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My Rock Songbook has slowed down of late, and there’s a reason. At Washington and Lee University, where I currently teach, we do this cool thing of having a month-long intensive class. The prof is supposed to pack this with a semester’s worth of material, and my class is an American Political Thought course. Trying to condense things down to a month is intense indeed, which is why my blogging, especially on the Songbook, has been light.

But I might as well blog on some of what I’m teaching, and thus, here’s this first segment of what we might call Carl’s American Political Thought Book Report.

Now I do not try to do this in one course, but the natural order of Founder-studies is three-fold.

First, you read some sort of book or essay, perhaps it is Thomas West’s Vindicating the Founders , or perhaps it is the excellent Introduction to American Politics textbook by Bessette and Pitney , that shows you why the Founders were great, why they cannot be dismissed as time-bound racists or sexists or any sort of stick-in-the-mud-ists, and why their thought remains compelling. You see the some of ways they were superior to today’s politicians and savants.

That gets you in the door. Second, your real study begins with careful reading of the Federalist Papers . Done correctly, you surely emerge from such study with the conviction that the Founders Were Awesome! You are seen wearing a red, white, and blue, WWTFD wrist-band, and maybe even sporting a powdered wig.

The third stage is the realization, perhaps through a book like Joanne Freeman’s , that, well, the Founders divided against one another, into the Democratic-Republican and Federalist factions, er, sorry, parties . Like some weirdly gruesome and symbolic episode in an Ovid poem, Publius splits in two, with the severed sides morphing into a pair of wrestlers intent upon strangling one another! Ugly stuff, and the more potentially disheartening to your faith in modern republican government to the degree you were initially inspired by the genius and virtue of “the Founders.”

Sorting out why the divide occurs inevitably takes you back to divisions that had always been there. One learns that considered from a certain angle, the Anti-Federalists actually had good arguments, and that these folks did not disappear, but tended to gravitate into the Democratic-Republican party. One sees that while the Convention amazingly (Providentially?) arrived at consensus about a new form of government, our greatest Founders walked into the Convention with quite a few remarkably discordant ideas. One begins to be shocked by how aggressively nationalist Madison was towards state power, and by Hamilton’s (more strategically provocative than sincere?) proposed imitation, albeit in republicanized manner, of the British monarch and House of Lords; one also has to consider to what degree these views remained with Madison and Hamilton behind the rhetoric of Publius, or why (in Madison’s case), they changed. Similar thoughts with respect to other major figures. Whether this is a fourth stage or what-have-you, you now have to sort through the whole political-intellectual landscape of the Americans, going at least back to the 1760s and into the British Whig writers, all the way up into the 1820s.
But let us stay, in this post at least, with the daunting-enough task of understanding the divide between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. I can recommend two books for this, one of which I use to begin my American Political Thought course.

The superior one is Lance Banning’s Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle . This gives you primary document selections from the early debates in Congress on debt assumption, the national bank, executive power, etc. Lots of landmark documents, like Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures or Madison’s Virginia Resolutions, judicious selections from the correspondence of major figures, and counter-positioning of these various letters and such on the main topics of debate.

That said, it is more for the advanced student. By not skimping on the nitty-gritty, spanning the entire 1787 to 1815-or-so period, and providing many of the key documents in full, the result is a 350 folio-page book. So what I assign is sort of an undergraduate version of this called Jefferson v. Hamilton , compiled by the Jefferson biographer Noble Cunningham Jr. It allows students, in under 200 pages, to grasp the main lines of debates, with the more-edited documents embedded in Cunningham’s simple narrative of the main events, events which can otherwise get bewildering for those unfamiliar with the era. I suspect both Cunningham and Banning (as both of them are scholars of Jeffersonian republicanism) of being a bit too partial to the Democratic-Republican side, but it is Banning’s volume, methinks, that ultimately better allows you to see that Hamilton and co., on a lot of the issues, had the better arguments, precisely because therein we see them more in full. That’s my judgment, anyhow. If you’d like a quicker secondary way to arrive at such a judgment, you might turn to the latest Richard Brookhiser biography, James Madison . But to decide for yourself, of course, you need to step into the documents yourself, into the war of words, that Cunningham and Banning select for us.

More on: Hamilton

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