Skip to comments.Our Second FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution
Posted on 01/20/2010 11:29:03 AM PST by Publius
There is tendency for modern Americans to think that there was overwhelming support for replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution and that the process was rapid and without serious opposition. The truth is quite different. Those against the Constitution spoke first and with great vehemence, and after three weeks Alexander Hamilton realized the tide was turning against him. Thus he sat down, first with John Jay, and then with James Madison, to write detailed responses in favor of the Constitution to get New Yorks ratifying convention to support the new document. These papers, published in the newspapers of the time, are known as the Federalist Papers. Those who opposed the new Constitution wrote pamphlets and newspaper articles that have been collected under the name Anti-Federalist Papers. Together, these writings define the debate over the Constitution.
At that time there was a vigorous adversarial press in America, and there was no line separating news reporting from editorial content. An American of the period subscribed to the newspaper that reflected his political prejudices. In New York, opinion grew so heated that supporters of one side would attack the offices of newspapers opposed to their view and smash the printing presses. Both sides engaged in this behavior, and the debate over the Constitution in New York City was a matter of mobs and blood, not refined debate in the drawing rooms of the citys great patroon families.
With the official end of the American Revolution only four years in the past, the willingness to shed blood over the great issues of the day had not abated. Those against the Constitution viewed the entire process as a coup detat. Granted, it was a very gentlemanly coup, for no one had been hanged yet! but they viewed the Constitutional Convention and its aftermath as a betrayal of the Spirit of 76".
It is this maelstrom of point and counterpoint that we wish to cover. After our successful FReeper Book Club on Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged, Billthedrill and I decided to cover the debate over the Constitution by a chronologically interleaved reading of the Federalist Papers along with certain Anti-Federalist Papers, thus to trace that point and counterpoint.
There have been several attempts to run serial threads on the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers at Free Republic over the years, most of which have petered out quickly.
Our proposal is to try a more comprehensive approach. Ralph Ketcham, in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates, printed a chronology of the publication of the various papers from both sides. Ketcham only cited certain Anti-Federalist Papers that were directly involved in the intellectual interchange between Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the various Anti-Federalist writers. He left out the rest of the massive Anti-Federalist Papers collection from Herbert Storings seven volumes from the University of Chicago, which is supposed to be definitive. We decided to follow Ketchams example.
Morton Borden has taken various Anti-Federalist Papers and cut them down to 85 short essays, which he sees as a counterpoint to the 85 Federalist Papers. But he has copyrighted his work, so we decided not to use his collection.
By limiting our use of the Anti-Federalist Papers to Ketchams chosen few, we felt we had something of reasonable scope.
The Problem for the Modern Reader
Punctuation standards of the late Eighteenth Century are quite different from today, and the constant stop-and-go is the biggest difficulty for the modern reader. Standards for the use of capitals and italics were also different. The extreme length of paragraphs from some writers presents a problem, although Internet versions occasionally have the editors break the paragraphs down to modern standards. We decided to use modern standards for punctuation, capitals and italics.
But we decided on a very different idea for presenting the text of the papers. The texts of the Bible are presented in chapter-and-verse, which permits scholars to engage in exegesis by citing a particular line of text as a reference. We decided to do this by super-scripting each sentence, and separating sentences by line breaks. To maintain the authors original paragraphing, we used three asterisks on a separate line to separate paragraphs. Here is a short sample. The following is a paragraph from Madisons Federalist #46.
Were it admitted, however, that the Federal government may feel an equal disposition with the State governments to extend its power beyond the due limits, the latter would still have the advantage in the means of defeating such encroachments. If an act of a particular State, though unfriendly to the national government, be generally popular in that State and should not too grossly violate the oaths of the State officers, it is executed immediately and, of course, by means on the spot and depending on the State alone. The opposition of the federal government, or the interposition of federal officers, would but inflame the zeal of all parties on the side of the State, and the evil could not be prevented or repaired, if at all, without the employment of means which must always be resorted to with reluctance and difficulty. On the other hand, should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.
This is what it looks like after reformatting into our semi-biblical style and modernized punctuation.
38 Were it admitted, however, that the federal government may feel an equal disposition with the state governments to extend its power beyond the due limits, the latter would still have the advantage in the means of defeating such encroachments.
39 If an act of a particular state, though unfriendly to the national government, be generally popular in that state and should not too grossly violate the oaths of the state officers, it is executed immediately and of course by means on the spot and depending on the state alone.
40 The opposition of the federal government, or the interposition of federal officers, would but inflame the zeal of all parties on the side of the state, and the evil could not be prevented or repaired, if at all, without the employment of means which must always be resorted to with reluctance and difficulty.
41 On the other hand, should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular states, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand.
42 The disquietude of the people, their repugnance and perhaps refusal to cooperate with the officers of the Union, the frowns of the executive magistracy of the state, the embarrassments created by legislative devices which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose in any state difficulties not to be despised; would form in a large state very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining states happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.
We avoid violence to the text but make it easier on the eye.
Essays to Accompany Each Paper
Up until now, threads on these papers featured the paper alone, with only a skeletal comment on the part of the poster. We propose to change that. Each thread will be accompanied by an essay written by the two of us along with proposed topics for discussion, and we will encourage FReepers to challenge our premises and improve the tenor of the discussion.
We will post two threads per week, every Monday and Thursday, starting February 1, for 55 weeks. We would ask those FReepers who wish to participate to add their names to this thread so that I may create a ping list for the project. Again, we will use the keyword freeperbookclub to mark these threads.
What is old has become new again. Its time to explore federalism and the philosophy of the Framers. The lessons of 1787 are just as valid today.
You’re going to have a lot of fun on February 1, when we dissect Centinel #1, Samuel Bryan’s artillery barrage against the new Constitution.
Add me to the list Publius. I’m glad to see the project started.
Yeah, ping me.
A very enthusiastic "YES!" from me. Sign me up. The semi-biblical references are absolutely genius. I cannot imagine the amount of work you two have put into this. Thanks for your efforts.
Add this one too!
Please add me to the list.
Count me in.
i’ll do it. I didn’t comment much last time, I don’t know if I will this time either.
Sign me up. Thanks, this looks like a great deal of work, but I am looking forward to it!
Please Pingeth me!
OKay, you hooked me ...
I’ll try and keep up with all y’all
Sign me up, please!
A very eye-opening (for me) moment was when someone (wish I could recall who it was!) replied to me that FR would have been a Federalist website.
I think that it's so difficult to match up things across time (modern conservatives who would have been against the Constitution back then are some of its most ardent defenders), but that was an excellent observation and probably why I sometimes find myself at odds with FReepers who are more big-government in their outlook.
Not to jump ahead of things, but I think that both sides were right. On one hand, having the Second Amendment written out might be the only reason the right hasn't been totally abrogated. But on the other hand, by enumerating rights, people have gotten the idea that only the Bill of Rights matters and that the Constitution "grants us rights."
Please keep me on the ping list.
What a great project! I swear the sky just turned blue since the last time I looked—which was right before reading your post. :-)
Thank you for your efforts.
For years I had experienced difficulties with 18th Century prose, earning many a headache trying to wrap my brain around the prose of geniuses written in a bygone style. The idea of America's Civic Religion having its own bible made up of Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers made sense if one could treat the text as though it were truly from the pens of the editors of the King James edition.
You're right in that it is a lot of really hard work. But once the prose is separated into chapter-and-verse and the punctuation is modernized, the prose flows like water in a mountain brook, especially Hamilton's contributions.
I've come to see Hamilton and Madison as kindred spirits and in different ways.
Hamilton started his life in business and then "read law" to qualify for public office. His contributions come across like those of a brilliant business lawyer, which at that time he had become. If I wanted to invite someone to a dinner party who could entertain a whole room full of people, I'd ask Hamilton.
Madison, like myself, was something of a history geek, and he comes across like the earnest student of history. If I wanted to have someone over for a beer and a conversation, I'd ask Madison. (Hamilton probably wouldn't shut up, and Madison only drank in moderation.)
This is becoming a wonderful project for myself and Billthedrill.
Please add me
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