When you want to understand the human condition, turn to the Bible or Shakespeare.
When you want to comprehend what the United States is all about you read "The Federalist," the series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in 1787-88.
Now readily available in paperback form, the collected essays remain the best book on political theory ever written by Americans, and the best explanation of what our Constitution was designed to do.
The purpose of "The Federalist" was to persuade the influential state of New York to support the proposed 1787 frame of government, drafted in Philadelphia, at a convention presided over by George Washington. Everyone assumed Washington would be the first president.
Then as now regarded as the father of his country, his prestige gave the Constitution an aura of sagacity, but "The Federalist" also sought to explain how the Constitution incorporated the insights of the newly developing field of the science of politics.
Hamilton and Jay were practicing lawyers, but Madison, popularly thought to be the key theoretician at the 1787 Constitutional convention, was the one who best mastered this emerging new discipline.
James Madison went on to be an influential leader in the first Congress, practicing politics rather than law.
A contender for Madison’s masterpiece is "Federalist 10," in which he addresses how the people of the United States could best avoid the rancor and discord that had riven ancient republics. Madison believed it was the rise of particular self-interested factions in those smaller city-state republics that led to their destruction.
He explained that the remedy for Americans was to create a national republic where no local faction or sect could achieve control, and also where competing interest groups would cancel each other out: the national interest itself could prevail.
Unfortunately, Madison did not foresee the rise of national political parties, huge factions who would push their particular interests, wrongly and wantonly denigrating their opponents, who would be capable of potentially ruining the structure the Framers — as they sought implementation of their agendas furthering their own selfish interests.
This is the situation we have now.
But whether or not the Framers understood the possibility of such a party system in this country, they had examples from Great Britain of what the spirit of party could do, and Madison, in "Federalist 10," made clear what political goals ought not to be permitted to prevail in this country.
He condemned "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project . . . " Madison was a champion of private property, individual initiative, and the sanctity of private contracts. Thus, he was opposed to schemes that would devalue currency (the printing of paper money), that would upset commerce by nullifying obligations, or that would confiscate and redistribute private property.
These were "improper or wicked projects" in a government designed to secure what our framers believed to be our natural and inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property.
If one compares Madison’s prescription for the good society in "Federalist 10" with the schemes of some of the Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to raise taxes, thus permitting greater redistribution; the forgiveness of student debts, and in general, to weaken private property, while asserting and further governmental control, one can see how the Republicans and Donald Trump are much more Madisonian.
The slogan of Trump’s campaign, "Make America Great Again," was not a motto of white supremacy, as his opponents have charged, rather it was a call for an avoidance of the sort of "wicked projects" Madison condemned.
The Trump administration’s efforts to reduce taxes, reduce regulation, increase jobs, secure borders, put international trade on a more equal footing, and to appoint judges faithful to the original understanding of the Constitution all ought to be seen as an attempt to return to Madison’s prescriptions.
In an era when issues involving race, religion, gender and abortion often dominate the discourse in the media and in Congress, it's useful to remember that our national government was not intended to address those issues (they, and many others, were assigned to state and local governments). Contrary to the Framers’ scheme, we have allowed the Federal Leviathan wrongly to pervade and nearly transform our polity.
It’s often believed that one can’t turn back the clock, but when it is giving the wrong time, sometimes it’s necessary. Make America Great Again, or, the new variant now embraced by the president, Keeping America Great, aren’t dog whistles to conceal nefarious motives, but are simply calls to remember simpler and timeless notions of good governance.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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