Tag Archives: Alexander Hamilton

Considering the Constitution

Jack N. Rakove, editor, The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay The Essential Essays

Twenty-five pages into his introduction to The Federalist, Pr. Rakove makes an important statement. The Federalist was, firstly an argument for union – but, it is “both an argument about the necessity of national government in general, and a defense of the particular form of national government proposed by the framers at Philadelphia” (25). This is one of the many key ideas enterprising readers may glean from this Bedford Series offering.

Rakove offers thoughts on why The Federalist still appeals, stressing that readers should understand that the essays were a “contribution to a specific political debate” (viii). Further, Rakove argues that you need to know something about the authors to better understand the documents. This observation should be no surprise to regular readers of history. I can recall being pressed to research author’s backgrounds in my first college level history course taught by the late J.J. Holmes. There is, J.J. Would call out, crooked finger pointed everyone yet no one, no reason not to know something of your author – it can explain so much! This volume includes clear, concise biographies of John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Each is extremely useful for instructors seeking to crib information for course discussions based on the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

There are a number of fascinating points made by Rakove in the introduction. He points out that while Hamilton wrote 3/5 of the essays, only three of his writings crack most “top ten” lists. Rakove explains that this could be due to Hamilton’s subject – chiefly, he focused on why a strong union is necessary. For our nation, where unity is often perceived as a “given,” many of Hamilton’s essays may no longer resonate.

So why do we examine these documents and ask our students to evaluate the rhetoric? We can read them as lines of evidence – herein we see the issues that concerned the delegates at Philadelphia or the arguments to be made in favor of ratifying the constitution. Finally, close study of the essays lets us in on the political philosophy of Madison and Hamilton. To be successful with the documents, we must understand the context, so Rakove provides a short introduction to why the meetings at Philadelphia took place at all (3-6).

Hamilton and Madison generally held that Congress required power in order to protect the nation, and in order to do that, the national Congress had to have revenue. As Madison pointed out, a national government cannot stand if it is based on the idea voluntary compliance by the states (11). When politicians spoke against the ratification, they often found themselves defending the ineffective Articles of Confederation which did exactly what Madison said does not work – depend on the kindness of states (18,19).

Federalist writers answered critiques about consolidation of national power, omission of a bill of rights and more in these essays. Ultimately the first 30+ essays of The Federalist say little about the forms of government that the Constitution would create. Only with Madison’s #37 do some of these details emerge and this was after five states had ratified the Constitution (25). In some ways, argues Rakove, The Federalist is a campaign document seeking to persuade readers, but, and this is important, readers of the time. It is possible, suggests Rakove, that Publius cared little about how we might read the document (29, 30).

For historians, that thought is okay – we don’t tend to look at documents of the past thinking, “they must have known exactly why they wrote that down.” And yet, we also live in an age when our society is pressing constantly to understand the past, though more often than not, on our terms. We get into arguments about “what the founders meant” and we should understand in reading The Federalist that sometimes the founders were not sure what they meant.

Give this edition a try – in addition to the excellent background piece, Rakove provides context paragraphs for every essay, vocabulary, explanatory footnotes, #85 (which gives Publius the concluding statement in “his” collection), a helpful Constitutional chronology, study questions, and a “read more” section. In a small package of just over 230 pages, instructors (and readers interested in better understanding this unique moment in time) can find an excellent companion to the study of the Constitution.

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Inventing America

Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Pr. Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University where he has taught since 1980.  Rakove came to my attention during my first year teaching for University College at Northeastern University.  As adjuncts in the UC, Rakove’s book on James Madison was the supplemental reading assigned for the US History to 1848 course.  Knowing little about him, I enjoyed the book and my students found it interesting as well as illuminating for the period.  A couple of years later, I was given Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution as a gift, and found the text’s discussion of what the creators of the constitution hoped to solve in creating a new government compelling.

About two or three years ago I listened to Rakove’s Colonial and Revolutionary America course through iTunes U (via openculture.com).  It was in listening to Rakove online that I learned more and more about this Pulitzer Prize winner.  A long-suffering Cubs fan, Rakove’s classes were full of information, humor, and, like my own, completely behind schedule.

Speaking of behind schedule, Revolutionaries, has not helped me keep mine.  It’s a lengthy tome, though it moves apace as Rakove draws rich portraits of important figures and their connection to the creation of the United States.  The text is divided into three parts focusing on “the crisis” that led to the war for independence, the “challenges” that faced constitution writers (in states and at the national level), and the “legacies” of men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.  This organizational tool is quite helpful as it almost divides the text into three different books.  Rakove, however, threads it all together, from his prologue forward.

I’ll be adding more thoughts about Revolutionaries later, but I thought I would close with a few comments about that prologue.  “The World Beyond Worcester” begins by introducing us to a young schoolteacher working in Worcester – John Adams.  I went to college in Worcester some 232 years after Adams wondered whether his students were “Kings, Politicians, Divines, Fops, Buffoons” etc (1).  Sometimes I shared the same questions about my classmates – well, at least the Fops and Buffoons part.

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Differences and grumpiness?

Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters, What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

Dear readers will forgive me for indulging in some author repetition in the early going of this project.  Professor emeritus Wood will be called up on at least one more time after this piece, though we might take a break from his work for awhile afterwards, if memory of the bookshelves serves.

This text is largely a collection of essays, nearly all of which have been previously printed, though Wood points out that he has expanded and revised the material  for the book (ix).  Wood’s purpose is to create a “written collection of…American worthies,” (ix) a concept he bases loosely on an interesting anecdote about Thomas Jefferson’s collecting portraits and busts of people ranging from George Washington to Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones.  Jefferson began this work in 1784 prior to leaving for France.  Wood is exploring and defining what made these men so ‘different’ from the bulk of Americans in the late 18th century.

Wood begins the series by explaining the connections between the founders and the enlightenment era and he acknowledges a unique nature in the way Americans celebrate these important figures from our early history.  Wood wonders why Americans want to know and understand what Jefferson or Washington or Madison may have thought about such disparate events as September 11, 2001, the current presidential administration (whomever this may be), etc.  Wood provides explanations of his own and from other scholars in the introduction which is a wide-ranging, if at times ‘grumpy-sounding’ historiographical essay (3-28).  Of particular disdain for Wood appears to be the scholars and historians of the Progressive Era who often wrote about the undemocratic nature of the Constitution.  Almost begrudgingly here, Wood allows that at least Charles Beard’s “underlying assumption that people’s consciousness and ultimately their behavior were the products of their social and economic circumstances had a lasting effect on American historical scholarship” (6-7).

Wood is perhaps protective of the founders, I might argue unnecessarily, in this introduction.  Wood is, and this is neither a scientific nor sophisticated observation, sounding a bit like a ‘get off my lawn with your ball you kids’ kind of neighbor.  Newer historians, argues Wood, are bordering on disrespectful, perhaps “because our present-day culture has lost a great deal of its former respect for absolute values and timeless truths” (8).  I’m not certain I agree with this point, nor Wood’s idea that debunking (a word whose origin is briefly explained on page 7) is more common because several generations have been “raised on reading about J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of adult phoniness” (8).  Perhaps I have misread Wood’s intent with this remark, but it seems a bit of an overstatement on the influence of Salinger’s protagonist.

At the very least, Wood answers a question I raised in reviewing The American Revolution.  Remember last week when I wrote:

“Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic.  Perhaps Wood has a  point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian?  In what context did they make this statement?  I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself.”

Now, through the miracle of footnoting (thankfully included in Revolutionary Characters specifically in this case, #8 on page 9), I understand to whom Wood was referring (Peter Mancall).  While I grasp what Wood is trying to do in this opening essay – arguing that we critique the founders in this manner because we fail to judge them in their own historical timeframe – I find his approach a bit intense and hypercritical at times.  Do most academic historians truly not realize that the founders are of vital importance, “an extraordinary elite” (9) whose work and very existence was crucial to the success of this great republic?

A key idea to much of Wood’s thought process on these giants is summed up on the last pages of the George Washington section.  “He [Washington] was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule” (63).  This statement, combined with those in the introduction and conclusion, argue that men such as Washington, Franklin, etc. will never be seen again because in promoting democracy and the ideas of an egalitarian society, common people came to the fore and they “overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being” (28).  This same notion is repeated and reinforced on pages 272-274.  Did these founders truly contribute to their own demise and the impossibility of their powers being replicated (28, 274)?  I’m not fully convinced that the founders were hoisted on their own petard.

Now that I have removed Wood’s ball from my lawn, I’ll point out that I’m most grateful for his having pulled together this collection.  I’m not in complete agreement with some of the points, but the portrayals of these revolutionary characters are nicely drawn.  As always, Wood’s writing is smooth and worthy of praise.  His discussion of figures like Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr in the collection are interesting, even if Burr is included because his very actions stand in opposition to those of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams.  Revolutionary Characters is a book worth exploring and the concepts are those with which we as Americans and historians, should wrestle.

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