Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Federalist Papers: Chapter 1; Setting the Stage

I'm reading the Federalist Papers for a couple of reasons.

First, there's this article from Time's Richard Stengel, in which he concludes that the Constitution is like the Pirate Code; it's really more of a guideline than a set of laws limiting the powers of the Federal government. That article was quickly followed by this piece which shows that Stengel has some major factual errors regarding the Constitution. These fundamental errors concerning the meaning of the Constitution are widely shared by the American public, particularly by our politicians, and form the basis for the extreme growth in the power and scope of the federal government.

Next, a recent survey by Newsweek showed that most Americans are woefully ignorant of our own history, including the principles of our government. Sadly, our elected representatives in Washington scored even worse than the general population. The department of Education reports that only 12% of high school kids are proficient in US history. If we don't know our own history, or the rules of our government, then how can we hold the folks in Washington accountable?

Finally, Glenn Beck has released a 'translation' of the Federalist Papers that claims to update the language of the originals while preserving the meaning. I read a few critiques of the book, and then read the indicated passages of the original, and found that the critics were right and there were significant errors in the paraphrasing. While these errors did not substantially alter the meaning of the passages in question, they were enough to discourage me from getting the book.

But I think Beck is on the right track on trying to get Americans interested in the founding documents of our government, and just as importantly, the reasoning behind those documents. The arguments we're having today over the scope and power of the Federal government are nearly identical to those that went on during the ratification process. If we knew how the framers thought, and why they wrote the Constitution as they did, it just might keep us from doing significant damage to our founding principles.

So I've armed myself with online versions of the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers as well as the text of the US Constitution and over the next few weeks, I'm going to work my way through both sides of the argument.

The first thing we have to realize before we get started is what each side was hoping to achieve. It strikes me as ironic that folks like Beck, Limbaugh, and Coulter use the Federalist Papers to support their arguments for a limited government since the Federalists were the big government proponents of their day. The papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, argued for the Constitution because it established a strong federal government, while the anti-federalists, represented by Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, and Thomas Jefferson among others, favored a weaker federal government, with more power reserved to the Sovereign States. It is a measure of how much the federal government has increased its power that today's small government proponents work towards a return to the limited government spoken of in the Federalist papers.

One more thing; while the Federalist papers were conceived and written in an organized fashion, the Anti-Federalist Papers is more or less a compendium of arguments made in response to the Federalist papers. Like the Federalist Papers, there were multiple authors, but unlike them, there was limited coordination between them. The correspondence in numbering is an editorial device added after the fact, to allow the reader to compare the arguments on each side of the topic.

I'm not going to include the text of each paper but I will link to them. I'll provide an outline or summary of the major points; quote the highlights of each; and give you my thoughts on the papers, for whatever that might be worth. With 85 papers to go through, I expect this project to take a significant amount of time, but I believe the investment will be well worth it.

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