Friday, January 27, 2012

The Federalist Papers as Guide to the Constitution?

Reminding us that "opponents of the Constitution feared that the document would prove an instrument for the incremental establishment of a centralized dictatorship over the people," Prof. Clyde N. Wilson minces no words arguing that "in interpretation we ought to be guided by what the proponents of the Constitution plainly said it intended" — The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution. An excerpt:
    Third-string "political philosophers" and "Constitutional scholars," and even learned jurists, have made an icon out of The Federalist, but it is only one of many discussions of the Constitution. It was a partisan document designed to overcome the objections of New York, and was not very convincing to its audience since ratification passed in New York by the narrowest possible margin Furthermore, it discusses the Constitution as it was merely a proposal under consideration and not the Constitution as ratified by the people of the States, who made their intentions clear in the undisputable language of the 10th Amendment. The authors – Madison, Hamilton, and Jay – were all disappointed that the Constitution did not centralize power as much as they would have liked, yet realized what they had to say to win over the majority. On the part of Alexander Hamilton, contributions to The Federalist were outright dishonest, because once he got into power he worked to do all sorts of things that he claimed the Constitution did not authorize.

    The Federalist, which we see cited all the time as the key to the Constitution is speculation and was never ratified by anybody. But handicapped thinkers read Madison’s philosophical ruminations, nearly all of which have been proved superficial and wrong, and imagine themselves participating in deep thoughts about government and learning about the true Constitution. This is part of the long-established practice of treating the Constitution as something sacred handed down by divine wisdom rather than understanding it by its real history.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Pints in NYC said...

Just because not everyone was won over by the arguments made in the Federalist(s)doesn't discredit them as worthy sources of insight into the political theory of the Constitution.

The indictment against taking Madison seriously is rather shameful. While some of the Federalist papers were clearly better than others, let us not forget that they were not all by the same author.

And when read in light of the history of political philosophy, and beyond, we can see that some of the Federalist papers (like 10 and 51) are in fact quite good works.

I especially like 51. We clearly see Plato, Montesquieu, and (somehow if you know where to look) even Francis de Sales!

True, we should not make the Constitution an idol. And it'd be wise to avoid the silly hubris of West Cost Straussians in deifying the Founders. We should, instead, look at a fuller and more comprehensive approach, and at younger ages - including reading the Anti-Federalist papers.

But methinks the Federalists have a rightful place in the cannon.

January 28, 2012 at 8:23 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Wilson makes a good point here but what he says does not really undermine The Federalist as a guide to understanding the Constitution. The Federalist is part of the Ratification debates that occurred around the Constitution, as such it works quite nicely to explain many of the issues that were part of the discussion and debate around Ratification.

Much of the damage to our constitutional order caused by an overly creative view of the Constitution comes not from Hamilton, Madison and Jay, but from the opponents of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists, who often made outlandish claims about the Constitution's authority, only to see their arguments used later to support assertions of power that the supporters of the Constitution never made. Forest MacDonald has written about this -- that the seeds of an expansive view of government power rests not with The Federalist or the Federalist Party, but with the Anti-Federalists and later the Jeffersonians.

Remember, it was the Jeffersonians who believed that the Constitution should not stand in the way of the federal government's assertion of power in light of their understanding of the national interest. That's how we got the Louisiana country, after all, under that ultimate Jeffersonian (and liar), Thomas Jefferson.

January 28, 2012 at 11:38 PM  

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