For the past couple of years, I have not kept up too much with American politics. I read the paper some. And I vote. (Duh.) But I haven’t been too tuned in to current events beyond that.
Since the election, I have been thinking about my country a fair amount, and this past weekend I came across a new series of Penguin “Civic Classics” in a wonderful bookstore in Mendocino, CA. (If you’re ever in Mendocino, it’s called The Gallery Bookshop, and it’s right on Main Street. It’s great.) The series includes The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution in a single volume; Thomas Paine’s famous Common Sense; a compilation of a selection of The Federalist Papers; a collection of Lincoln’s speeches; a collection of assorted American political speeches; and a series of landmark Supreme Court Decisions.
And I bet you’re yawning.
But bear with me: I’m reading The Federalist Papers volume now, and I started with Editor Richard Beeman’s excellent introduction to the whole series. In his introduction, Beeman writes that “acquiring knowledge of America’s history and of our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not merely an abstract, academic exercise” (Beeman, xvii). Beeman goes on to say that civic education is a crucial part of being an American citizen, because it equips us with the tools necessary to utilize the American institutions of government to their fullest extent.
For those who need a quick reminder, The Federalist Papers were drafted by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay following the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The essays, published under the name Publius, were intended to drum up support for the new Constitution in the thirteen fledgling states.
Hamilton wrote the bulk of the essays, including the opening essay, Federalist No. 1. In this opening essay, Hamilton writes that “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection of choice.” In other words, we have had the opportunity, as Americans, to take part in one of the greatest social experiments in the course of human history; and by our actions, we can prove that representative government guided by thoughtful policy is not only possible, but powerful and effective.
It’s grandiose, yes. But it’s also really inspiring! After reading the introduction and the first essay, my feelings were something along the lines of
One thing I love about this country is that we have really high ideals that we care a lot about.
Getting reality to look like those ideals is another story. I recognize that. I recognize that we have a lot of problems that we face as a nation. But I agree with Beeman that a crucial step toward being equipped to deal with the future is understanding the past.
So today, I’m studying the history of the United States. Also, I highly recommend the Penguin Civic Classics, because they’re super good.