The year 1776 was not much different from the year 76. In both years and eras there were no airplanes, cars, electric lights, radio, telephone, telegraph, television, Ipods or Ipads. There was no electricity, no steam, no combustion engine, no natural gas power, not even propane. There was no Internet, nor were there railroads, buses, steamships, telephone or telegraph wires and no tall buildings.
Travel was by horse or horse and carriage. It took Jefferson ten days to reach Philadelphia from Monticello and John Adams 7 or 8 from Concord. It took George Washington 8 days to get to his inauguration ceremony in New York from Mt. Vernon.
In 76 there were paved roads, candle light, oil lamps, horse drawn vehicles, chariots, bronze and iron tools and weapons, wooden naval vessels, spears, shields and massive armies. There were splendid edifices that were not improved upon in 1776, but merely copied. In 76 there was a single, uniform language, Latin, throughout the advanced world and another common language used for philosophy, literature and science—Greek. Both were the languages of literature, government, philosophy and poetry among the educated and gave us many of the world’s greatest documents, in fact far more in almost any given year in ancient times than were produced in the entire Colonial period in America.
By 76 versions of the Christian Bible had been written, from various sources, and people today believe in that document so fervently that they arrange their entire lives to follow its often contradictory and irrational teachings. But the point is that in 2010, we still adhere to most of what it taught, and…to be fair…most of what it taught was and is very valuable, even if it were only to learn the simple logic of morality in entertaining parables. The revelatory aspects of the Bible, the mystical, often unfathomable parts are little different from those same kinds of writings in many, many other myths and religions. The more fanciful parts of the Bible had more impact in an era when we knew much less about that part of the world over the horizon, let alone the rest of the universe. So…what does the Bible have to do with the Federalist Papers?
By 1776, a few people understood the heavens as well as the shape and size of the earth. A larger group in Europe and elsewhere, including the U.S. Colonies, were beginning to understand some of the chemical and physical complexities of this planet and, although far from solving major international problems were nonetheless well along in examining national and international systems of government. While the latter part of the 18th Century was on the cusp of many great technological advances that would move the world forward in dramatic ways, no one could have conceived a united nation on the American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, plus Alaska and Hawaii, with 300 million people.
The Federalist papers no more foreshadowed today’s society than the disciples of Jesus Christ could have predicted that their book would one day be taken up by the very Roman Empire that was oppressing them. Hamilton, Jay and Madison, when they wrote the Federalist papers were merely writing down those principles that they had learned from their political experience and their education in the world’s previous documentation on how societies may best progress. If they were to be resurrected today, they would have no understanding of the complexities of international monetary negotiations, FCC regulations or nuclear proliferation treaties. The conditions for those issues simply did not exist.
Supreme Court Decisions grow and are modified generation to generation, as we understand the world better. The Dred Scott decision would hopefully never be made today because the world has long since determined that slavery is an evil practice for one person to inflict upon another. It is outlawed everywhere. So the Dred Scott decision is unthinkable today. Of course, when we see the signs of the tea party bigots, it gives us cause to wonder.
Legislation is of its time. Interpretation of that legislation, as in the Federalist Papers, may have further illumination, and may have implications for future societies, but it is limited…without question…by the knowledge and the times of those who write it. Many of the laws that were written in the late 18th Century have not been part of ongoing Supreme Court modifications right up until today, in the early 21st Century. We can’t put people in stocks in the village square. There are no stocks, no village square, and—more often than not—no village.
In fact, outside of political discussion—in the real world—every day we make changes to old, 18th Century policies when they are no longer relevant to the modern world. Only people like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia want to return to the good old days of the horse and buggy in their minds and in practice. Modern citizens do not want to complicate their lives with outdated and foolish legislation simply because it was written down by a founding father. We want to get on with our lives, streamline legislation and make it relevant to life in a modern, free and democratic state. We can remain true to Federalist principles without being obliged to return to the 8-day trips from Monticello to Philadelphia.
This is where we encounter some contradiction that favors the modern “Federalists,” but not enough. Certainly it may be argued that we were astonishingly fortunate to have residing in the 13 Colonies at that time individuals with a breadth of knowledge which for that day was remarkable. People like Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin and Madison would be rare in any generation. But to have been fortunate enough to have them together and others, in that place at that time was incredibly fortunate.
But that does not detract from the issue. These were brilliant men, but they were living in a world that had not substantially changed since the days of the early Roman Empire. For example, they saw themselves as one piece. Men, not women, who had fought together, shared the same heritage, non-African, the same wars, the same religion, mostly Protestant, and the same experience, the colonial period.