Monday, May 17, 2010

Federalist Interlude: On the Perils of Public Autodidactism

Here's the problem with a project like live-blogging your way through the Federalist Papers -- it quickly becomes apparent to everybody else how much you might not know. In a classroom, you can mostly hide -- and when the moments come to prove your knowledge, well, often those tests are literally tests, and the results of them remain between you and your instructor.

Here, I'm liable to embarrass myself before literally tens of people. Some of them my friends.

I mention this because several people -- Glomarization in the comments, another friend behind the scenes -- have gently suggested that perhaps I'm reading the Federalist Papers in a bit of a vacuum: That I'm not really accounting for or explaining how badly the Articles of Confederation (America's constitution before the Constitution) were broken while I toss around insults like "douchebag" at Alexander Hamilton and "strawman" at John Jay.

And, well, they're right.

Part of this, I think, is a problem of my own expectations: I knew that the Federalist Papers were authored, basically, in support of ratifying the new Constitution. And the new Constitution was created, basically, because those Articles of Confederation weren't really working all that well for the new United States. So I guessed -- incorrectly? correctly? -- that part of the process of persuading the public to ratify the Constitution would involve a little bit of comparison. Not just "This new Constitution is awesome!" but "This new Constitution is awesome -- and here how it's better than the old Articles!"  In other words, I think I expected the context to reveal itself somewhat.

Which is perhaps fine for me as a reader. Maybe less fine for those of you who kindly bother to follow me on this little journey.

The other part of the problem is this: I don't have a teacher in this process. A classroom instructor can guide you through a text, providing context and information along the way. I don't have that; I'm improvising. In my defense: I've got a copy of "The Antifederalist Papers" open side-by-side with my copy of "The Federalist Papers." Additionally, I've spent considerable time with each chapter trying to Google my way to contextual knowledge.

Absent that, though, my knowledge of the Articles boils down to a 20-year-old drive-by from basic civics class: In those days, the United States was led by a weak Congress with no power to tax or, really, lead the country in a unified direction: The states possessed more power in this configuration than they do now. States didn't necessarily respect the laws and regulations of their neighboring states. It was a bit chaotic.

And ... that's about it. Which, for this project, probably isn't enough.

The smart thing to do right now would probably be to abandon this project, or at least the public portion of it. But lordy, that's not what the Bloggy Age is about! Frankly, I'm doing this in public in  large part because I hope I'll get some  pushback and education from my knowledgeable friends. I'll hazard looking stupid, because I figure that's the best way for me to get smarter. It's either that, or go back to college. And I ain't got time for that.

So onward ho. We'll return to "The Federalist Papers" tomorrow.

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