A Summer Seminar on the American Experiment

"A Summer Seminar on the American Experiment," with Delba Winthrop, This Constitution, no. 9 (1985): 34-37.


Because America is so familiar to Americans, we take for granted the experimental nature of our politics. But this is the very theme of the two best books on American politics, The Federalist and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The seminar we conducted read these books as books, not merely as flat statements or documents in which to find famous phrases. We wanted to discover their authors’ intent and, as the way to this, to consider their literary form, their style, and their mode of persuasion.

The Federalist, consisting of 85 essays, first appeared in New York newspapers in 1787-88 in order to urge ratification of the Constitution by that state. Immediately afterwards the essays were published as a book with the more serious aim of providing an authoritative, though unofficial, commentary on the Constitution. The authors–Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison–wrote under a single pen name, “Publius,” the popular savior of the Roman republic. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman and scholar, wrote his Democracy in America after a brief trip to America and published it in two volumes, in 1835 and 1840. He too addressed both an immediate audience of partisans in his country and those in the present and future who might want to reflect on the nature of democracy.

That America is an “experiment” is announced by Alexander Hamilton on the flat page of The Federalist, where he says that the American people are deciding for mankind whether self-government is possible; and it is repeated by James Madison in The Federalist, where he speaks of “that honorable determination to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” These statements were not unique.  Many other Americans, speaking just before The Federalist was written and long after, said the same, most memorably Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. Tocqueville too looked to the New World to see the first and most complete modern democracy. He hoped the United States might be a model for Europe, not in the particulars of its laws, but as a more or less successful attempt at “the organization and establishment of democracy.”

What does it mean to say that America is an experiment? As an experiment, it is first of all something chosen. America did not come about gradually in the course of time; it was founded at a certain time by certain men known as “Founders” who deliberated together in a constitutional convention. Although all looked to, George Washington to be the first president, he was not the sole founder choosing the regime by himself.  The Constitution was proposed by a few, then debated and ratified by many.

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