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. (more…)