists 1787-1788, and author of numerous articles on the American Founding and eighteenth century political and moral thought which have appeared in journals such as William and Mary Quarterly, American Political Science Review, Review of Politics, and Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal.
Professor Sheehan is a JMC faculty partner.
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