Tuesday, December 8, 2009

One United People

I’ve read several books on the Founding Fathers this past year. In particular I wanted to learn more about Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. I had already read the big tome “John Adams” a few years ago...excellent book, if you have the time. David McCullough poured through all of the letters known to exist that were written by or to John Adams in order to write that book. Apparently some of our Founding Fathers were very prolific letter writers. I only wish I could write that much. Thomas Jefferson is an interesting character because he was so young when it began. He wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while in his mid twenties. Thomas Paine is peculiar in that he came from England literally just a year or two before he starting writing his booklets to stir up support for the independence movement against his home country. He seemed to be zealous in all he did throughout his life, but had a caustic personality that kept his friend count to a minimum (and alienated those he had pretty quickly). He was not a “fancy” writer like Adams or Jefferson, but he was a good one that spoke in a clear and passionate voice that resonated with many people.

The book I just finished was “One United People,” a detailed commentary by Edward Millican on the entire 85 essays of “The Federalist.” The Federalist is a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the pseudonym of Publius and published in a few newspapers around New York in order to help with the ratification of the newly signed Constitution. They were written over the course of 8 months or so, starting in October 1787, just after the Constitution Convention that summer had passed a new document binding the states together under a stronger central government than the original plan under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had left extensive power with the states, and they were hampering anything getting done on a national level (like repaying the debt from the Revolutionary War, or maintaining an army or navy). Trade was also a big issue, as the states were starting to impose tariffs on each other and squabble about economic concerns. There was a grave fear that European countries would soon take control of various states and cause the new country to fracture apart. The new Constitution addressed this problem with the creation of a strong central government, essentially placing all sovereignty at the national level and making the state governments completely subordinate to the new central government. The Federalist essays were written to inflame passion for the Constitution and rebut the arguments of the anti-Federalists, and were not specifically intended to be a complete and polished masterpiece of intellectual discourse. In fact, they might not have actually swayed the legislators of New York to ratify the new Constitution. However, with their publication as a bound book in late 1788, they became the foremost treatise of political thought from America. They are still used today as a reference for interpreting the Constitution, as it is the best collection of essays on what the Founding Fathers might have been thinking when they originally wrote the law of the land.

The argument in One United People is that the Federalist papers provide a clear and unwavering defense of nationalism and a strong central government. Hamilton and Jay were certainly nationalists who didn’t want to leave any power with the state governments, except to manage local affairs. Even these few duties of the states were at risk of being taken away, as the Federalist writers often stated that the federal government should expand its scope as local issues become national concerns. Madison is the only one of the three authors who might be suspect as a strong nationalist, particularly his “fragmented society” article (the famous No. 10) that argues in support of competing special interests as a necessary part of the deliberations of the national government. This is not, however, a defense of states’ rights and a call for a weak central government, and Millican repeatedly shows other places in Madison’s essays as Publius that call for a strong central government and a very limited role for the states. Overall, the Federalist shows that the Founding Fathers wanted the new government under the Constitution to be the only sovereign entity of the United States of America, and to put an end to the infighting that was developing between the states in the period immediately following the Revolutionary War.

So, for those that want to call up the ghosts of the Founding Fathers to argue against a strong central government, specifically for addressing domestic issues like health care and economic regulation, I think that you are mistaken. I think that most of the Founding Fathers would be fine with the current state of the union.

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