Our Subversive Founders
A warning label on the Federalist Papers? It's not such a crazy idea.


Recently my colleague Jay Nordlinger wrote about a new edition of the Federalist Papers that comes equipped with a disclaimer for unwary readers:

This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work. 

As the reader who tipped Jay off writes, “I will be rereading this work very carefully — it seems that the first few times through I’ve completely missed the sex!” To be sure, the Federalist Papers were written in the 1780s and embody the customs and beliefs of the times. “Man” is used generically to mean “person,” and the existence of slavery, while not endorsed, is accepted as a given (among other things, slavery was still legal in New York, whose citizens the papers were addressed to). If that bothers you, and your kids are sensitive and easily influenced, it might be a good idea to explain these points beforehand — subtly stressing the “sexuality” part if you want them to pay close attention.


Yet the warning is not as overblown as it seems, because the Federalist Papers do, in fact, contain messages that, if taken seriously by impressionable youths, could upset the very basis on which our society is founded. Consider, for example, this passage from the 23rd Federalist about the role of the federal government: 

The principal purposes to be answered by union are these — the common defence of the members; the preservation of the public peace, as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.

Nothing in there about redistribution of wealth, insulating houses, selling insurance, running car companies, or making kids eat their vegetables. Imagine the mischief this antiquated line of thought could inspire!

Then there are these extracts, from the 32nd . . .

As the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States.