THE ORIGINAL ARGUMENT: THE FEDERALISTS’ CASE FOR THE CONSTITUTION, ADAPTED FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
By Glenn Beck
Threshold Editions, $16, 464 pages
Glenn Beck, the radio host and former Fox News talking head, apparently needs to capitalize one last time on his dwindling fame. His solution: publish a redundant book on the Federalist Papers.
In 1787 and 1788, the fledgling American nation was on the verge of collapse. Following their successful rebellion against Great Britain, the 13 Colonies were unable to unite under the Articles of Confederation. For several years, the individual states operated like autonomous countries, imposing internal barriers on trade and squabbling ceaselessly. Hence, a new system of government was necessary: federalism. The Federalist Papers were written when Americans were debating whether to ratify the Constitution. The series of essays, 85 in all, proved decisive.
The essays appeared in various newspapers under the pen name of “Publius.” Their real authors were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. These men were intellectual titans whose brilliant arguments convinced a skeptical public and, more important, wavering states, especially New York and Virginia, to adopt the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers remain the most consequential commentaries on the Constitution’s true - and enduring - meaning. The authors’ goal was to erect a self-governing republic based on the rule of law and separation of powers. All three men were students of history. They understood that the past is the only reliable guide to the future. They sought to prevent the tragic fates of previous republics - ancient Greece, Rome and the Renaissance Italian city-states.
Madison’s key insight was that human nature is inherently flawed and sinful; people are naturally driven by greed, ambition and desire for power. Hence, the only way to maintain social order while preserving fundamental individual liberties is to entrench limited government. Power had to be checked and devolved to the states and an independent judiciary. Each level of government would be uniquely sovereign; none would be able to usurp or violate the expressly delineated responsibilities of the other.
Hamilton, however, was the document’s driving force. He wrote 51 of the essays and understood that a federal government was necessary to forge a cohesive political union, one that would enable America eventually to become an economic colossus. A common currency, a strong military and navy, regulated commerce, protective tariffs and low taxes - these formed the basis for an expanding continental nation. Unlike his rival, Thomas Jefferson, who was a romantic agrarian, Hamilton grasped that national independence could be secured only through industrial capitalism. Jefferson lived in the past; Hamilton saw the future.
Mr. Beck seeks to translate and adapt the Federalist Papers for contemporary readers. Therefore, many of its passages - written in 18th-century English prose - are updated to be more understandable and, hopefully, relevant. The book contains footnotes explaining the historical events or references of the time. There are short summaries of key arguments as well as one-paragraph nuggets on the essays seeking to apply their wisdom to today’s problems. “The Original Argument” is really a version of “The Federalist Papers for Dummies.”
But do we really need another work on the Constitution, or the Federalist Papers, for that matter? The subject has become a cottage industry. Countless volumes have been written on the topic. Mr. Beck argues that the Federalist Papers are “boring” to read and arcane; therefore, there is a need for his book. This is false - and puerile. I (along with millions of other students) had no trouble reading the essays in college years ago. The same held true for the Bible, Shakespeare, Plato and all the other canons of Western civilization. Will Mr. Beck be coming out with his adaptation of the Bible anytime soon?
Mr. Beck cynically has positioned himself as a so-called leader of the Tea Party. His rise to fame and fortune has been based on one giant gimmick: the wannabe constitutionalist professor, eyeglasses and chalkboard in hand, preaching about the evils of progressivism. Yet Mr. Beck is a phony: He has placed Vaseline near his eyes to help him cry on cue about the suffering caused by President Obama’s socialist policies. Mr. Beck is the court jester of the conservative movement.
He is a modern-day P.T. Barnum whose act has finally worn thin. His ratings at Fox dropped dramatically. He had become overexposed - the speaking tours, the countless books and novels, the metamorphosis into a self-help guru preaching personal empowerment and bogus uplift. He is leaving the stage, launching his own Internet-based television network (GBTV). My prediction: It will flop. Just like “The Original Argument,” Mr. Beck has nothing new or meaningful to say. This is a non-book by a non-author.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.