EXPLAINING AMERICA: The Federalist by Garry Wills


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A journalist with a Ph.D. in Classics from Yale, Wills is having a second curious go at scholarship-for-the-populace. In Discovering America, he attempted, through ingenious but faulty exegetic methods, to show that Jefferson was under the influence of the Scottish Moralists when he wrote the original draft of the Declaration. Satisfied that we've misunderstood that document by ignoring the Scots, Wills now moves on to prove that the Federalist Papers, too, were penned with--this time--David Hume peering over the shoulders of Madison and Hamilton. The next installment threatens to move on to the Constitution. Once again, Wills tries to prove his point by, first, combining some biographical material on the authors in question--a gold mine here since Madison went to Princeton, a place steeped in the Scottish school, while Hamilton was brought up a Presbyterian (though, unfortunately, he went to Columbia)--and next, taking apart the text and comparing it, line by virtual line, to similar-sounding passages from Hume. By this technique, Wills thinks he has proved that the authors of the Federalist, collectively known as ""Publius,"" actually argued for the elimination of ""interest"" from politics (manifested in a ""disinterested"" presidency), for centralization, for undivided sovereignty, and against ""strict construction""--all of which he supposes runs against the usual interpretation and all of which emerges from reading the Federalist with a Scottish eye. Wills is able to do this largely by the same means employed previously; that is, through 1) a resolute avoidance of contemporary scholarship--most importantly, of the writings inspired by J. G. A. Pocock, which brought out the Scottish connection to Madison and Hamilton--and 2) a diabolical blindness to the actual history surrounding the texts; a blindness, in this case, to widespread opposition to the centralization of power which affected all discussion of ""public virtue"" in the period. All this is in addition to the problems, unexplored by Wills, of linking the moral theories of Hutcheson and Hume in the first place. Wills wears his classics training on his sleeve in a classic case of crypto-scholarship. And, as with the earlier volume, the point of the whole exercise still remains obscure.

Pub Date: Jan. 9th, 1980
ISBN: 0140298398
Publisher: Doubleday