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 even 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, and I use that 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 adapting the Federalist essays, unbidden, to modern English. So when 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, master and the acolyte teamed up in thhe publishing project here under review.
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 first-draft 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 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 contents: 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’s government. 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.
If you think the original Federalist is boring, get a load of Beck’s version. As a soporific, the original Publius has nothing on the piano major’s translations, which 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 Beck and Charles than motivated ones through Publius, and nobody who can’t read the originals will read these versions either, the translations are clearly irrelevant to the project’s real purposse. 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 themes’ intros yields “One Nation, Under God” and “The Almighty’s Finger.” Federalist 1, according to the team, has this boiled-down, one-sentence “Message”: “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 the originals’ 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.
I invite Hogeland’s readers and fans to listen in Tuesday 7/12 from noon to one Et to my interview with David Goldfield, on his new book America Aflame, which is a new perspective on the Civil War. A great very thorough book on the period 1834-76. Streaming live at wscafm.org, podcast later at theburtcohenshow.com
And in Federalist 1, Hamilton seems to have special insight into Beck and the Tea Party candidates.
“…a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
On his show, Glenn and his minions have been putting on little skits basically implying that the hypothetical liberal you’ll be arguing with will be too stupid to understand the original language of the essays. I guess this is his way of not insulting his audience’s intelligence…”you’ll need the simple translation for the dumb progressive!”
Beck is working hard to create more sacred texts for the theocratic state. Like traditional sacred texts, they hold all Truth but also require interpretation by a priesthood.
That the US is founded on a series of essentially anonymous texts, now claimed by Glen Beck and his ilk, only tells me the US is a schizophrenic delusion created by a bunch of megalomaniacs, especially Alexander Hamilton. We are getting our just desserts. It all began with the whiskey tax. Now we have an ethanol mandate.
i read Beck’s book on the federalist and bought a copy. From reading his book I came away with an appreciation of these essays that I NEVER had from reading the convoluted language of original essays;
I haven’t read this book and am unlikely to do so, particularly after reading your review about the contents. In my opinion, you’ve done a very useful review… for the most part. However, (there’s always a however, it seems when it comes to Hysteriography), I feel compelled to comment on this:
I’ve been working my way through the (example) Federalist and putting them into modern American English for myself, as a way of making sure I grok the meaning. One does get used to the prolixity of Hamilton, but it can be tedious at times. (Interestingly enough, I notice a tendency toward this in much of your writing, too. :-)) Your inability to see the value of these documents is surprising for someone who writes history. Madison is arguably entitled to his appellation as the Father of the Constitution and many, many Appellate and Supreme Court Justices have relied up its texts as a veritable owner’s manual for the supreme law of the land – the Constitution.
However, upon reflection, I suppose I should not be surprised. I’ve read the pejorative way in which you refer to the Framers of our government in numerous other pieces here. I recall arguments along the lines of, “they didn’t have cell phones, so they couldn’t possibly have built a system of government that can work for today.” Obviously, we disagree on that.
No, we don’t disagree regarding “arguments along the lines of ‘they didn’t have cell phones, so they couldn’t possibly have built a system of government that can work for today.’” Since nobody thinks anything along those lines, there’s no disagreement. And there’s nothing to be gained by efforts to preempt discussion by casting, for example, my suspicion that the Federalist Papers have been overplayed, including by judges, as an “inability to see” a value in the papers that’s apparently self-evident to you, so requires no explication, other than the usual kvelling about Madison’s importance to the Constitution (nothing to be gained by calling criticism of the founders “pejorative,” either). Slogging through all of the Publius essays no doubt repays the effort of those who want to do it, as indeed I suggested. But I was dissenting from Beck’s assertion that if all Americans could only understand the Federalist essays, they would gain a clear and redemptive understanding of the Constitution’s essential nature. I don’t think that’s what those papers were or are. And I’m sure their authors didn’t think so either.
Thanks for your response.
Please have a look at this article on your site and see if you don’t think you were being a tiny bit pejorative about the founders of our country. Your choice of picture starts off the tone with its caption. Referring to George Washington as “our boy” might also qualify. However, perhaps I’m mistaken. I’ve not read every article here.
Neither have I read Beck’s book, and thanks to your review, I won’t bother. My contention is not that the Federalist, the Pacificus-Helviticus, or the anti-Federalists are then end-all, be-all for today. Nor is it blind adulation for the founders that I’m about. That being said, I can’t think of a politician in any party today, who could hold a candle, intellectually, to Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, etc. They weren’t perfect, but compare Timothy Geitner to Albert Gallatin … WWTFT has been an exploration of the roots of American exceptionalism, something else we probably disagree on.
But I digress. The Federalist Papers are only one aspect of understanding the Constitution, on that we can agree.
It’s not pejorative to eschew reverence.
The argument that I believe Mr Hogeland to be making, Martin, is not about the relative intellectual merits of Obama and Washington, or Gallatin and Geithner. That really is somewhat irrelevant. It’s that people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century had real, serious differences with each other that can’t easily be sorted out. Reverence or not, the only things that were really sorted out among the Founders were “the rules of the game” – because some sort of decision-making apparatus is the only way to avoid a constant state of civil war (and even then, as my research or Mr Hogeland’s book on the Whiskey Rebellion would point out, there were still issues to settle). These questions weren’t ever decisively settled – Federalists raged against Republicans and vice versa until their arguments were superseded by a different set of questions.
Most Federalists like Hamilton were really nationalists. They named themselves such because of the Colonial public’s distrust of nationalism. In Lincoln’s era, and sympathetic historians after him, the Unionists could point to acts and quotes of many Federalists that clearly had nationalist leanings and statements, as this was what the Federalists desired. The Southern secessionists could likewise point to acts and quotes against nationalism because this is what the Federalists had to say to gain power.
Your website denies me. I hope I can get to you this way.
Your “Declaration” is a permanent book. It should be required reading for every high school senior, as a corrective to the misinformation they have received since third grade.
Your book should be a fixture in every book club in every public library.
I found your books through your blog.
I found your blog address in Clarissa Atkinson’s blog, The Oldest Vocation.
Not sure what you mean by the website denying you — if you’ve made commentrs that haven’t been approved, etc., there’s been a WordPress glitch of some kind that has kept comments out of my view, but I think it’s now OK. In any event, thanls very much for your kind words about “Declaration.”