Break down the 2012 election into something fundamentally American — as opposed to the economy, which is universal, or the latest gaffe by Mitt Romney or Joe Biden, which is shallower fare — and it revolves around this question: How much federal government is the right amount?
That theme runs through the history of American government, even predating the establishment of the United States. It is the specifics of the debate that change, with impassioned battles over President Barack Obama's health-care law the centerpiece of today's argument.
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Federal government power is therefore most pertinent to this campaign season, and it's chronicled in the timely release of Penguin Civic Classics. The six volumes span the gamut. American mistrust of authority surfaces on the first page of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" when he declares that government "even in its best state is but a necessary evil." Then there are this country's impulses to look toward leaders to take a more muscular role in times of crisis. After a stint as Louisiana governor, Huey Long proposed maximum and minimum wealth levels for all citizens in his 1934 "every man a king" speech, published in "American Political Speeches."
Not all of the Civic Classics volumes pertain to the same theme. Paine's pamphlet is preoccupied with making war with England. "Lincoln Speeches" primarily selects remarks that make the moral case against slavery, with Honest Abe's best thoughts on states' rights found concurrently in "American Political Speeches."
The debate over governmental powers need not be the sole purpose to pick up this collection, now with snazzy new cover art in the style of Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" political cartoon.
Perhaps in a time of partisan sclerosis, one might be searching for an excuse to get worked up into a patriotic lather about the great things this country is capable of accomplishing. "The United States Constitution," annotated and joined with "The Declaration of Independence," will do the trick, even as its passages on slavery — and other passages in other books, such as the Dred Scott verdict in "Supreme Court Decisions" — turn the stomach.
Another reason to get that volume: As series editor Richard Beeman notes, fewer than half of Americans can distinguish between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Maybe everyone ought to actually read the documents, then, before launching into ill-informed broadsides about how un-American the other side is.
The Constitution, in the collection's first volume, is also the most worthy starting point regarding governmental powers. The tenets of "general welfare" and "the Interstate Commerce Clause" and the right of the federal government to tax, were central to the legal underpinnings (or lack thereof) buttressing Obama's health-care law. They are laid out here and illuminated by Beeman's annotation. He notes that the income tax rate on the highest bracket has varied from 7 percent in 1913 to more than 90 percent after World War II, a stark reminder of how widely American politics has swung on the Tea Party "economic liberty"/Occupy Wall Street "plutocratic plunder" continuum.
Although it is labeled the third volume, "The Federalist Papers" (or, rather, a selection of them) ought to be read immediately after the Constitution. The papers are their own annotation of the Constitution, except as annotated by authors of the document itself. They have taken on a sizable role in modern legal circles, particularly conservative ones, with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia leading the charge. It might seem odd that conservatives would embrace a set of papers that argued for a stronger federal government than "Anti-Federalists" of the time wanted, but then Nos. 45 and 46 enumerate states' rights in a way modern conservatives can embrace.
Today's rigid GOP stance against expanding federal government and in favor of industry unencumbered by regulation is but one incarnation of "Republican," as "American Political Speeches" makes clear. When liberal Democrat William Jennings Bryan lashes out against business interests, it's one thing, but when GOP icon Theodore Roosevelt does, it's another. Near the book's end, there is a glimpse of the current GOP philosophy, with Ronald Reagan famously declaring that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
"Supreme Court Decisions" is most insightful to the contours of the governmental powers debate in chapter one, particularly with Justice John Marshall laying down early markers about the scope of federal government authority in rulings like McCulloch v. Maryland. Alas, the most current ruling in the chapter is already dated, as Hamdi v. Rumsfeld mattered in the 2008 elections, less in these. National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius might have upheld the constitutionality of Obama's health-care law, but it could have an enormous impact on federal power because of the nature of the ruling. Maybe publication logistics prohibited its inclusion.
Other aspects of the collection might also soon be dated, because election priorities change so quickly. Some might grow in stature: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a big deal in 2010, is bigger now and could be massive by the next presidential election. Yet Beeman overstates the case in his series introduction by declaring that these texts have never been more meaningful to our lives than now. A few of them might have been a bit more tangibly important in, say, the election of 1860.
But they do indeed matter. Just don't count on getting closure on any of these debates by re-reading them. After all, our country has been at it for a while. And, as Beeman notes, "the so-called meaning of the Constitution was not at all self-evident — even to the framers of the Constitution themselves."
Tim Starks is a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun