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  • “Unauthorized Propositions”The Federalist Papers and Constituent Power
  • Jason Frank (bio)

The PEOPLE, who are the sovereigns of the State, possess a power to alter it when and in what way they please. To say otherwise is to make the thing created, greater than the power that created it.

—Anonymous, Federal Gazette, March 18, 1789

The we of the Constitution’s “We the People” was as much of an artificial construct as the Constitution itself, it was its creature, not its creator.

—Sheldon Wolin, The Presence of the Past

In Federalist No. 40, James Madison engaged the vexing question of whether the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 had been properly authorized “to frame and propose” the new Federal Constitution of the United States [83]. Madison explored there “the ground on which the Convention stood” [264], which he identified as the purportedly solid foundation of the people themselves [Morgan 272]. Federalist No. 40 offers a theoretically probing yet avowedly practical reflection on the availability of foundations and on dilemmas of popular authorization in times of constitutional crisis; it may be productively read as an exemplary eighteenth-century American reflection on a state of exception. As such, Federalist No. 40 provides helpful orientation to how the popular constitutionalism of the revolutionary and postrevolutionary years confronted and navigated—if never fully resolved—some of the most insistent paradoxes of modern democratic theory.

In No. 40, Madison was preoccupied with the theoretical and historical dilemmas surrounding the eighteenth-century American conception of the people’s constituent power—that is, the ultimate power of the people to alter fundamental law “when and in what way they please.”1 However, in contrast to most contemporary theoretical approaches to constituent power—whether influenced by the political theology of Carl Schmitt or the immanentist optimism of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—Madison’s navigation of the attending dilemmas of popular authorization resisted the turn to metaphysical abstraction and the appeal to a transcendent or immanent absolute. In his approach to the problem of constituent power, Madison insisted on the productive irreducibility of institutional mediation and the performative elicitation of a retrospective authorization by the people. While accepting the absence of a firm ground of legal authorization (the unbroken authority of law), Madison also rejected a wholly extralegal or unmediated appeal to the people themselves (the transcendental appeal to spirit beyond the letter of the law). Instead, he endorsed a political navigation of these dilemmas in medias res. Confronting [End Page 103] the dilemma of constituency—how does the people give birth to itself as a self-authorizing subject?—Madison shifted the register of discourse away from the formal and juridical and toward the informally ethicopolitical. Doing so, he was able to affirm a rupture in law while simultaneously enlisting another register of normative continuity. This essay outlines Madison’s productive encounter with these dilemmas in The Federalist, and suggests the relevance of his example for recent debates in democratic theory, too often captivated by the formal rubrics of “norm” and “exception.”


The government which [the Federalists] are so enthusiastically fond of is as yet an ideal phantom, a chimera, a mere theory detested and execrated by every true friend to government.

—“One of the People,” Carlisle Gazette, January 9, 1788

Madison wrote Federalist No. 40 as a response to widespread and persuasive Anti-Federalist claims that the Philadelphia Convention had exceeded the mandate granted to it by the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Congressional Act of 1787, both of which authorized the meeting of the Philadelphia Convention “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” [259]. While the Philadelphia Convention was, in Bruce Ackerman’s words, “expressly subordinated to existing institutions and procedures” [Ackerman 43], it had nonetheless produced an entirely new constitutional text and—theoretically more problematic for Madison—an entirely new procedure for its popular ratification [see also Ackerman and Katyal]. Under Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation, constitutional reform could come about only through the unanimous assent of the thirteen state legislatures.2 Under the Philadelphia Convention’s plan, the ratification of the proposed constitution would bypass the constituted power of the state legislatures and appeal instead to the...