When a college recruits a hotshot football coach or a kid who can get his elbow over a basketball rim, that's news. No one notices when Samuel H. Beer, after a distinguished career at Harvard, becomes Boston College's first O'Neill Professor of Government.

That's O'Neill, as in Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill.

Tip's name has never before been associated with thinking as clear as Prof. Beer offered in his inaugural lecture, "The National Idea in American Politics." Beer takes elegant exception to this assertion in President Reagan's inaugural address: "The federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government."

That proposition was central to the secessionists' argument before the Civil War. Lincoln argued that the Union created the states as states, and produced whatever independence and liberty they have. But what was at issue then was primarily a theory of authority. Today, the issue is a theory of purpose, a guide to the ends for which power should be used.

Reagan asserted the "compact theory" of the Union. Prior to the Civil War, that was used to justify "nullification" or state "interposition." According to that doctrine, the states, as authors of the federal government, are, individually, the proper judges of when it exceeds its authority. This argument was settled not by argument but by steel. But the essential political impulse of the "compact theory" lives today in the attitude of many conservatives toward the federal government.

America's challenge always has been to refute the theory that democracy is unsuited to a large society, because the central government, which should express national interests, will be dominated by parochial interests.

That problem did not preoccupy Jefferson, because he envisioned a homogenous, generally agricultural society, rather than the complicated commercial society Hamilton envisioned. But Hamilton lacked the poetry to express the romantic element essential to any potent concept of a nation. Lincoln had the poetry; so did Daniel Webster.

Defending the "national idea" in 1830, Daniel Webster cited the Delaware breakwater, an artificial harbor the federal government was constructing near the mouth of Delaware Bay. He argued that none of the neighboring states would have built it because it was not for the sole benefit of any one of them, so only the federal government could do it. But Webster--like Lincoln, and like another romantic nationalist, Edmund Burke--was unsatisfied merely with economic arguments for the central government's central role in American life. Webster urged a more organic concept of the nation-- just as Burke had urged Britons to think of the nation as something more than a partnership agreement in trade, and just as Lincoln was to speak of "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone."

The Civil War established federal supremacy as a fact, not a theory, and was followed by federal initiatives concerning banking, currency, land, transportation, tariffs, higher education and other matters that promoted national integration. The next two great nationalizers were this century's two greatest presidents.

Teddy Roosevelt called his program for countering the disintegrative effects of industrialism--inequalities and class conflict--"the New Nationalism." And as Beer says, TR's cousin, Franklin's, thematic term was the adjective "national." FDR nationalized economic policy: henceforth the president would be held accountable for the economy's aggregate performance. He made a minimum material entitlement a national concern. And under him, regional politics increasingly yielded to the national politics of urban and class blocs.

Contemporary conservatism awaits its Burke or Webster--someone who, when he speaks of the nation's expression of itself through the national government, speaks with the soul of a poet rather than a corporate comptroller. Too many conservatives have a crabbed and dispiriting attitude toward the central government. Most Americans--their occasional rhetoric notwithstanding--do not. Watch the faces of families touring Washington; count the buses bringing high school students on class trips each spring. People visit New York; they make pilgrimages to Washington.

Conservatives worry too little about the disintegrative forces of the commercial dynamism they nurture. America has never suffered from too much unity, or excessive national purposefulness. Conservative rhetoric notwithstanding, the federal interest has never been too strong.

Not surprisingly, the "natural" governing party--the Republicans after the Civil War, the Democrats after the crash of 1929--is the party that speaks with most conviction for using the federal government as an instrument of national integration. That is something Republicans can learn from the Tip O'Neill Professor.