Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, July 28, 2014

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS #1 (American Government 101)

In some ways Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is like reading Lord of the Rings or watching a Harry Potter movie. There’s lots of magic going on. There are wizards and witches with supernatural powers. Here’s a question: is that real life? Of course not. Similarly, Gonzalo (a character in The Tempest) lays out his idea of a perfect city or nation: no business, no law courts or colleges or income inequality; just one big happy civic family. King Alonso (a real politician in the real world) responds to Gonzalo’s dream: “no more; thou dost talk nothing to me.” Gonzalo’s utopian dreams amount to nothing in the real world. But why? Why can’t we live in a world like the one Gonzalo dreams of? That’s what The Federalist Papers are all about.
In The Tempest the wizard Prospero relied on magic to achieve his political objectives. Both the ancient Hebrews (Exodus, GB Series 2) and the ancient Greeks (The Iliad, GB Series 4) consulted the gods before making political decisions. The Federalist Papers have the more mundane task of setting up a practical government that can function in an imperfect world without the aid of magic or help from the gods. This first essay is an introduction outlining what the writers of the Federalist Papers hope to accomplish. They want to know “…whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” If we have to have government, let’s at least make sure we have the best one we can. That’s easier said than done. The Federalist Papers is our national treasure explaining why the art and science of government is so difficult. Someone once asked Albert Einstein, “Dr. Einstein, why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?” Dr. Einstein answered, “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.” This quote reminds us to read The Federalist Papers with careful attention.
Most Americans have never read them at all. Why should they? The purpose of The Federalist Papers was to persuade voters to adopt the proposed Constitution of the United States. We did that. So why should ordinary citizens still bother to read them today? After all, we have a President, Congress and Supreme Court to decide these things. But the greatest question posed in The Federalist Papers has still not been answered, even today. The biggest challenge American-style government represents is simply this: can ordinary people govern themselves?
The answer (at this point in history) is: so far, so good. 250 years later we’re still standing. It’s been shaky but we’ve made it work. Ordinary people made it work but there’s no guarantee American democracy will continue. In this essay (by Hamilton) we see the difficulties not only behind us but also those ahead of us: “…we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.” Here we have another great political question: is there a “right side” and a “wrong side” to every political problem? Or are there only competing interests? What’s good for me seems right for me, but maybe not for you. So which side is “right” politically? What standards do we use? How do we solve political problems without splitting the whole country apart? The use of brute force historically decided these things, as in our own Civil War. We call it war if it’s between nations, civil war if it’s between citizens of the same nation. Is there a better way? Hamilton proposes “reflection and choice” as a better method than “accident and force.” The Federalist Papers is a blueprint for political reflection; so that’s what we’ll be studying the next few weeks.


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