August 7, 2005

"Shocking ignorance of American history."

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has a letter in today's NYT:
"Nomination for Supreme Court Stirs Debate on Influence of Federalist Society" (news article, Aug. 1) does not go into the shocking ignorance of American history displayed by the Federalist Society's members.

The Federalist Party, the party of Washington, Adams and Hamilton, stood for a strong central government. The Federalist Society stands for negative government and states' rights. If its members were honest, they would call themselves, in the terms of the 1790's, the Anti-Federalist Society.
Schlesinger is relying on our "shocking ignorance" for his zinger to work. With no actual knowledge to get in the way, we shouldn't imagine that Washington, Adams and Hamilton were distorting the truth when they claimed the term "Federalist" for themselves or that the modern-day centralization of American government far exceeds what even the strongest nationalists of the founding era had in mind.

15 comments:

John Jenkins said...

Not to be cynical (okay, yes, it's probably too late for that), but you're assuming that HE knows that. I wouldn't make that assumption.

ziemer said...

and apparently he doesn't realize that the drafting of the constitution and the federalist papers pre-dates the founding of the early political parties.

and can you even imagine the negative treatment we could get in the press if we were called the anti-federalist society?

oh, that's right. we already do.

gs said...

I thought that, although many of his decisions were consistent with Federalist positions, Washington was skeptical about political parties and did not consider himself as belonging to one.

The State Department posts extracts from his Farewell Address, and Wikisource claims to show the complete version. My quick reading is that Washington says liberty cannot be preserved if the government is too strong or too weak. I don't see an inconsistency with the Federalist Society's first bullet point here.

Bruce Hayden said...

I find this Federalist Society bruhaha rather silly, except possibly as an indication that those opposing Roberts don't really have anything else (except that he is Catholic - but that brings up the ban on religious tests in the Constitution).

Whether Roberts is or is not a bona fide member of the society is really no more relevant than that J. Ginsberg was presumably a member of the ACLU when she represented them. (And note that Roberts apparently worked pro bono on the ACLU side of the Colo. Amdt. 2 litigation).

Mark Daniels said...

"With no actual knowledge to get in the way, we shouldn't imagine that Washington, Adams and Hamilton were distorting the truth when they claimed the term 'Federalist' for themselves or that the modern-day centralization of American government far exceeds what even the strongest nationalists of the founding era had in mind."

Excellent point, Ann. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton advocated a stronger central government in contradistinction to the "system" which prevailed under the Articles of Confederation and in opposition to the views of Thomas Jefferson or the ever flip-flopping James Madison. (By the way, Garry Wills' new treatment of Madison, part of the American Presidents series, which is under the general editorship of Schlesinger, is outstanding.)

While Schlesinger wants to claim the Federalists for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, such theorizing is always difficult to prove. My own view is that the three Federalist giants he cites are closer to the moderate conservatism of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and John McCain than to the liberalism of John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or to the conservatism of Reagan or the neoconservatism of Bush the Younger.

Institutionally, Federalism's descendants were the Whigs and then the Republicans, although clearly the latter has changed its colors many times since, as has the Democratic (formerly known as Republican) Party founded by Jefferson and Madison.

David said...

I think that the founding fathers would have been appalled at the modest centralization of the Lincoln Administration.

Sloanasaurus said...

The record of socialism and relativism at the time of the founders was as bad as the record of socialism and relativism since the founding. Consequently, neither party (Federalist nor Democratic-Republican) can be seen as a pre-courser to the modern post FDR Democrat party. In contrast, the Federalist Society reflects the ideology of both political factions of the founders (Federalist and Dem-Republican) in the core beliefs of 1) a textual foundation to the operation of the Federal Government and 2) the liberty that derives from limited government. Today's Democratic party disregards the text and argues that the Constitution must be interpreted relative to the times. Further, today's Democrats believe that Socialism is compatible with Democracy and Liberty.

ziemer said...

mark, you are patently insane.

adams and hamilton would have regarded john mccain as what he is: a communist.

lobhudeln said...

**Shameless Plug**
This is an excellent opportunity to draw attention to the growing Federalist Society at UW Law School. Our membership tripled last year and is poised to increase again this fall. It seems that law students at UW are showing interest in the idea of leaner government and more individual rights and responsibilities.
The first speaker is already booked for this fall. Bob Barr will be speaking at the law school on Sept 6.

Jim Lindgren said...
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Jim Lindgren said...

The founders of the Federalist Society had a more nuanced view of the original Federalists than the crude one put forward by the eminent Prof. Schlesinger.

I had a conversation about this with Federalist Society co-founder Steve Calabresi in the late 1990s. The Society founders understood Madison, not as some 20th century anachronism advocating unrestrained federal power and opposing enumerated powers such as a meaningful interstate commerce clause, but rather as an advocate of an elaborate system of checks and balances -- between states and the federal govt. as well as between branches of govt.

Madison's goal was not unlimited federal power, but enough federal power to solve some of the worst problems with the Articles.

This is such an obvious point that I am surprised that someone as informed as Schlesinger would embrace such an unsophisticated caricature of what Madison actually stood for. I won’t go so far as to use Prof. Schlesinger’s harsh language: “a shocking ignorance of American history.” Let’s just chalk it up to Schlesinger having had a bad day.

Jim Lindgren

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Jim. I wish the Federalist Society would explain their name on their website. If they do, I couldn't find it. I wanted to link to it here. They shouldn't let Schlesinger's cheap shot be so easy!

Ann Althouse said...

"Let’s just chalk it up to Schlesinger having had a bad day."

Let's just chalk it up to Schlesinger having a political day.

Sloanasaurus said...

Perhaps Schlesinger feels akin to the Federalists who were bitterly opposed to "Mr. Madison's" war with the British in 1812. Federalists were so against the war that they saw it as a duty to sabotage the war effort as a form of patriotism. Fortuately, for Madison, the Federalists made up a minority of the federal government at the time.

Sound familiar....

It turns out that the Federalists were right and that the War of 1812 amounted to nothing (unless you count Andrew Jackson's conquest of the Creek Indians, which set up the later annexation of Florida). Despite the worthless outcome, it actually become unpopular to have opposed the war after the war was over. Eventually, the Federalists ceased to exist as a party. Perhaps Schlesinger should read some more history... to learn that no matter how right you may become about a war effort, unbridled opposition will never become patriotism.

Scipio said...

At some point the world is going to be punished for continuing to take Prof. Schlesinger's political mudslinging seriously. Kind of like we're currently paying the price of Chomskyism.

The age of Kennedy (well, except for the fat one) is over.