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Reconstructing the Commercial Republic

Constitutional Design after Madison

James Madison is the thinker most responsible for laying the groundwork of the American commercial republic. But he did not anticipate that the propertied class on which he relied would become extraordinarily politically powerful at the same time as its interests narrowed. This and other flaws, argues Stephen L. Elkin, have undermined the delicately balanced system he constructed. In Reconstructing the Commercial Republic, Elkin critiques the Madisonian system, revealing which of its aspects have withstood the test of time and which have not. 

The deficiencies Elkin points out provide the starting point for his own constitutional theory of the republic—a theory that, unlike Madison’s, lays out a substantive conception of the public interest that emphasizes the power of institutions to shape our political, economic, and civic lives. Elkin argues that his theory should guide us toward building a commercial republic that is rooted in a politics of the public interest and the self-interest of the middle class. He then recommends specific reforms to create this kind of republic, asserting that Americans today can still have the lives a commercial republic is intended to promote: lives with real opportunities for economic prosperity, republican political self-government, and individual liberty.

432 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2006

History: American History

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Political and Social Theory


"A thoughtful and well-informed consideration of US government in relation to American society."

Ian Harris | Political Studies Review

"In this erudite, amiable, and provocative work, the political theorist Stephen Elkin presents a political rather than a juridical conception of American constitutionalism. . . . Elkin describes his position as one of  ’radical conservatism.’ His admiration and respect for the achievement of Madison and the Founders is clear. Moreover, the scholarship in this book is richly informed by close attention to the classic texts in Western political philosophy."

Herman Belz | Weekly Standard

"Since he emerged as one of the most prominent and interesting constitutional theorists of the present generation, [Elkin] has seemingly been consumed with asking the types of questions so many lesser academics are uncomfortable asking. . . . Reconstructing the Commercial Republic is his latest act of courage. It is also his best work to date. Indeed, the volume represents Elkin’s most comprehensive analysis of the current state of America’s commercial republic, a republic, he laments, that is at best misfi ring and at worst altogether broken. . . . Elkin’s volume deserves a central place in any library on constitutional thought."

Beau Breslin | Law and Politics Book Review

"Reconstructing the Commercial Republic is a thoughtful and challenging book, and hopefully it will inspire others to take up the project of constitutional preservation that it champions."

Keith E. Whittington | Political Science Quarterly

"Elkin has written a brilliant account of the nature of the American constitutional regime and its Madisonian origins, and as well provided extensive commentary on reforms needed to sustain such government in our own day. No other recent book, to my knowledge, so wisely assesses the American founding and so carefuly and specifically projects that understanding to contemporary political circumstances. . . . This is the best book on the political theory of the founding era, and its relevance for today, to come off the press in a long time."

Ralph Ketcham | American Historical Review

"Given the serious consideration it deserves, Elkin’s book should spark a larger debate about the ideas of the founding and their bearing on public policy design and evaluation. Thus, his work is not merely a contribution to the discipline of political science; it is an impressive act of civic education. It reminds the reader of Lincoln’s lesson in te Lyceum Address: the best safeguard for perpetuating our political institutions is a proper understanding of their origin."

B. Jeffrey Reno | Sociology

Table of Contents

1. Thinking Constitutionally in Light of American Aspirations
Part I: Madison and Constitutional Thinking
2. The Madisonian Commercial Republic
3. Flaws in the Madisonian Theory
4. Political Regimes and Political Rationality
Part II: The Political Constitution of a Commercial Republic
5. The Public Interest
6. A Public Interest Politics I
7. A Public Interest Politics II
8. Class and Self-Interest in the American Commercial Republic
9. Thinking Constitutionally about the American Republic
10. A Modest Program for Republicans (with a small "r")

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