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“Riffing on the Federalist”

November 28, 2012 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

Sanford Levinson
W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair
Professor of Government, School of Law
University of Texas at Austin

Event date: Wednesday, November 28, 2012, from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM
Location: Rowell Room, Flavelle House, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

Abstract: The Federalist is, without a doubt, the best-known, most widely-read and –analyzed extended work of American political thought. (The adjective is important in order to dispose of any claims made in behalf of the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.) There are, therefore, a host of books and lengthy articles that devote themselves to trying to figure out the ultimate meaning of one or another particularly canonical essay among the 85 separate essays that comprise The Federalist. Among the most canonical are Federalist 10, famous for its theory of “factions,” and 78, in which Hamilton defends judicial review. Other books try to discern a single unified theory of government that links together James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in their guise as “Publius,” the public-spirited proponent of the Constitution writing to his fellow Americans and, especially, delegates to the New York ratification convention, which was, rightly, expected to be extremely close with regard to acceptance or rejection of the document. Both of these literatures are important and worth study, especially by scholars of late-18th century American thought. This book, however, is not designed to compete with them. Instead, what follows are 85 short essays—I am tempted to describe them as “riffs”—on each of the separate contributions by “Publius.” Each of this “riffs” attempts to show how the particular essay is relevant, often in surprising ways, to contemporary political discussion. The aim is not in the least to use the Federalist to offer ways of “interpreting” the United States Constitution, but, rather, to understand each essay as a defense of the institutions established by the Constitution and to put those defenses within the context of the political thought of the 18th century and to ask to what degree we accept or reject those guiding assumptions.

The Roundtable will be followed by a reception in the Faculty Common Room.

This event is co-sponsored with the Canada Research Chair in Constitutionalism, Democracy and Development.


November 28, 2012
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm