THE GENIUS OF AMERICA in its early national period was exhibited in its political literature, and no work reflects that genius more strikingly than The Federalist, a group of essays hurriedly produced between the fall of 1787 and the spring of 1788 in an attempt to persuade New York and Virginia to ratify the Constitution. Of the 77 essays published in New York newspapers -- 85 later in book form -- Alexander Hamilton, organizer of the project, wrote 43 and collaborated with James Madison on three others; John Jay, an experienced diplomat, contributed five dealing with foreign relations, and Madison on his own composed the remaining 26.

So complex and subtle is the case for the Constitution made by "publius," the pseudonym under which they all wrote, that even the best scholarly minds have emerged confused after closely examining the essays, despite their apparent clarity of exposition and precision of language. As persuasive propaganda there are also many doubts about The Federalist's actual effectiveness, for both New York and Virginia ratified by narrow margins due largely to the parliamentary skills of Hamilton and Madison.

But as commentaries on American federalism under the Constitution there has been wide agreement that no work is more authoritative. To understand what the architects of the Constitution intended, study the Publius essays. To spread the light of American democracy, publish them in French, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean. A confused world will then comprehend the stability of the world's oldest republic under its system of separated powers, checks and balances, and divided sovereignty.

Unfortunately, it is not this simple, and in a virtuoso exercise in scholarship, Garry Wills, in this second of four studies on the "American Political Enlightenment," convincingly shows us why. Very simply, scholars who have attempted to elucidate the statecraft of The Federalist have misread it.

The best known view of the Constitution and what its architects intended is probably that summarized by Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition. Assigned in the vast majority of American history courses taught over the past generation, Hofstadter's book presents a group portrait of creative but conservative pessimists who, fearful of democracy and intent upon preserving property interests from erosion by majoritarian legislation, erected "a harmonious system of mutual frustration." To prevent majority rule was, it seemed, the true intent of the Founding Fathers, whose understanding of human nature owed more to Genesis than to the philosophes of the Enlightenment. As early as 1913, historian Charles Beard had already uncovered this plot when he centered his economic determinist attack upon Madison's summarizing essay number ten. Beard demonstrated that those who built the federal system at Philadelphia had property interests to protect and enhance and did so by controlling the effects of faction -- even when faction or party represented a clear majority of the citizens.

While most of the scholarhsip upon which this simplistic notion is based has been swept away during the past three decades, the old view persists -- and Wills notwithstanding -- will probably yet persist. Will's deeper thrust is not against it, but against the more serious and penetrating scholarship of political scientists James MacGregor Burns and Robert Dahl. It is Dahl in particular whom Wills recognizes as a worthy antagonist, for he at least attempted to understand Madison's argument and found it lacking in internal consistency.

Explaining America then is a radical analysis of the Publius essays made possible by Wills' mastery of Scottish Enlightenment literature, his insistence upon divining the exact 18th-century meaning of words by recourse to Dr. Johnson's dictionary, and his grateful borrowing from the insights of the brilliant intellectual historian, Douglass Adair, to whom this study is dedicated.

It was Adair who first suspected that he had misread Madison when preparing his Yale doctoral dissertation. Madison, trained at Princeton under John Witherspoon, had not taken his political philosophy from the English opposition writers Bolingbroke and Sidney so much as he had from David Hume, a court party philosopher whose works Jefferson banned from the bookshelves of his University of Virginia lest they undermine the Whig faith that had nurtured liberty in America. Will's parallel reading of Hume and the Federalist essays has revealed why, contrary to the opinion of other scholars, there was but a single Publius, not one reflecting a Madisonian outlook and another with a less democratic Hamiltonian viewpoint. On the contrary, the two men were very close in their views, and Wills demonstrates that if anything it was Hamilton who leaned over backwards to placate their opponents, the champions of state particularism and divided sovereignty. But it is the "Hamiltonian" Madison and his Federalist number ten in particular that provide the focus of Explaining America.

Publius, as revealed by Wills, accepted Montesquieu's dictum that republican states require a virtuous citizenry and genuinely believed that the people of America possessed the necessary sense of the public good. Publius was not, despite what others have concluded, Hobbesian in his view of human nature. With great care and close reasoning Wills attacks the other major conclusions that have been drawn by the past two generations of scholars: that the people were seen as untrustworthy and their exercise of severeignty needed to be severely checked, that interest was set against interest in order to do so, and that government must be essentially passive for liberty and private right to survive in a republic. Madison and Hamilton, he demonstrates, in fact cared little for elaborate checks and balances, recognized and approved legislative supremacy, drew their conception of judicial review not from the wording of the Constitution but from the nature of republics, believed that interest and faction would not so much be checked under the new regime as filtered out and largely eliminated by the processes of democracy itself.

At the heart of this construction of the political thought of Madison and Hamilton in 1788 is the close linkage among representation, public virtue, and the vast territorial extent of the United States. These most brilliant statesmen and craftsmen believed that out of many selected for public office at local and state levels a few, wiser and more deserving of honor than the rest, would emerge as national leaders, a democratic meritocracy in whose hands the guardianship of liberty would be safe and the public interest well served.

Whether or not, it has worked out that way is not Wills' concern. He pleads only that we read more discerningly and understand what these men had to say. Why does it matter? To Wills it matters that we do justice to former generations by listening patiently and by trying to see the world as they saw it. We are too often guided by what we want to believe they saw and said, "Useful falsehoods," he commented in Inventing America, the first volume in this series "are dangerous things, often costing something down the road."

Though he does not explicitly say so, Garry Wills cares that we know what our most creative statesmen believed and attempted to build into this nation -- that no party should be judge in its own cause, that justice is the end of republican government, that a representative democracy cannot survive if the majority opt for private gain when the public good is at stake, and that free people are those governed by laws rather than by men.