The wisdom of the American Founders does not come to us in authoritative phrases such as “Confucius says” or in what we have unfortunately come to call our “values,” but mostly in the form of a Constitution. The Constitution has been best explained to us in The Federalist, a series of papers first written for New York newspapers by three defenders of it—Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These papers contain arguments against opponents of the Constitution intended for the immediate debate over its ratification in that state in 1787–8 and also for a wider audience in the future who would read them as a book. They were neither official statements of the meaning of the Constitution nor private interpretations but somewhere in between, and, over the years, they have acquired a semi-official status both from the prominence of their authors and the quality of their explanations.

The Con ...