Monday, May 7th, 2012
A complete audio recording of the Federalist Papers is now available for free online through Americana Phonic. These high quality recordings by Michael Scherer are also available through Apple’s iTunes store. Listen to one paper at a time (85 separate recordings). The combined recording amounts to 20 hours and 30 minutes of audio.
Jefferson's Federalist Papers
Listen to a sample here.
In addition to the Federalist Papers, Americana Phonic.com has recordings of the U.S. Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and more.
The year is 1787. America is a fledgling confederation of 13 colonies. A new Constitution has been written in Philadelphia, to replace the Articles of Confederation. Do you think that this new constitution should become the supreme law of the land? Vote: YES or NO The Federalists want you to vote yes. As America roils with intense debate on this fateful issue, a series of essays begin to appear in three New York newspapers, written by the mysterious persona Publius. These essays urge the American people to ratify the constitution, explaining and defending it in detail. After their debut in New York, the essays subsequently appeared in newspapers across the nation. We know today that Publius was actually three different people: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Their painstaking efforts to explain and promote the United States Constitution have become a primary source for the interpretation and understanding of the highest law of the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson called the Federalist Papers the “best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” They are available in their entirety on this site, as 85 separate audio narrations.
See the complete Federalist Papers Audio.
Tuesday, August 31st, 2010
Common Sense: The Rhetoric of Popular Democracy
Adapted from the National Endowment for the Humanities’s EDSITEment.
In 1776 an obscure immigrant published a small pamphlet that ignited independence in America and shifted the political landscape of the patriot movement from reform within the British imperial system to independence from it. One hundred twenty thousand copies sold in the first three months in a nation of three million people, making Common Sense the best-selling printed work by a single author in American history up to that time. Never before had a personally written work (unlike the divine Bible) appealed to all classes of colonists. Never before had a pamphlet been written in an inspiring style so accessible to the “common” folk of America. This lesson looks at Thomas Paine and at some of the ideas presented in Common Sense, such as national unity, natural rights, the illegitimacy of the monarchy and of hereditary aristocracy, and the necessity for independence and the revolutionary struggle.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense played no small part in convincing large numbers of Americans to relinquish an English identity and risk their lives for the cause of freedom, revolution and a new nation. In his modest pamphlet of 46 pages, Common Sense, Paine put forth the first comprehensive, public call for independence, advancing arguments that far exceeded previous critiques of English rule in their radicalism and scope. It quickly reached a broad, mass audience, extending beyond the literate public as colonists read it aloud in a wide variety of settings. George Washington, for example, was so affected by Common Sense that he relinquished all personal hope of mending fences with England and ordered the pamphlet to be distributed to his troops.
Common Sense made a clear case for independence and directly attacked the political, economic, and ideological obstacles to achieving it. Paine relentlessly insisted that British rule was responsible for nearly every problem in colonial society and that the 1770s crisis could only be resolved by colonial independence. That goal, he maintained, could only be achieved through unified action. Hardnosed political logic demanded the creation of an American nation. Implicitly acknowledging the hold that tradition and deference had on the colonial mind, Paine also launched an assault on both the premises behind the British government and on the legitimacy of monarchy and hereditary power in general. Challenging the King’s paternal authority in the harshest terms, he mocked royal actions in America and declared that “even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their own families.” Finally, Paine detailed in the most graphic, compelling and recognizable terms the suffering that the colonies had endured, reminding his readers of the torment and trauma that British policy had inflicted upon them.
In addition to the audacity and timeliness of its ideas, Common Sense compelled the American people because it resonated with their firm belief in liberty and determined opposition to injustice. The message was powerful because it was written in relatively blunt language that colonists of different backgrounds could understand. Paine, despite his immigrant status, was on familiar terms with the popular classes in America and the taverns, workshops, and street corners they frequented. His writing was replete with the kind of popular and religious references they readily grasped and appreciated. His strident indignation reflected the anger that was rising among the American body politic. His words united elite and popular strands of revolt, welding the Congress and the street into a common purpose. As historian Scott Liell argues in Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence: “[B]y including all of the colonists in the discussion that would determine their future, Common Sense became not just a critical step in the journey toward American independence but also an important artifact in the foundation of American democracy” (20).
Primary and secondary sources relating to Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the political events surrounding its publication can be found online:
- Common Sense, a link on EDSITEment reviewed Digital History.
- The Olive Branch Petition (Founder’s Library—go to the July 5,1775 entry of the timeline—linked from Digital History) represents the highly critical but loyal colonial attitude towards England that Common Sense would challenge. It also reflects the language and manner of colonial elites, thereby providing an important stylistic contrast to Paine’s work.
- This is a brief historical timeline of the years 1760-1791 in the American Revolution through the passage of the bill of rights on the EDSITEment reviewed website, Liberty! The American Revolution.
- A longer, more comprehensive listing of important events that led to the Declaration of Independence, such as the Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms, the Olive Branch Petition, and various skirmishes, all from the perspective of George Washington’s involvement, is available at American Memory Project (The Library of Congress). Click on 1774, 1775, 1776, and be sure to look at December 31, 1776.
- Scott Liell’s Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Running Press Book Publishers, 2003) is an outstanding short book that explains in just forty-six pages the forces that shaped Paine’s thinking, why Common Sense had such a broad, profound impact and how its message spread throughout the American colonies.
More information and educational activities can be found online at EDSITEment’s Thomas Paine Lesson Plan.
Sunday, May 30th, 2010
From the New York Times
By DAVID BROOKS
When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet.
These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth.
Their great model was Descartes. He aimed to begin human understanding anew. He’d discard the accumulated prejudices of the past and build from the ground up, erecting one logical certainty upon another.
What Descartes was doing for knowledge, others would do for politics: sweep away the old precedents and write new constitutions based on reason. This was the aim of the French Revolution.
But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, “The Roads to Modernity,” if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits.
They put more emphasis on our sentiments. People are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that.
These two views of human nature produced different attitudes toward political change, articulated most brilliantly by Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Their views are the subject of a superb dissertation by Yuval Levin at the University of Chicago called “The Great Law of Change.”
As Levin shows, Paine believed that societies exist in an “eternal now.” That something has existed for ages tells us nothing about its value. The past is dead and the living should use their powers of analysis to sweep away existing arrangements when necessary, and begin the world anew. He even suggested that laws should expire after 30 years so each new generation could begin again.
Paine saw the American and French Revolutions as models for his sort of radical change. In each country, he felt, the revolutionaries deduced certain universal truths about the rights of man and then designed a new society to fit them.
Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.
Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.
If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.
Burke also supported the American Revolution, but saw it in a different light than Paine. He believed the British Parliament had recklessly trampled upon the ancient liberties the colonists had come to enjoy. The Americans were seeking to preserve what they had.
We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.
Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.
The children of the British Enlightenment are in retreat. Yet there is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 25, 2010, on page A27 of the New York edition.
Friday, February 19th, 2010
Each of us can come up with our own list of the great ideas that give life to American political and economic institutions. However, we may be surprised at the similarity of our lists. That reflects the power exerted by the ideas debated with such intensity by our founders. Certainly there would be differences in our lists, just as the founders differed. However, over the past five years, we have talked with hundreds of profound students of American history, politics and literature. Whenever we have paused during Miller Summer Institutes or other programs to write such a list, the result has been a short list of seven to twelve great ideas. We hope you will reflect on the great principles cited that follow and perhaps inspire you to draw up your own list. Few exercises can be of more value to you as a citizen of our great nation.
In “A Defense of American Constitutions” (1787) John Adams, on the individual’s right to own private property:
“The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shall not covet” and “Thou shall not steal” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”
Alexander Hamilton, (Federalist #71, 1788) on the separation of powers in government:
“The same rule which teaches the propriety of a partition between the various branches of power, teaches us likewise that this partition ought to be so contrived as to render the one independent of the other… The representatives of the people, in a popular assembly, seem sometimes to fancy that they are the people themselves, and betray strong symptoms of impatience and disgust at the least sign of opposition from any other quarter, as if the exercise of its rights, by either the executive or judiciary, were a breach of their privilege and an outrage to their dignity.”
Thomas Paine, in Common Sense (1776), on the rule of law:
“But where say some is the king of America? I’ll tell you, he reigns above and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as an absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”
George Washington, (Letter to the Hebrew Congregation, Newport, 1790), on the freedom of religion:
“The Citizens of the United States of American have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscious and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoy the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under it’s protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Abraham Lincoln, (“Reply to Senator Douglas, Chicago” 1858) on the principal of equality:
“We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years, and we … find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men; they fought for the principal that they were contending for… We have-besides these, men descended by blood from our ancestors-among us, perhaps half our people, who are not descendants at all of these men… but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal;” and then they feel that … is the father of all moral principal in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration…”
Regarding individual liberty, George Washington said:
“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
And, the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances… The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated… No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law… In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…”