Thursday, June 3, 2010

Insulting the Framers in Wasilla

Perhaps I'm just in a cranky mood today, but...

We all know that Sarah Palin loves the words "common sense."  And "conservative."  She's recently adopted another one, a favorite of Tea Partiers: "Constitutional."  Alas, she's also taken to combining them: things she likes are now "Common Sense Constitutional Conservative."  Hmmm...make that "Commonsense Constitutional Conservative," as in the candidate she's supporting for the GOP nomination over incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski.

You know what, though?  I won't get into whether conservative ideas are common sense, or Commonsense, or not.  But I'm certain that the Constitution of the United States of America is not common sense.  It's a sophisticated document, based on a complex and subtle theory of politics.  It was drafted by brilliant men, who relied not on common sense but on serious study of politics, history, and philosophy.  Chief among them was James Madison.  Madison was a practical man, and certainly had practical political experience, having served in the Continental Congress and the Virginia General Assembly.  But he did not believe that the sorts of things that he learned from practical experience were enough when he took it upon himself to organize the Constitutional Convention and to prepare a draft plan for a new government.  So Madison made a study of it.  Bandwith being somewhat limited in those days, what Madison did was ask his good friend Tom (who happened to be in France on government business) to scour the bookshops of Paris for books's Adrienne Koch (quoted in William Lee Miller's wonderful The Business of May Next):
Madison specifically requested Jefferson to purchase for him "Treatises on the ancient and modern Federal Republics, on the law of Nations, and the History, natural and political, of the new World," adding to these subjects "such of the Greek and Roman authors, where they will be got very cheap, as are worth having, and are not on the common list of school classics...Jefferson's thoughtful provision of books for Madison, including some thirty-seven volumes of the coveted Encyclopedie methodique, which Madison called "a complete scientific library," treatises on morality, and histories of European countries, surely made Madison the most cosmopolitan statesman never to have quit American shores.
The Constitution was, in large part, the product of what Madison learned from studying the books that Jefferson sent him (as well as, presumably, those Greeks and Romans he already knew from the "common school list").  It's a serious insult to Madison, and to the rest of the framers of the Constitution, to belittle their efforts by referring to it as nothing but applied common sense. 

The Sage of Wasilla isn't going to take my advice to cut it out, but I think I'll start referring to her as  "Madison-insulting," to go with whatever other names she should be called.  Framer-belittling?  Hmmm...if you have a good one, drop a comment below and I'll adopt it.

Two notes, one serious.  In my opinion, that Jefferson happened to be off in Paris when the serious work of writing the Constitution needed to be done is one of the most amazingly lucky things in American history...really, in the history of democracy.  Second, don't miss the Madison-insulting former governor's explanation (follow the link above) about how she's really not feuding with Murkowski.  Classic Palin.  By the way, my guess is that at this point her endorsement is going to be worth a lot more in South Carolina and Nevada and other places that don't know her so well, but I guess we'll see what happens.


  1. Please expand on how Jefferson's absence was lucky.

  2. I second Matt Jarvis's comment. I assume Jonathan's comment has something to with TJ's anti-federalism bent, but I'm very curious to hear more. Overall, it seems like negative historical perception of Jefferson is really on the upswing these days.

  3. Ditto the previous comments. And considering Lodus's point about Jefferson's anti-federalist tendencies, how did him and Madison remain close friends? And how did Madison shift toward Jefferson's side latter one? Did they really dislike Hamilton that much?

  4. The comment about Jefferson's absence being good for the Constitution may also have to with Jefferson's inconsistencies (e.g., railing against the slave trade while owning slaves; buying the Louisiana Territory even though he didn't believe he had the authority to do so). For all of Jefferson's brilliance, nobody was better at introducing cognitive dissonance into a room.

  5. John Adams even wrote an encyclopedia of the governments of the world (which Madison consulted but didn't much like):

  6. Have to say, I really adore Steve Benen's closing title for Sarah... whatever else you might call her, "former half-term governor" almost has to end the sentence. That's a title that really needs to stick in the public maw.

  7. I suppose I should respond...I just don't trust Jefferson...I put him, as a thinker, a lot closer to Rousseau (and more sympathetic to the French Revolution than I want anyone drafting my constitution to be. I'm not saying that he's Robespierre, since he obviously wasn't, but...and that's not counting the whole race thing, with him, which one really does have to count (although I don't know that it would have mattered in Philadelphia). I realize that not everyone is anti-Rousseau. I am.

    On Adams, my sense is totally from Gordon Wood -- Adams was a man of 1776, which was great then but sort of sad by >1787.

  8. Shantyhag,

    Yup, I do like "former half-term governor" very much, although not quite as much as I like "sage of Wasilla." Just rolls off the tongue, no? Fortunately, we don't have to choose.

  9. Hi, Jon,

    Love both! I'd find a way to use them in concert.


  10. She may be a former half-term governor, but she's also a full-time grifter, and she hasn't given that career up, as far as I can tell. Sage of Wasilla is nicely ironic, but she's really just a Wasilla Wannabee.

    "Former half-term governor, grifter, and Wasilla wannabee, Sarah Palin, managed another media appearance today..."

  11. Hmm, I'd say Jefferson was decidedly more cut throat than Rousseau. Admittedly I don't know much of Rousseau's political involvement, but its difficult to beat Jefferson's history of harassing Federalists from office and paying the gossip columnists of his day to incessantly refer to John Adams, a close and old friend, as a Crown-seeking hermaphrodite.

  12. Perhaps a good place for Ms. Palin to start would be Akhil Amar's enlightening volume from 2005 - "America's Constitution: A Biography."


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