by Sanford Levinson, W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair and Professor of Government, University of Texas at Austin School of Law
Early in my new book, An Argument Open to All: Reading "The Federalist" in the 21st Century, I refer to the set of essays published in 1787-1788 as “the best known, most widely read and analyzed extended work of American political thought.” I now believe, from talking to many colleagues and students, that the reference to “widely read” is almost certainly wrong. Many people have no doubt read Federalists No. 10, 47, 51, and 78, but there are 81 additional essays, most of which languish in obscurity.
So the central question is whether there is good reason for a 21st century reader in fact to read The Federalist beyond the few “greatest hits.” It is obvious why someone interested in the formation of the Constitution would be interested in the entire corpus. Interestingly, it is less obvious why anyone with a particular interest in interpreting the Constitution would have to read it; very few of the 85 essays actually relate to the controversies that come before the judiciary or other constitutional interpreters in the 21st century. Most of them are devoted to explaining why the system established by the Articles of Confederation was “imbecilic;” why unifying behind a new constitution was essential to defense against what we would today call threats to our national security; and broad discussions of the institutions that comprise our political system (and which, being “hard wired,” are almost never the subjects of litigation).
My book consists of 85 separate essays, each one corresponding to the respective original essay. They offer not so much an exegesis of the original as an inquiry whether it still has anything to tell us about constitutionalism in the 21st century. Underscoring the “presentism” of the essays is the fact that I refer exclusively to Publius, the notional author, and not to the actual historical authors Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, or James Madison. One of the consequences of adopting that approach is that I don’t have to concern myself with the question of the authors’ “sincerity” or genuine belief in their own arguments, shaped to elicit the votes of ratifiers at the state ratification conventions in 1788. My audience is persons interested in the Constitution in 2016 (or in 2020). Should they (you) make time at least to read my book and perhaps even return to The Federalist itself? To a degree that genuinely surprises even me, given my own doubts when I embarked on this project, I think the answer is yes.