21 June 2010

Idealists, Opportunists, and the Rest of Us

Got stuck halfway through Liberty's Blueprint by Michael Meyerson, and decided it would be best to blog about the first half and move on.

My intention was to start with a book about Hamilton's and Madison's The Federalist (aka The Federalist Papers), learn about the background to the motivations behind some of our founding documents, then move on to read the actual documents, edited by some scholar somewhere. The first half of Liberty's Blueprint described the unusual relationship between Hamilton and Madison, their paths to the conventions that led to the creation of the new Constitution, and their divergence down different paths after the Constitution was ratified. Perhaps I'm revealing my naivete, but it surprised me that this country was founded on the same back-room dealmaking and compromises that occur in Congress now. It surprised me to find that the proposed new government catered to business interests more, possibly, then it catered to the liberties of the individual, as state and national solvency protected security more than anything else. It surprised me that the founders voted on a document that they didn't all agree on, but that they all agreed was the best they would come up with. It's no secret that they fought over major ideals and that the states took months to ratify the final document, but somehow in my mind I'd imagined that the basic bones of our democracy had been agreed upon at the very least. Not so, not so at all.

In preparing to convince states that a strong federal government would benefit the new nation, Madison studied past democracies to learn their strategies and flaws before suggesting how a new United States government might be run. Hamilton used his passion and persuasive skills to craft arguments. They both changed their minds on subjects as issues presented themselves and certain arguments proved more or less useful. They both vacillated on whether to follow the letter of the Constitution or the spirit of the Constitution; for Hamilton, it depended on the case he was arguing (he was a lawyer), and for Madison, it seemed to depend on what side of the line Jefferson fell (Madison was Jefferson's protege). These men,  who argued the reason and logic behind some of our most cherished ideals, pushed for stronger central government in order to unify the states, yes, but also to unify the finances of states and pay off some war debt. I've grossly oversimplified Mr. Meyerson's exhaustive research, but these are the things that stayed with me.

I was both relieved and saddened by the similarities to politics today. I'm relieved because it means the United States might not be crumbling just yet, but I'm sad that the struggles between the idealists, the opportunists, and the rest of us have no proven solutions, and that what is right will never be simple or straightforward.

The second half of the book proposes how to read The Federalist, but having just been introduced to the truths behind the philosophies (and more importantly, the truths of what followed the publication of the philosophies), I feel a little disheartened. Thus I'm jumping to another book, one that has won me over in the introduction and promises to shed more light on where we are as a nation, and where we may need to go from here. I'll get back to those founding arguments, but I'll read them knowing that behind every good government is someone trying to save a little piece for himself.

No comments: