The salons of our Versailles-on-the-Potomac ring with gossip about the election. Every day brings exciting news… about Michelle’s and Cindy’s dresses, changes in the lineups of each team’s gladiators, the daily score of money raised, and new fantasies about the “true” values and beliefs of each candidate.
Listening to this bustle, I wonder if we remain capable of self-government? Or, like the Romans of the late Republic, have we grown weary of the burden — and wait for someone to govern us? To shed light on this, let’s compare the political rhetoric and literature of America’s past with today’s.
- The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
- The Federalist Papers
- Presidential inaugural addresses and State of the Union Speeches
I. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858: 7 debates, 3 hours each
Take a look at the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (also see the wikipedia entry). They read like term papers of today’s college sophmores. They are longer, more complex and sophisticated than the “debates” of today, in which candidates volley sound-bites with journalists.
Consider the Federalist Papers. Originally published as 77 articles, the demand was so great that they were reprinted and eventually published in book form (with 8 new chapters). They were politial literature directed at the American people: merchants, farmers, and professionals (as defined at the time, male and white).
What if the New York Times were to publish the Federalist Papers, one chapter every Sunday for 85 weeks? Would they have a large audience? More likely they would have to donate the advertising space to Public Service advertisements and charities.