Despite his recent departure from Fox News, Glenn Beck remains a media phenomenon. He’s created an organization that grinds out new books at an amazing pace. His latest, The Original Argument: The Federalist Case for the Constitution Adapted for the 21st Century, is already a New York Times bestseller.
Beck is to be credited for popularizing the discussion of Constitutional issues fundamental to the founding of our republic. However, I think it’s fair to criticize his recent effort on several grounds.
I was surprised that by the second page of his introduction Beck made a significant historical error of the sort he ought to take pains to avoid. He cites a quotation by William Byrd II as an example of the kind of dischord that existed among the thirteen states at the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and subsequent state ratification debates:
Those opposed to the new constitution, collectively called the “Anti-Federalists,” were generally wary of the power wielded by the larger states and were concerned that the structure being proposed–a true republic–could never work in practice . . . Then you had groups like the Puritans, Virginians, and Quakers, who seldom agreed on, well much of anything. As Virginian William Byrd II said of the Puritans, ” A watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.”
Byrd, it turns out, died in 1741, almost half a century before the Constitutional Convention. A well known Virginia politician and writer, Byrd’s critique of the Puritans was probably one of the last made while such a clearly identifiable culture existed. It’s an argument, applied to a world in which there were still those in New England who could be called “Puritans.” By the Constitutional Convention of 1787, however, the “Puritan” culture of New England had disappeared, replaced as it was by the “Yankee” culture. I was surprised that this anachronistic error was caught by neither Beck nor the fairly large staff that worked on this project.
Beck also errs by accepting at face value the commonly held, but incorrect view, that The Federalist Papers significantly influenced the outcome of the ratification debates. With the exception of Hamilton’s New York State, The Federalist Papers had little impact on the debate in the other twelve states, as scholar Pauline Maier suggests in her new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution .
Finally, Beck also fails to point out a rather significant problem with The Federalist Papers. Much of Hamilton’s argument (he wrote 51 of the 85 essays) was written more as a type of persuasive propaganda than as an accurate representation of the type of federal government Hamilton wanted to see develop. The full extent of Hamilton’s deception wouldn’t be revealed until the nation witnessed the whirlwind Hamiltonian program of constitutional and extra-constitutional policies enacted into law during his six years as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
I can see the attraction of basing a book on The Federalist Papers. When you’re in the business of writing New York Times best sellers every six months, it’s easy to run out of ideas, and modern interpretations of “the classics,” such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Federalist Papers fit well into the production schedule.
Mr. Beck, however, would have done a greater service to a true understanding of the arguments surrounding the ratification of the Constitution by focusing, as James Madison suggested during the Congressional debates on Hamilton’s Bank of the United States proposal, on the debates of the ratification conventions of the thirteen states. It is there that the bargain was struck, not in the newspapers of New York where The Federalist Papers were published. This was especially true in Massachussetts, where the constitution was ratified in January, 1788, and North Carolina, where it was first rejected in June 1788. The turning point was the promise made in Massachusetts that a Bill of Rights would be the first order of business of the new federal government. Delegates to North Carolina’s first convention didn’t think that promise would be honored. By the second convention, in late 1788, they felt assured that it would be.
That story, if not material for another Glenn Beck best seller, would make an outstanding Voices of the Tea Party e-book.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new e-book, I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial, will be published in July, 2011. His new book, Covenant of Liberty, will be published by Broadside Books in spring, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .