Are you ready to read The Federalist Papers with me? Have you been humming lines from the musical Hamilton? I always ask my students to tackle the most difficult reading projects first. Let me give you the literature pointers that I give all of my students. An abridged version is acceptable if you are looking for a general overview, a more complete education, are short on time, or have a short attention span. I am not one of those snobs that scorns abridging a couple of pages of Dicken’s descriptions, Cervantes’ rants, or Dostoevsky’s rabbit trails.
I also recommend that you use the best translation available and the most modern English version available. That is not always the free one on Kindle. Spend $4 or $5 to really enjoy the experience. You do that every time you go to the movie theater. Trust me, this will be a much more valuable investment.
Let’s read together a significant work of non-fiction that should be read by every American, The Federalist Papers. These little gems, a collection of persuasive essays written by some of our founding fathers, were written to convince the people of the state of New York to vote in favor of the proposed United States Constitution by explaining each disputed article and why it was necessary for the proper function of the union. James Madison, architect of the Constitution, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton each contributed. We read them now to know how to interpret our constitution, why certain provisions were included or left out, and what issues and problems were anticipated.
Some of the papers are more relevant today than others, so let’s pick a few and dive in. The Avalon Project from Yale has most significant historical documents related to law available right here on their website.
The best place to start is with Federalist Paper No. 1, which states the purpose for those obviously persuasive essays. Hamilton does several things here. In paragraph 1 he asks if a people, particularly this people, can self-govern. In paragraph 3 he asks the reader to keep an open mind in considering his arguments. Pause when you get to paragraph 4. This paragraph in particular seems very relevant to today’s debates on TV and over social media. If the current situation of “great national discussion” has not released “a torrent of angry and malignant passions” then I do not know what has! The rest of the paper is Hamilton outlining a thesis for the papers to follow. He establishes his arguments for the rest of the series.
Was that so bad? If it was, you may want to read the handy little book How To Read the Federalist Papers by Anthony Peacock. If you intend to teach a unit on government using The Federalist Papers, the brilliant moms over at Layers of Learning have created lessons plans for a number of the essays.
Federalist Paper Number 5 is authored by John Jay and describes the reasons a union is needed. After the Revolutionary War and before ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the states were loosely confederated. Many problems arose from the lack of consensus about what the role of the government was and even who was actually in charge, not the least being Shay’s Rebellion over the government’s economic powers. No. 5 asks questions about the dangers of a divided nation. These questions are very interesting in light of the American Civil War. Some have even recently proposed secession for those states that have vast ideological differences with majorities in other states. What does Jay have to say to us now? Are the concerns the same? How would Jay view the United Nations?
Are we having fun yet? Let’s try a few more!
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