Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tsai reviews The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers (1799) is reviewed by Robert L.Tsai, American University.

Beginning in the fall of 1787, a series of pamphlets were published separately in an effort to stimulate popular support for ratification of the proposed Constitution; counter-publications soon followed; and a rich debate ensued. These documents have now been published in a single edited volume, making it available to researchers, activists, and amateur political theorists. Now everyone can pull out his or her own copy of the Federalist Papers to dispute some arcane point of constitutional law or history. Unfortunately, this is about the most that can be said in favor of the new volume.1

The bad news is that the writings themselves are mostly indecipherable. There is some effort to draw on classical republican thought, but most of it is gibberish and gets Rousseau horribly wrong (it would take me too long to get into this).2 Purely from the standpoint of the art of persuasion, the authors’ incessant references to "the people" are both distracting and self-defeating: "My people" think this and are correct because they are full of virtue; "your people" show no semblance of proper upbringing and keep misconstruing what "my people" are saying. It’s all too hard to keep track of.

I wish that were all. The Federalists’ ideas are marred by a basic flaw: they are creatures of their time. But ideas cannot ever be fully separated from the rich context in which they arose.3

What more need be said? One has to wonder what was going on in the head of the editor who thought this volume was a good idea.

As I read, certain details fell by the wayside as I honed in on a central question that might yield the secrets of this tome: Who is "Publius"? The name is obviously shorthand for a man, or a conglomeration of men, likely white and almost certainly of the heterosexual persuasion. Come on! "Publius" talks to "Brutus," and occasionally someone named "Cato" or "Federal Farmer" chimes in. Where is "Prisca" or "Junia"? Where are "Pasion" and "Onesimus"? The entire exercise is little more than nostalgia for an ancient men’s club. Some may find it unfair to judge the authors’ ideas by our own modern ones, but I won’t let that stop me (How else am I going to fill this space?).

Let me say something about the substance of the book.4 The authors’ defense of the presidency is most ridiculous of all. It says of the newly created office: "if . . . there be a resemblance to the king of Great Britain, there is not less a resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York."5 What rubbish! If you wish to have a king like other nations, just say so, rather than engage in a kind of mealy-mouthed, "He’s-not-a-king-but-at-least-he’s-not-Ghengis-Khan." Later, the authors say that the powers of the office "would exceed that of the Governor of New York." Whew. At least that’s clarified.

One final thought: the book would be impossible to teach. Who has time to read all of these extravagant ideas? Now if the authors could have taken a red pen to their work or if the editor had done us that favor, and perhaps started with papers 32, 42, 51, 78, 81, and 86 instead of 1-2, then perhaps we could have something usable in the classroom. Come to think of it, they could have just skipped the rest.6 I can’t recommend the volume with less enthusiasm. But what do I know? I just teach the stuff.

1. Granted, I skimmed the preface, stared hard at one or two papers, and thumbed through the rest. I still can’t believe there isn’t a conclusion!
2. Pick a Rousseau scholar, any Rousseau scholar. Truth be told, I don’t really feel like doing this just now.
3. But see Robert L. Tsai, Eloquence and Reason: Creating a First Amendment Culture (2008) (arguing, inter alia, that ideas can be divorced from their moment of origin).
4. Or else this review will never see the light of day.
5. Federalist No. 69.
6. Ira C. Lupu, “The Most-Cited Federalist Papers,” 15 Constitutional Commentary 403 (1998) (arguing that papers 32, 42, 51, 78, and 81 are the most cited by the Supreme Court). I have to cite to at least one work beyond my own. This should do the trick.