Well, At Least the Tea Party Takes the Constitution Seriously
In Monday's Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz notes that the Federalist Papers remain an indispensable text for anyone seeking to understand the Constitution and the principles that underlie it--which is to say, of course, for anyone seeking to understand the American experiment in democracy.
Do our institutions of higher learning take the Federalist Papers seriously? No they do not.
By the end of 1788, a total of 85 essays had been gathered in two volumes under the title The Federalist. Written at a brisk clip and with the crucial vote in New York hanging in the balance, the essays formed a treatise on constitutional self-government for the ages.
The Federalist deals with the reasons for preserving the union, the inefficacy of the existing federal government under the Articles of Confederation, and the conformity of the new constitution to the principles of liberty and consent. It covers war and peace, foreign affairs, commerce, taxation, federalism and the separation of powers. It provides a detailed examination of the chief features of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It advances its case by restatement and refutation of the leading criticisms of the new constitution. It displays a level of learning, political acumen and public-spiritedness to which contemporary scholars, journalists and politicians can but aspire. And to this day it stands as an unsurpassed source of insight into the Constitution's text, structure and purposes.
At Harvard, at least, all undergraduate political-science majors will receive perfunctory exposure to a few Federalist essays in a mandatory course their sophomore year. But at Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley, political-science majors can receive their degrees without encountering the single surest analysis of the problems that the Constitution was intended to solve and the manner in which it was intended to operate.
Most astonishing and most revealing is the neglect of The Federalist by graduate schools and law schools. The political science departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley—which set the tone for higher education throughout the nation and train many of the next generation's professors—do not require candidates for the Ph.D. to study The Federalist. And these universities' law schools (Princeton has no law school), which produce many of the nation's leading members of the bar and bench, do not require their students to read, let alone master, The Federalist's major ideas and main lines of thought.
How can this be?
Particularly in the aftermath of the New Deal, according to the progressive conceit, understanding America's founding and the framing of the Constitution are as useful to dealing with contemporary challenges of government as understanding the horse-and-buggy is to dealing with contemporary challenges of transportation.
Berkowitz doesn't go into this, but his argument makes me love the Tea Party even more. As a friend who works in a bookstore told me not long ago, once the Tea Party movement got started a couple of years ago, books on the Constitution, the Founders, and, yes, The Federalist, really took off. Ordinary Americans--taking our founding principles seriously. Hamilton, Madison and Jay would have been delighted.