Wednesday, October 29, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
The Library of America is an ambitious publishing project that is bringing out definitive editions of the best in American literature, history and journalism. The volumes are sturdily bound and printed on high-quality, acid-free paper, and will last for generations. I have acquired maybe ten or so, but wanted to focus today on the two-volume set, The Debate on the Constitution, which features arguments made by some of the finest minds of the day, pro and con, on the passage of the fundamental document of our republic. The federalists favored a strong national government, the anti-federalists advocated the sovereignty of the states, and although the federalists ultimately won that fight, their foes made some trenchant arguments that still resonate today.
The politicians, statesman and other concerned citizens who participated in the debate, and whose speeches and essays are included in these volumes, stand out – certainly in contrast to the current crop of politicos and pundits – by virtue of the depth and breadth of their learning, their knowledge of history, and the genuine seriousness with which they treated the American experiment and their own responsibilities in nurturing the new polity.
Here is “Publius” (Alexander Hamilton), from the Independent Journal of New York in 1787, writing on the dangers facing a nation that cannot agree on laws that bind the states together in common interest:
“A Firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between extremes of tyranny and anarchy…From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics, the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against forms of republican government, but against the very principles of liberty. They have decried all free government, as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over friends and partisans. Happily for mankind, stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty, which have flourished for ages, have in a few glorious instances refuted their gloomy sophisms. And, I trust, America will be the broad and solid foundation of other edifices not less magnificent, which will be equally permanent monuments to their errors.”
George Mason, writing for the anti-federalists (the Virginia Journal, 1787), expresses concerns about the form of national government, drawing attention to some issues that are still troublesome today:
“In the House of Representatives there is not the substance, but the shadow only of representation; which can never produce proper information in the Legislature, or inspire confidence in the people; the laws will therefore be generally made by men little concerned in, and unacquainted with their effects and consequences.”
“The Senate have the power of altering all money-bills, and of originating appropriations of money, and the salaries of the officers of their own appointment in conjunction with the President of the United States, although they are not the representatives of the people, or amenable to them.”
“These with their other great powers (viz. their power in the appointment of ambassadors and other public officers, in making treaties, and in trying all impeachments) their influence upon and connection with the supreme executive from their causes, their duration of office, and their being a constant existing body almost continually sitting, joined with their being one complete branch of the Legislature, will destroy any balance in government, and enable them to accomplish what usurpations they please upon the rights and liberties of the people.”
It was an exciting era, and the arguments and counter-arguments collected within the pages of The Debate on the Constitution serve the very useful purpose of focusing our thoughts on the vision of our founding fathers, and throw into relief many of the dangers which they foresaw, and which gather around us, once again, in this particularly important and tumultuous election year.