Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Constitution 101 ... "The Federalist" ... American Exceptionalism

Long ago I attended various schools.

During those years, among other things, I studied both political science and the law.

To the best of my recollection (not being the most attentive student in class), "The Federalist," written between 1787 and 1788 by three of our Founding Fathers (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison), was never mentioned by any of my teachers along the way.

Only later did I become familiar with this most extraordinary series of 85 papers which argued persuasively and in great detail for the ratification of our Constitution by the individual states.

The Federalist is an outstanding historical and political document which covers relevant pieces of our American history, including the uniquely American federal system of government. It highlights our natural individual freedoms, and it also describes the structural foundation of our U.S. government, including the rationale for our system of (1) representative government, (2) separation of powers and (3) limited government.

The Federalist is all about what being part of We the People should mean to all of us as Americans.

From time to time, and even more in recent years, I've wondered why that wonderful document about our Constitution was never mentioned during my formal education.

Well, apparently I'm not the only one who wonders about such things.

Peter Berkowitz: Why Colleges Don't Teach the Federalist Papers is a timely and thought provoking editorial about "The Federalist" and its importance to all Americans. Here's what the editorial says in part:

"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.

The masterpiece of American political thought originated as a series of newspaper articles published under the pseudonym Publius in New York between October 1787 and August 1788 by framers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. The aim was to make the case for ratification of the new constitution, which had been agreed to in September 1787 by delegates to the federal convention meeting in Philadelphia over four months of remarkable discussion, debate and deliberation about self-government.

By the end of 1788, a total of 85 essays had been gathered in two volumes under the title The Federalist. Written at a brisk clip and with the crucial vote in New York hanging in the balance, the essays formed a treatise on constitutional self-government for the ages.

The Federalist deals with the reasons for preserving the union, the inefficacy of the existing federal government under the Articles of Confederation, and the conformity of the new constitution to the principles of liberty and consent. It covers war and peace, foreign affairs, commerce, taxation, federalism and the separation of powers. It provides a detailed examination of the chief features of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It advances its case by restatement and refutation of the leading criticisms of the new constitution. It displays a level of learning, political acumen and public-spiritedness to which contemporary scholars, journalists and politicians can but aspire. And to this day it stands as an unsurpassed source of insight into the Constitution's text, structure and purposes....

Most astonishing and most revealing is the neglect of The Federalist by graduate schools and law schools. The political science departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley—which set the tone for higher education throughout the nation and train many of the next generation's professors—do not require candidates for the Ph.D. to study The Federalist. And these universities' law schools (Princeton has no law school), which produce many of the nation's leading members of the bar and bench, do not require their students to read, let alone master, The Federalist's major ideas and main lines of thought.

Of course, The Federalist is not prohibited reading, so graduates of our leading universities might be reading it on their own. The bigger problem is that the progressive ideology that dominates our universities teaches that The Federalist, like all books written before the day before yesterday, is antiquated and irrelevant.

Particularly in the aftermath of the New Deal, according to the progressive conceit, understanding America's founding and the framing of the Constitution are as useful to dealing with contemporary challenges of government as understanding the horse-and-buggy is to dealing with contemporary challenges of transportation. . . .

And thus so many of our leading opinion formers and policy makers seem to come unhinged when they encounter constitutional arguments apparently foreign to them but well-rooted in constitutional text, structure and history. These include arguments about, say, the unitary executive; or the priority of protecting political speech of all sorts; or the imperative to articulate a principle that keeps the Constitution's commerce clause from becoming the vehicle by which a federal government—whose powers, as Madison put it in Federalist 45, are "few and defined"—is remade into one of limitless unenumerated powers.

By robbing students of the chance to acquire a truly liberal education, our universities also deprive the nation of a citizenry well-acquainted with our Constitution's enduring principles."

Discussion and Analysis

The Federalist is my absolute favorite book about government, U.S. history, politics and even human nature.

It's a timeless commentary and well reasoned argument about the special life we're privileged to live in America due to our system of government, all as set forth by our Founding Fathers.

Specifically, #10, #45, #46, #51 and #84 are my five favorites among the 85 papers.

Federalist #10 warns us all about the danger of factions or what today we often refer to as special interests. It helps to explain why our government is as screwed up as it is today. And that's because there are too many politicians serving only their limited constituency rather than serving We the People as a whole.

But I guess that's just a part of human nature at work, so we shouldn't be surprised. Government officials aren't angels and #51 makes that point strongly. As a result, we citizens must at all times remain vigilant and informed. After all, it is our country.

Federalist #51 outlines the case for separation of powers and why our federal system is an underlying bedrock principle of the American Constitution.  It tells us what we can expect from people who "represent" us in government.

Let's quote brief excerpts:

"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

And then #51 has this to say about our dual system of government and the relationship between the central government and the several states:

"There are, moreover,  two considerations particularly applicable to the federal system of America, which place that system in a very interesting point of view.

First.  In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government, and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Here a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself."

Federalist papers #45 and #46 in part concern the relationship and relative strengths between our central and state governments. How things have changed over the years!

Finally, #84 reveals why a Bill of Rights was deemed unnecessary. Of course, the first ten amendments were later adopted but only in order to assure ratification of the Constitution by the states. Not because they were needed by We the People.

Summing Up

The Federalist is well worth reading, in whole or in part, and I especially recommend #10 and #51.  Thereafter you may wish to tackle #45 and #46, followed by #84.

There are 85 papers in all, and each of them has something extremely worthwhile to say about our Constitution.

In sum, The Federalist represents a great original and historical source book about the U.S. Constitution and our then developing and soon to be exceptional and remarkable nation.

If interested, just bing or google any or all of the Federalist papers. You'll be glad you did.

Thanks. Bob.