Friday, May 14, 2010

Bag O' Books: 'The Federalist Papers'

I've never read "The Federalist Papers."

This is a little bit embarrassing to admit. I've spent a considerable portion of the last few years thinking and writing about government and politics, with arguments about the nature of the American Constitution often residing somewhere near the center of my debates. Yet I've never delved into the document that -- outside the Constitution itself -- does more to illuminate the thinking of the Founders who created the government that we still live with today.

It's even more embarrassing because many of those debates have been with my conservative friend and collaborator Ben Boychuk -- and, well, he has read "The Federalist Papers." And he's drawn on them, not infrequently, to make his case against the arguments I've made. I've felt slightly overmatched at times, as a result.

In my defense, I don't think I'm alone in this. I might be wrong, but I've noted that smart conservative commentators tend to invoke "The Federalist Papers" far more often than smart liberal commentators. (Everybody quotes Tocqueville, but that's another project.) I don't think it's because of any anti-intellectualism on the part of liberals: I suspect that liberals -- while respecting much of the founding legacy -- don't feel nearly as chained to it conservatives do. Conservatives, I think, feel that if you can successfully invoke the Founders, you've probably won the argument. Liberals, on the other hand, consider the founding vision to be a critical part of the argument -- but not the trump card. And truth is, I'm sympathetic to the latter vision. I don't think of the Founders as "dead white males" but I do think they built a government for a society that was more rural, more racist, more homogeneous and much less egalitarian than today's.

Still, I feel like I'm missing a critical piece of political literacy. So starting today, I'm going to start reading my way through "The Federalist Papers." And I'll be documenting my journey here. I'm not sure if it matters, but I'll be using a Bantam Classics version of the collection, complete with an introduction by Garry Wills. (Which, yeah, he rubs elbows in liberal circles pretty extensively -- but he started out in the conservative tradition.) I'll update my progress very few days.

Let's be clear, though. I'm not an academic. (Obviously.) I'm guiding myself through this as I go along. So ... I might go down some blind alleys in this journey. We'll find out.

And who knows? Maybe I'll get some "Julie & Julia" style book-and-movie deal out of this gig, with the interweaving stories of me reading the book and Alexander Hamilton dying a bloody, painful death.

More likely I'll come out on the other side of this an Antonin Scalia-style originalist conservative. Anything could happen.

6 comments:

Glomarization said...

Well, the Federalist Papers (and the Constitution) are pretty darn clear that federal judges should not be put in their seats by the electorate, except indirectly through the executive and legislative branches.

Joel said...

You're getting ahead of me!

And fair enough. But the Constitution *can* be amended! Not that it should be -- I'm very open to being convinced to stay the course.

Ben said...

And it begins!

"Conservatives, I think, feel that if you can successfully invoke the Founders, you've probably won the argument. Liberals, on the other hand, consider the founding vision to be a critical part of the argument -- but not the trump card."

Not exactly. It has more to do with respecting the principles upon which the country was founded, understanding the republic as the Founders understood it, and making the case that preserving that understanding is tantamount to preserving America's liberties. But your description of the liberal take makes sense to me.

"I don't think of the Founders as 'dead white males' but I do think they built a government for a society that was more rural, more racist, more homogeneous and much less egalitarian than today's."

I disagree. They laid down a foundation that is as valid today as it was 230+ years ago. Maybe even more so. I agree. rather, with this, which was said on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:

"About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers."

-Calvin Coolidge, Philadelphia, July 5, 1926
http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=41

Joel said...

Re: Calvin Coolidge. That's a very nice passage. But he's talking about the Declaration of Independence here. Which is different -- as we know -- from the Constitution. Which, in its original form, fell ... short of the promises embodied in the Declaration.

And this might be an overstatement, but I'd wager that a big chunk of the progressive project over the last 200 years or so has been an effort to get our laws -- including the Constitution -- to match up a little more perfectly with the promise and promises of the Declaration.

So I can agree with just about everything Cal says there AND still think the Constitution -- as written, and as promoted in The Federalist Papers -- was built for a more racist, homogeneous, rural and less egalitarian society.

Ben said...

"That's a very nice passage. But he's talking about the Declaration of Independence here. Which is different -- as we know -- from the Constitution."

The natural rights principles of the former inform and undergird the latter. (There is ample evidence for this, and Madison says as much in Federalist 40.) The principle of inherent equality underlies and infuses our Constitution. As my friend Ken Masugi wrote years ago, "What equality means is limited government by consent and protection from arbitrary rules that make a mockery of the free elections required of government by consent. The basis for civil rights and voting rights is one — the Declaration of Independence's teaching of 'inherent equality.'"

What's more, there is ample evidence that much of the progressive project, going back to Wilson, TR, Croly, et. al., was aimed at removing the shackles of the Declaration and the Constitution.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now let me reiterate: Declaration and Constitution, not the same, but can't understand the latter in absence of the former.

Patrick said...

While reading the Papers, you need to also read the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalists gave reasons for not accepting the Constitution. Their reasons were predictive of where we find ourselves today.