My Cheat Sheet to The Federalist Papers

Long ago I made the mistake of wading unprepared into The Federalist Papers. In 1970 your humble blogger was a high school sophomore who bit off more than he could chew.

I found Publius’ prose thick and rambling with incomprehensible sentences the length of paragraphs. Little did I know then that the style of the primary writer, Alexander Hamilton, is among the toughest for modern readers to comprehend.

Unfortunately, Glenn Beck’s The Original Argument was forty-one years into the future. Had it been around in 1970, I would have devoured it.1

So, I tossed the Papers aside and didn’t revisit them until the mid-1990s. With more maturity and fewer girls on my mind, I gave The Federalist another try. I still thought Publius was unnecessarily thick, but nonetheless I ploughed through them all. My sense at the time was like the thirty-something guy who runs his first marathon. The point isn’t to win; it is to finish. I still have that sense of accomplishment as the yellowed 1961 paperback edition by the historian Clinton Rossiter rests on my bookshelf. It is horribly dog-eared, highlighted, underlined in red pen, and generally falling apart. I’ll never throw it away and refer to it to this day.

As for my Cheat Sheet, it is a book. In 1999, Mary E. Webster published The Federalist Papers in Modern Language Indexed for Today’s Political Issues. Webster was a novelist who also happened to be a sign language interpreter. She attributes her sign language skills as central to her approach to setting up her book as an easy searchable database and reference. Hot d@amn! This is a first source for anyone with an idea of where he or she wants to go in their research.

Name a topic of the framing era. It is in Webster’s index. A common thread among my squibs is the bad idea of the 17th Amendment. Although the 17th Amendment is obviously not a topic of The Federalist, the Senate certainly is, and the why of the Framers’ design of the senate is in her index. Curious about lessons our Framers learned from the Athenians, Spartans, other Greek cities and their governments and wars? Webster indexes them all.

To make the papers easier to comprehend, she breaks up long sentences and paragraphs and substitutes words more commonly used today. Go to the original Federalist number if you must, but Webster gets Publius’ ideas across without the pain.

As a bonus, Webster goes clause-by-clause through the Constitution and notes the pertinent Federalist(s). For instance, four Federalists touch on Article V (38, 39, 43, 85).

For Constitutional devotees’, Webster didn’t just craft a reference; she transformed The Federalist into a page-turner for those dedicated to America’s first principles in free government.

1. Beck, G. (2011). The Original Argument – The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution. New York: Threshold Editions. This book is less reference and more a general translation of The Federalist Papers. Very readable and highly recommended for teenagers and adults alike.

2 thoughts on “My Cheat Sheet to The Federalist Papers

  1. Mary E, Webster

    Thank you for acknowledging my work. I continue to be impressed by the authors’ keen insight into human behavior.

    1. Rodney Dodsworth Post author

      You are welcome. I regard your work as an invaluable, can’t-do-without resource!

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