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August 07, 2005

A malodorous fog

"A malodorous fog" is the title of a New York Times editorial today on a subject I'm not going to write about, even though it could provide the opportunity to make juvenile jokes about animal emissions.

But the title could be more aptly applied to a letter to the editor from the formerly respected historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The letter has no blog-safe link, but it's short and deserves quoting in full:

To the Editor:

"Nomination for Supreme Court Stirs Debate on Influence of Federalist Society" (news article, Aug. 1) does not go into the shocking ignorance of American history displayed by the Federalist Society's members.

The Federalist Party, the party of Washington, Adams and Hamilton, stood for a strong central government. The Federalist Society stands for negative government and states' rights. If its members were honest, they would call themselves, in the terms of the 1790's, the Anti-Federalist Society.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
New York, Aug. 1, 2005

Before accusing people of "shocking ignorance" it's usually advisable to leave one's own ignorance at home.

  • First, the Federalist Society is not meant to be a latter-day Federalist Party. Its principal hero is James Madison, who was an opponent of the Federalist Party.
  • Second, the Federalist Party did stand for a strong central government, but you have to understand that in the context of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Hamiltonian effort to strengthen the national government was made in a time when society was largely agrarian, and the simple concept of a national economy was fairly radical. To suggest that today's overbearing federal government is Hamiltonian is absurd and unbecoming a real historian.
  • Third, most members of the Federalist Society, I think it's fair to say, do not support "negative government," whatever that might be. Most members I've spoken to support smaller government. I don't know how many support "states' rights," which I assume Schlesinger uses as a stand-in for pro-slavery, pro-segregation, and probably generally racist views, but I suspect it's very small. What those I've spoken to support is federalism, the concept, enshrined in the Constitution, that limits the federal government to enumerated powers, leaving the remainder to the state and local governments. That is, they would side with Justice Thomas on the scope of the commerce clause, rather than with Justice Breyer.

A malodorous fog indeed.