Mary Webster on Paul Revere Radio

As part of the run-up to our Federalist Papers episode, I listened to this interview on the Paul Revere Radio podcast interviewing Mary E. Webster, who published a couple of volumes of The Federalist Papers in "modern English."

I can think of few texts with which this podcast is in contact which is less in need of a "modern" translation. On her web page, she provides an example of her changes:

The original text: AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

Her edit: You are asked to study and consider adopting a new Constitution for the United States of America to replace the current, ineffective federal government. This is a very important decision. Our country’s existence depends on it. So does the safety and welfare of its people, communities, and States. We will decide the fate of a nation that is, in many respects, the most interesting in the world.

So her purpose is to serve those with limited vocabularies and no historical interest in engaging the original text. I can't speak to the overall accuracy or utility of what she's produced, but on the interview, she betrays some interesting ideas about what would aid her in producing the best possible study guide of the text. First, as the papers were published anonymously, she has no interest in which writer wrote which, so evidently the different temperaments of Hamilton vs. Madison (evident in light of their subsequent careers) aren't worthy of study. Second, she thought about taking a class, learning something about the history surrounding the documents, maybe about the philosophical source material, but she decided that she wanted only the pure experience of engaging the text.

So here we've got a nice example of the "Biblical" approach to the text that we found so warped on our podcast discussion. And, surprise! She's super right wing and in the interview often refers to those that "hate the Constitution," as if the only alternatives are blind worship of the sacred text and heated rejection. As we tried to emphasize in our discussion, we need to keep in mind who Madison and Hamilton were trying to address, i.e. what preconceptions they would expect in their audience given the then-current political climate and their recent revolutionary history. We can agree with Madison, for instance, in his diagnosis of factionalism in Federalist 10, but disagree that the measures proposed (a large state, plus separation of powers) are sufficient to deal with the problem he identified, as is grossly apparent by our current political situation.

Here is Mary being interviewed by Dennis Grover, who's labeled "Host: Liberty & Justice for All"

Watch on YouTube.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. John Bonnice says

    Although I believe that you are correct in your assesment, it seems that most of the important topics (economics, ethics, politics, religion etc.) have become so vast and complicated that most people don’t seem inclined to put in the requisite study to gain a decent understanding. Therefore, 1) this translation may serve a definite need for a quick read and 2) how can you have an informed citizenry when education level is going down and need for understanding level is going up?

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