Saturday, March 20, 2010

Subway Reading

The other day I saw a guy reading "The Federalist Papers" on the subway. You see a lot of people reading a lot of things on the subway, but reading The Federalist Papers is about as erudite as subway reading gets. You all remember the Federalist Papers, of course. Written jointly by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay, they were collectively the argument put forward to advocate for the new constitution that had emerged from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Apparently, Hamilton wrote the majority of them, but a few of Madison's are probably the most famous.

The guy I saw reading happened to be perusing Madison's essay - Federalist 41 - which argues that the new federal government had certain classes of powers that could not be usurped by the states, including things like the power to tax and coin money, interstate commerce, maintaining protection against foreign powers, regulating intercourse with other nations, restraining states when they act against their own or national interests, etc. I was intrigued, so I asked him why he was reading that particular essay.

He was pretty immersed in his reading, so he didn't respond at first. Then he looked up slowly and said that he has always liked Madison and that this particular paper is relevant right now because of all this recent talk about the states having the power to override the federal government - a much maligned but surprisingly enduring doctrine known as nullification. Nullification is ridiculous and clearly unconstitutional, he said, even this Supreme Court would agree, even this ONE he repeated, but every few decades when states don't like the way things are going for them, they try to resuscitate the old, worn out idea of nullification as a way to challenge the feds. It's stupid and dangerous.

I nodded, impressed with his passion and his knowledge. I asked him what his favorite essay from the Federalist was and he said he really didn't have one, though, like so many others, he was fond of what Madison said in Federalist 10 about the value of factions and how power needs to get distributed in a republican society. He also likes 51 where Madison makes the case for checks and balances. And then he looked at me and asked do you see a pattern here? And I, a bit startled, didn't know what to say. I recalled all those times being called on by a teacher in school and having to wait out the silence of not knowing and not responding until she moved on to someone else. And then he said, don't you see? These are all essays about ensuring that power is shared, distributed, limited, dispersed. Only by preventing any one entity from having too much power can a truly democratic society flourish.

Wow! I said. Thanks for sharing that. I've really learning something. He turned back to Federalist 41 and I turned back to the contours of my own mind to contemplate the wisdom of James Madison. He'd be proud, don't you think, to know that he is still being read so avidly, even on the New York City subway!

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