Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't Trust Those Radicals

I'm happy to know that the American documents which are exceeded only by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as guideposts to our form of government are still alive and well and in recent publication. Those documents are called The Federalist Papers, although the actual title is The Federalist--A Collection of Essays in Favour of the New Constitution.

The new edition has a very prominent "warning" right after the title page. "This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work." Now just what the hell is that supposed to mean? If this is a textbook for sixth-graders, I have my doubts that most of the parents have read the Papers in the first place, and I suspect they are wholly unqualified to "guide" their children at all.

If the book is being published for high school students, then the warning may have a certain amount of validity, since too many high school students haven't been given any genuine education in American history, critical thinking, or something as simple as adult perspective. And finally, if the publication is aimed at college students, why do they need to be told the obvious? Shouldn't they already be aware that words written by 18th Century Enlightenment figures might sound a bit strange to the modern ear?

The book is indeed a "product of its time." But then so is the New Testament. How does that prove that it does not "reflect the same values as if it were written today?" The publishers confuse substance with style. This isn't a collection of scientific essays proving the world is flat or containing recipes for converting lead into gold. Some ideas are timeless, as are the values which go with them. Leftists and liberal Democrats are constantly railing about the nation being run by the concepts of old men who died over two hundred years ago. It's not "progressive," after all. They have been trying for decades to convince Americans that the eternal truths contained in great documents of the past are "so yesterday."

How about this for an idea? Let the readers get a decent education, learn how to think, and then read The Papers without editorial hints that the authors' views should be read as if they were archaic parochialists? Those crazy old men managed to put together a document (based largely on the arguments contained in The Papers) which created a constitutional republic of enduring brilliance. In addition, the authors recognized that they were men, not gods, and provided for changing the document when it failed to live up to its purposes. They got some things wrong, and they've largely been corrected. Mostly, they got things right, and the longest-enduring republic in history has been the result.

Race is an issue that most definitely should be considered while reading The Papers. Many of the Founders found slavery to be anathema, but made a Faustian bargain with slave-holders in the Southern States in order to put a workable government together. They knew the issue would have to be addressed at some time in the future, but most likely didn't foresee the bloody toll that would be taken to end the abominable practice. Thus, reading The Papers (as well as The Declaration and the original form of the Constitution) without considering race, then and now, would be a dangerous exercise in foolishness. But the publishers are hinting that the concept of equality under the law itself might be archaic. And that is just plain wrong.

I've read The Papers many times over the years, and I'll probably take the opportunity to read them again in the near future (I have no idea what happened to my old copy). In fact, now I must read them again. Even after all those readings, I still don't remember the parts about sexuality or gender or interpersonal relations. I had no idea the documents were so juicy. On the other hand, if the warning gets some young people who might be looking for the justification for gay marriage or some other "modern cause" to read The Papers, I might withdraw my objection. Maybe they'll learn something (if they aren't guided down the primrose path ahead of the reading by their radical uneducated educators).

There are some very radical ideas contained in The Papers. Things like the concept of ordered liberty. And a union of independent sovereign states held together by a federal government which had extremely limited power and a few clearly-defined obligations. The authors advocated limited government in order to allow the people themselves to determine their own destinies under a multiplicity of government forms which would protect their freedom to do so. The Constitution established certain basic freedoms from which no state was allowed to deviate, and everything else was left to the states or the people thereof. These concepts are very dangerous for young minds who have been conditioned to believe that the government is the sole caretaker of their rights and will therefore make all their decisions for them.

The Founders provided for a process which was difficult but not insurmountable to make changes which were forgotten or mistaken in the original document. This was to allow the people to accomplish change without being jerked around by the will of temporary majorities. So when it finally became clear to men that women are their full equals (and always had been), the Constitution was amended to give the women the right to vote that they should have had all along. But interestingly, even before that time, several states already allowed women to vote in their state elections, and the federal government, properly, kept its hands off them. Is this the "sex part" the publishers were talking about? Hmmm, I don't think so.

I will point out one area where I think James Madison (the principal writer of The Papers along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) did get it wrong. Not the concept, mind you, the reality. Madison believed that a lifetime office-holding federal judiciary would always show self-restraint and dutifully and thoughtfully apply the bedrock Constitution in testing any government law and/or policy for its appropriateness. Anti-Federalist Jefferson got that one right when he called the judiciary provisions (Article III) seriously flawed and that it would create "the most dangerous branch of government." Historically-speaking, Jefferson was wrong for most of the history of the Republic, but who but a Jefferson could foresee an FDR-inspired or Warren Court? Madison believed that it was apparent that each branch of government would have its own independent natural authority to determine the constitutionality of its acts.

Madison argued, rather convincingly at the time, in Federalist 81 that "The authority [opponents say] of the proposed Supreme Court of the United States, which is to be a separate and independent body, will be superior to that of the legislative. The power of construing the laws according to the spirit the Constitution will enable that court to mould them into whatever shape it may think proper; especially as its decisions will not be in any manner subject to the revision or correction of the legislative body. This is as unprecedented as it is dangerous. The errors and usurpations of the Supreme Court of the United States will be uncontrollable and remediless [they say]. This, upon examination, will be found to be made up altogether of false reasoning upon misconceived fact. There is not a syllable in the plan under consideration which directly empowers the national courts to construe the laws according to the spirit of the Constitution."

And Madison was right, at least until 1803 when Chief Justice John Marshall found an Act of Congress unconstitutional in Marbury v Madison. Even at that, though, the Supreme Court was very restrained in finding acts of Congress unconstitutional (or writing their own versions of the Constitution to interpret the law so as to make an unconstitutional act appear constitutional) for about another 150 years.

I imagine that James Madison and Earl Warren have had some very interesting conversations in heaven. And I'm guessing as well that John Marshall has a few things to add himself.


Tennessee Jed said...

An excellent post, Hawk. It has been a long time since I read any Federalist Papers and doubt I ever read all of them. Your post is prompting me to do. Thanks!

Individualist said...

"This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work."


Since Karl Marx expressed sentiments of anti-Semitism and many of the socialists of his day embraced the eugenics movement don’t you think this warning would be better placed in the front of the communist manifesto.

Methinks I spy a casse of liberal projection here……. Hmmm……………..

Unknown said...

Tennessee: It's probably the lawyer/historian in me, but even with my first reading in high school I found The Papers to be exciting reading. Imagine, founding a government unlike anything that went before it. The subdued excitement of Madison, Alexander and the others came through on every page.

Unknown said...

Individualist: You're absolutely right, and I would add Mein Kampf to the list. Some values are and ought to be eternal. Fad and fashion come and go because they are ephemeral.

Situational ethics (what we used to call "the ice cream theory of values") erodes and distorts basic values. "Thou shalt not murder" was a value 5,000 years ago, 2,000 years ago, and five minutes ago. Murder doesn't become a good thing just because a large minority of people might think otherwise. Changing the wording to "Thou shalt not murder unless the state thinks it would be better for everybody" is not an improvement on the eternal value. What's to discuss?

AndrewPrice said...

This sounds like just more political correctness. So now anything that hasn't come out of Algore's mouth is a product of its time and requires a warning label?

Of course, these are the same people who go back and re-edit movies and cut things out of cartoons that are no longer PC. In fact, they put a damn warning on the front of Sesame Street -- and that's only 30 years old.

BevfromNYC said...

This isn't unique to our time. It was common practice 17th Century, to change the endings of Shakespeare's tragedies because they were too dark.

However, this goes to the heart of a major problem today - the inability to put understand whatever within historical context. What are they teaching in schools these days that we have to put warnings on The Federalist Papers? Certainly not critical thinking.

StanH said...

Very inspirational Lawhawk! I read your piece and went to the bookshelf and pulled my copy of “The Federalist Papers,” and like Jed will read the whole work now.

It’s miraculous in my opinion the amazing group of men that gathered to fight a Revolution, wrestle through the “Articles of Confederation” and the eventual writing of the Constitution the most important governing document ever written IMO.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Anything that comes out of Al Gore's mouth does deserve a warning, and we don't need to wait for historical context. "Caution--the contents of this brew will cause headaches, mental illness, and the destruction of your entire economy."

I didn't know about the Sesame Street warnings. What were they warning against--prejudice against green creatures?

Unknown said...

StanH: They were probably the greatest gathering of Enlightenment figures in history. As I mentioned to Tennessee, the beauty of reading The Papers is they are not boring, dusty old treatises. They seem to have a life that can speak directly to those of us reading them today.

Unknown said...

Bev: They want to change the ending of The Papers because they're too bright. Don't forget that our revisionists think limited government and individual rights are dangerous concepts. Timothy McVeigh wasn't crazy enough for them, so they made sure everyone knew he owned a copy of the writings of Tom Paine. The concept of standing up against a tyrannical government is one of those dangerous outdated values.

Kids: Discuss this with your parents (who are handing 40% to 60% of their income to the government, involuntarily).

Individualist said...


As I think about this "warning" my guess is that it will not be the parents who discuss the nature of the founder's racism with them and the cultural morays of the time.

Rather it will be the teachers who do it under the guise of telling kids to mention it to Mom and Dad only after they have instructed the kiddies what to think and what to tell Mom and Dad. Knowing full well that most of the kids won't worry about it.

Unknown said...

Individualist: I wonder if they'll require teachers to read The Papers before they teach them. It's more likely they'll just get the Teacher's Union summary, with foreword by SEIU's Andy Stern and pseudo-historian Howard Zinn.

Then they'll have the instructions on how to teach the children to tell their parents the true meaning of the sinister Papers written by out-of-date, white, racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnocentric, natural rights-slinging anomolies in powdered wigs. Values? Pfffft.

Writer X said...

A warning on The Federalist Papers for students but no problem in airing videos produced by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore?

I remember spending maybe a day on the Federalist Papers in a required "Government" class. The teacher was a bore and a public school drone. The subject matter was always presented something like this: "Just read it; it's required." I didn't realize then the importance of these documents.

Unknown said...

WriterX: And no promise to "serve," either.

Things were a little different for us old folks. We got the intro in sixth grade. Then we got a full airing in our "civics" class in our senior year of high school, complete with a local judge to expand on some of the themes. And believe it or not, we worked on The Papers for a full week at Berkeley in Poli Sci and nearly the same amount of time in American Revolutionary War history. We were expected to analyze, and I remember at least one exam on them.

And here's the part you'll find hard to believe. In each case, we were expected to understand how influential they were in the creation of the first and longest-lasting constitutional republic in history. Not one of those instructors ever suggested that there was anything stale or out-of-date about those documents. Things were different in the ancient world of my youth.

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