February 29, 2008


Teaching The Federalist in South Korea: Reflecting on the principles of limited constitutional government (Peter Berkowitz, 2/29/08, National Review)

So what did these students think of The Federalist? In Hamilton’s assertion in Federalist l — that, were Americans to fail to establish free and democratic government by ratifying the new Constitution, it would “deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind” — they found an expression of American exceptionalism. Some saw arrogance in the fact that, even from the beginning, Americans attributed universal significance to their political challenges. But all were also open to appreciating a certain modesty in Hamilton’s assertion that the moral and political principles that applied to Americans applied with equal force to all human beings.

In Madison’s caution in Federalist 10 that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” they found easy application to their center-left president and his center-right challenger (who was elected in a landslide on December 19). But they were pleased to ponder Madison’s insistence that, in all cases, liberal democracies should be built to withstand the folly of unenlightened statesmen.

In Madison’s examination of the separation of powers in Federalist 51, they saw grounds for preferring the South Korean system of appointing judges — wherein the chief justice confers with the president on nominees before they are sent to the legislature for confirmation — because it assigned a role to all three branches, while the American system provides no role for the judicial branch in filling its own bench. But they had no trouble appreciating that Madison’s larger lesson goes not to a particular constitutional scheme for judicial appointments but to the need to achieve a delicate balance in the blending of separated powers.

Like American college students, my Korean college students, whose democracy is barely two decades old, have never known anything but freedom and equality under law. Also like their American counterparts, they were intrigued by The Federalist’s harsh assessment of the diseases to which liberal democracies are prone, and its calm explanation of the institutional remedies for preserving liberty. This compelling mix enabled them to make sense both of their low opinion of their own politicians and their genuine excitement over a democratic future.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 29, 2008 2:01 PM
Comments for this post are closed.