It won’t surprise many who follow Glenn Beck to hear that his The Original Argument is one weird book. The premise: Those famous essays by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, gathered in 1788 as The Federalist, are so critical to understanding the nature of the U.S. Constitution, and therefore to renewing our nation today, yet so hard to understand — so downright boring — that they cry out for handy summary and translation into modern English by none other than Glenn Beck.
And yet the main text doesn’t come from Beck. He wrote an introduction and put his name on the front cover and his photo on the back, but in what is easily the most interesting part of the book, one Joshua Charles describes its real genesis. (I use the term advisedly: Charles discerns the hand of Providence in the affair.)
In 2009, as a piano performance major at the University of Kansas and a fan of Beck’s radio and TV shows, Charles began translating the Federalist essays, unbidden, into modern English. Then he heard Beck himself say on the radio how badly the country needs just such a translation. The youngster’s jaw dropped. After going to genuinely amazing lengths to meet the man, Charles succeeded in pressing his early versions on Beck, and in what Charles justly calls a dream come true, the master and the acolyte teamed up.
Together they’ve identified seven “core themes” in the 85 Federalist essays, and they’ve selected 38 of the essays to publish in modern translation, re-ordering the essays by grouping them under each theme. Federalist essays 9, 10, and others, for example, come under the theme “A Republic, If You Can Keep It” (drawn from Franklin). 78 and 80 are grouped under “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (drawn from Superman).
Charles’s essay translations were refined via group effort, and “Glenn and his team,” Charles says, wrote easily scannable, one-page, cheat-sheet summaries for each of the translated essays, breaking them down by “The Message,“ “Original Quote,“ and “Relevance to Today.“ The team also wrote brief, generously sub-headed intros for each of the major themes.
Hence the oddball volume here under review: a preface by Joshua Charles explaining all that; an introduction by Beck amping the Federalist essays’ importance to the founding and reminding us that reading the original essays can be “boring … okay, excruciatingly boring”; introductions to each of the seven themes; the 38 translations themselves, each with its one-sheet summary; and appendices presenting the Constitution as cross-referenced to the essays, the Articles of Confederation, and Jay’s Address to the People of New York. That’s the new Glenn Beck book.
Since in the original Federalist essays, obscurely defensive rhetorical flourishes proliferate, especially from Hamilton — “I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the oppositions of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicions)”, etc., etc. — it’s fair enough to call them boring, and it’s undeniable that few people have read all or even 38 of them. While some of the more obscure numbers can be revealing in various historical and political contexts, it’s never been clear to me that reading or knowing the gist of more than a few major ones would be critical to any fundamental, active engagement with our country. It’s a truism that Madison’s ideas about the purpose and mechanics of representation and republican separation of powers are benchmarks of historical literacy that Americans would do well to engage with, and many guides and annotated anthologies exist to serve that purpose.
“Translating” the essays manifestly doesn’t serve that purpose.
As a soporific, Publius has nothing on the piano major. The translations plod gamely through the originals, largely aping their paragraph structure, topic sentences, and transitions, replacing outdated expressions with modern ones, breaking up long sentences, and leaving traces of wayward 18th century capitalization (especially when describing the federal government: “the Central government,“ “the National government,“ the General authority,” etc.). If replacing “This has relation to two objects“ with “This element is directly related to two points,” or replacing “a man will be interested in whatever he possesses, in proportion to the firmness or precariousness of the tenure by which he holds it” with “a man is interested in whatever he possesses in proportion to how firmly (or precariously) he possesses it,” were really supposed to make irresistible reading out of Federalist 71 — where Hamilton rambles somewhat unconvincingly about why a four-year presidential term is optimal — the project would be a failure.
But since ordinary readers are even less likely to wade through Charles than motivated ones through Publius, and nobody who can’t read the originals will read these versions either, the translations are irrelevant to the project. What will compel reader attention, in a way that the translations don‘t even try to, are the brief intros to each theme, and the one-page summaries, along with Beck’s and Charles’s introductions. And there, where the action is, the book’s real theme becomes clear.
Here’s the first sentence of the book, in Charles’s preface: “Our Founders strongly believed that Divine Providence played a critical role in the birth of our country.” Scanning subheads in the theme intros yields “One Nation, Under God” and “The Almighty’s Finger.” The boiled-down, one-sentence “Message” of Federalist 1, according to the team: “America is special because our rights come from God, but those rights must be protected by a central government that serves the people.” That essay‘s “Relevance to Today”? “Even President Obama seems to have mixed feelings about American exceptionalism.”
It goes on and on. In the thin guise of a re-engagement with Hamilton’s, Madison’s, and Jay’s dry, focused effort to persuade New York to ratify the U.S. Constitution, the story of Beck’s new book is Beck’s usual one, as far from the Federalist trio’s political purposes in their essays as can be imagined (regardless of their scant and occasional references to divinity, which the Beck summaries stretch well beyond the breaking point): the transforming power of God in history, the transcendent mission of America in executing that power, and the many violations of that mission evinced by liberal social programs of the 20th and 21st centuries.
“America is special because our rights come from God”: Not one word or idea in Federalist 1, even as “translated” by Charles, comes anywhere near supporting that reading of what Beck and his people have chosen to present as the essay’s main message. But nobody’s going to read the translation — they’ll scan the summary. Beck, Charles, and their readership are determined to believe not only that Alexander Hamilton, of all people, concurred in such a formulation — derived from what can only be their utter, possibly deliberate misunderstanding of the Declaration’s preamble and a distortion of the old English theory of natural rights — but also that Hamilton would have written the introduction to the Federalist papers in order, first and foremost, to connect that idea to the need for forming a federal government.
Like I said: weird.