Thomas Jefferson called “The Federalist” — the collection of essays written by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787 and 1788, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution — “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Through the years, many others have echoed that high praise. The political writer George Will recently said the 85 essays, written for a few New York newspapers, under the pen name “Publius,” are surpassed as a work of political philosophy only by Aristotle’s “Politics.”
I’ve been teaching “The Federalist” to college students since I was a graduate student in the 1990s. While the arguments defending the Constitution’s provisions still stimulate students, I can report a striking change in their reactions to the work since the election of President Trump. Students today are far more skeptical of the argument in “The Federalist” that the Constitution’s famous checks and balances would be sufficient to keep a demagogue from attaining the presidency, for example — or exerting malign power should he attain office. They are dubious when Publius asserts that neither Congress nor the president could ever be susceptible to corruption, in part because of the Constitution’s structure. In short, they are more skeptical about the Constitution itself.
Smart students, of course, have always argued with some assertions in “The Federalist.” Some have always challenged Publius regarding the morally problematic compromises on slavery — the decision to allow the slave population to increase the voting power of slave states through the infamous three-fifths rule, for instance. They unsurprisingly object to the anti-democratic nature of the Senate (two senators per state, regardless of population) and the electoral college. Yet until now, there was a general sense in the classroom that these essays advanced a comprehensive, farsighted and relatively successful political philosophy — and that Americans have been largely lucky to have had the good fortune of such a founding.