My friend Ben is fond of distinguishing American conservatism from its European forebears; American conservatives, he has told me on several occasions, are conserving a revolutionary heritage. I thought about his statement quite a bit while reading James Madison in Federalist 14.
But as we near the end of 14, it's apparent that Madison has another topic on his mind: Whether the type of government embodied in the proposed Constitution is so new, so radical, so unfamiliar that its very novelty increases the risks of failure. Madison's answer, of course, is "no." The Constitution might look like a new animal, he suggests, but it's really a hybrid of the best parts of governments found elsewhere in the world, and throughout history. At the same time, though, Madison offers a defense of the spirit of experimentation:
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.
I noted at the outset that conservatives tend to cite "The Federalist Papers" more often than liberals and progressives, and I still think that's true. But it's here that I start to see signs that progressives can also claim a heritage from the Founding Fathers. Today's conservatives, I think, want to bind us to the vision of the Founders in a way that, perhaps, the Founders would've found alien. A reason I hear for that, often, is that human nature hasn't changed so much in 200 years. And that's right. But I don't imagine it had changed all that much, frankly, in the 200 years before the Constitution was written, either. The Founders, in other words, were not the last wise men to walk this earth.
Still, the Founders might've been experimenters and progressives, but they were rationalists and empiricists as well. They didn't build the Constitution out of a sense of pure novelty, but sought foundations in history and experience for what they were trying. And they expected, as Madison notes, that their successors would both "improve and perpetuate" what they built. If we are to conserve a revolutionary heritage, then, perhaps it was intended from the beginning that we preserve both the revolution and the heritage.