Tag: federalist papers

Media, Heal Thyself

Today Politico Arena asks:

 Are reporters justified in being fed up over the shallowness of the presidential campaigns?

My response:

Oh, this is rich—the media complaining about the shallowness of the two campaigns! Paul Ryan gives a substantive convention speech, but what leads the news afterward, day in and day out? Clint Eastwood’s performance the next night. Todd Aiken makes a gaffe, and two weeks later the media is still obsessing over it. Romney makes a substantive trip abroad, but his alleged “gaffes” are about all that’s reported.

Politico’s Dylan Byers complains that presidential campaigns are supposed to be “infused with big ideas and historical import,” yet this contest is “so far defined by gaffes, cynicism, knife-fights and rapid-fire news cycles.” Whose fault is that? Who’s doing the “defining”? Even the so-called respectable media go barely an inch deep on “big ideas” with “historical import”—of which there is no shortage this year.

To think that the Federalist Papers appeared in the newspapers of the day. I’ll bet not one in ten of today’s journalists has ever read them! You can’t report what you don’t see. And you can’t see what you’re unprepared to recognize.

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On July 4, Remember to Keep Your Republic!

As America celebrates its independence, even we foreigners who live here have much to celebrate. (I’m a Soviet-born naturalized Canadian who’s lived in the United States my entire adult life—finally got my green card three years ago—and like most immigrants, do a job Americans won’t: defending the Constitution.)

Indeed, those of us who voluntarily chose to come here very much appreciate all that native-born Americans take for granted: the rule of law, equality under the law, self-government whose very limitation protects liberty, freedom of speech and religion, property rights, and enforceable contracts. It is these things that have allowed the United States to become the land of opportunity—which is why it’s so heartbreaking when the rule of law is undermined, self-government debased, and individual liberty subverted such as has been the case throughout the entire ObamaCare debacle.

In this 225th year of the Constitution—Cato will celebrate the anniversary at our Constitution Day Symposium in September—we all need to remember that our founding document, the codification of that grand experiment in self-government which began on July 4, 1776, cannot protect our liberties if we do not act to enforce it. Benjamin Franklin explained that what the Framers has created was “a Republic, if you can keep it.” How do we keep it? A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson is the perfect response: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

How will you demonstrate your vigilance? I’ll be doing so by speaking briefly about my favorite Federalist Paper, number 51 (“If men were angels…” at the Alexandria Tea Party’s Fourth of July Celebration. Hope to see you there, in person or in spirit!

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Did You Read the Federalist Papers in College? Grad School? Law School?

In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz says you probably didn’t. And it shows:

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of The Federalist for understanding the principles of American government and the challenges that liberal democracies confront early in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet despite the lip service they pay to liberal education, our leading universities can’t be bothered to require students to study The Federalist—or, worse, they oppose such requirements on moral, political or pedagogical grounds. Small wonder it took so long for progressives to realize that arguments about the constitutionality of ObamaCare are indeed serious.

Explains a lot, really.

On Federal Education, Think Progress Should Think Harder

Over on the Think Progress blog, Ian Millhiser accuses Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of never having read the Constitution. His grounds for the accusation? Coburn, citing Jefferson, doesn’t think that the Constitution gives the federal government authority to provide such things as Pell Grants and student loans.

Writes Millhiser:

Sen. Coburn might want to try actually read the Constitution before he pretends to know what it allows. Article I provides that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” a grant of power that unambiguously empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them on programs that are broadly beneficial to American welfare — such as education.

Moreover, while Coburn’s reference to Thomas Jefferson is true in the narrowest sense of the term, it also betrays Coburn’s ignorance of constitutional history. During the Washington Administration, Jefferson and James Madison led a minority coalition which believed that Congress’ constitutional power to spend money was too narrow to support spending programs such as the First Bank of the United States. President Washington, however, rejected their arguments. Moreover, while Coburn is correct that President Jefferson briefly referenced his narrow view of the Constitution in his 1806 State of the Union, Jefferson was an extreme outlier by this point in American history. Even Madison parted ways with Jefferson by the time Madison became president in 1809.

This might be a classic pot-kettle situation. At the very least, it is utterly impossible to say that the general welfare clause “unambiguously” empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them – with massive strings attached, of course – on education. Indeed, that the general welfare clause does anything other than introduce the specific, enumerated powers that follow it was expressly rejected by Madison in Federalist no.  41, in which he wrote:

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

The general welfare clause, quite simply, confers no power – it just explains why the specific powers that follow it were given.

But didn’t Alexander Hamilton – who had Washington’s ear – reject that notion? Well yes, in his 1791 Report on Manufactures he suggested that the federal government could do almost anything as long as it was done in the interest of the entire nation. But his report was not only shelved by Congress at the time, Hamilton’s argument was quite different from what he wrote in the Federalist Papers. Though speaking  specifically of the taxation and  ”necessary and proper” clauses, in Federalist no. 33  Hamilton wrote that seemingly broad powers were given to Congress only to execute “specified powers:”

[I]t may be affirmed with perfect confidence that the constitutional operation of the intended government would be precisely the same, if the clauses were entirely obliterated, as if they were repeated in every article. They are only declaratory of a truth which would have resulted by necessary and unavoidable implication from the very act of constituting a federal government, and vesting it with certain specified powers [italics added]. This is so clear a proposition, that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity.

How about the argument that Jefferson’s quaint small-government beliefs were way out of date by 1806? Well, they sure weren’t on education.

For one thing, it is notable that President Washington probably had a more expansive view of the federal government’s role in education than one might expect. He wanted a national university, after all. But he didn’t get it – that notion was well out of sync with the limited federal government most Americans wanted. 

Next, Coburn was actually quoting Jefferson from Jefferson’s call for federal involvement in education, an idea that went nowhere because it would have constituted more federal intrusion – not less – than most Americans wanted. Indeed, Jefferson was generally on the big-government fringe of his time when it came to education. He only got the University of Virginia after four decades of trying, and never got the rudimentary public schooling system he wanted for Virginia.  Most people at the time simply didn’t think government’s role – especially the federal government’s – was to run education.

One last bit of information demonstrates just how truly mistaken Millhiser is in his attack on education ”tenthers.” In 1943 – when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president – the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House, published The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution. It noted in a section titled “Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution:”

 Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

Even FDR’s people, apparently, didn’t find that the Constitution ”unambiguously” gave Washington authority to involve itself in education – quite the opposite!

In light of all this, it is clearly not Mr. Coburn who can reasonably be accused of having never read the Constitution. Indeed, not only has he almost certainly read it, it seems he has even taken the time to understand it.

Constitution Day

On September 17, 1787, the Framers of the Constitution of the United States of America, having completed their work over that long hot summer, sent the document out to the states with the hope that conventions in the states, pursuant to Article VII, would see fit to ratify it. Nine months later, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so, making the Constitution effective between those states. Shortly thereafter, three more states ratified the document; and Rhode Island, the last, did so on May 29, 1790.

The Constitution was not perfect – what human creation is? – not least in its oblique recognition of slavery, believed necessary to ensure union. But it provided for amendment, as with the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the Civil War Amendments several decades later, which ended slavery and brought the Bill of Rights to bear upon the states. All things considered, especially when we look at the rest of the world, the Constitution has served us well, enabling us to prosper in greater freedom than most have ever enjoyed.

Over the past century, however, we’ve allowed governments at all levels to grow far more than the Framers ever would have imagined the Constitution allowed, until today the modern redistributive and regulatory state is everywhere upon us. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers of the new government would be “few and defined,” leaving us largely free to plan and live our own lives. If we’re to restore that Constitution of limited government, it will take more than courts and “politics as usual” to do so. We’ve got to take the Constitution seriously not just on Constitution Day but on every day. Fortunately, there are stirrings in the nation today that suggest that ever more Americans are doing so. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

A Warning Label — on the U.S. Constitution

Knowing of my interest in oddball warning labels, reader Clark S. alerts me to this $4.95 paperback copy of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Articles of Confederation, which contains the following advisory (readers may need to scroll to the “Copyright” section, depending on how the page displays)

© Wilder Publications 2008

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.

A bit of Googling revealed that the same publisher slaps the same boilerplate language on other reprints including the Federalist Papers and The Great Heresies by Hilaire Belloc. Do they perhaps put it on all works composed before a certain cut-off date? Wilder Publications is described here as in the business of “publishing print-on-demand books (mostly self-help and public domain reprints).”

I am happy to report that the Cato Institute’s excellent pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution daringly omits any warning and lets readers take the Constitution straight up.

Wisdom of the Anti-Federalists

Everybody reads the Federalist Papers. (I hope!) Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, they are generally regarded as the most profound collection of political theory ever written in America. And since they deeply inform our understanding of our fundamental law, they are essential to understanding the American version of limited, constitutional government. But the ratification of the Constitution was a close thing in 1787–89, and the Anti-Federalists (who said that actually they were the federalists, while their opponents were nationalists) also had some insightful things to say about liberty and limited government.

Now the invaluable Liberty Fund has made available a collection of anti-federalist writings, The Anti-Federalist Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle. The publisher says:

The Anti-Federalist Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle makes available for the first time a one-volume collection of Anti-Federalist writings that are commensurate in scope, significance, political brilliance, and depth with those in The Federalist. Included in this volume as an appendix is a computational and contextual analysis that addresses the question of the authorship of two of the most well-known pseudonymous Anti-Federalist writings, namely, Essays of a Federal Farmer and Essays of Brutus. Also included are the records of Smith’s important speeches at the New York Ratifying Convention, some shorter writings of Smith’s from the ratification debate, and a set of private letters Smith wrote on constitutional subjects at the time of the ratification struggle.

One reason it’s important to study the ideas of the Anti-Federalists was offered by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism:

Most of the Amendments comprising the Bill of Rights restricted the national government’s direct authority over its citizens. Only one section dealt with the relationship between the state and central governments; the 10th Amendment “reserved” to the states or the people all powers not “delegated to the United States by the Constitution.” Nothing better illustrates that, whereas the Anti-Federalists had lost on the ratification issue, they had won on the question of how the Constitution would operate. The Constitution had not established a consolidated national system of government as most Federalists had at first intended, but a truly federal system, which is what the Anti-Federalists had wanted. In simpler terms, the Federalists got their Constitution, but the Anti-Federalists determined how it would be interpreted.

In a world where it’s easy to find a “Dirty Dozen” of Supreme Court decisions that have expanded government and eroded freedom, that may be hard to believe. But it’s important to read both halves of early American debate over the Constitution in order to understand the foundations of our system.