Chronicling the nation's history

Newspapers have a long, honorable tradition of playing a vital role in the important debates and dialogues in this country.

It was via newspapers that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay successfully argued in the Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788 to replace the Articles of Confederation with the newly drafted U.S. Constitution.

It was Federalist Paper No. 45, published in the Independent Journal of New York, in which Madison assured Americans that the powers of the new federal government would be strictly limited.

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined," he asserted. "Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected."

Two weeks ago, when Congress and the executive branch of that federal government clamored for an unprecedented bailout of the credit market, newspapers were in the thick of it, most supporting the $700 billion infusion of tax money to buoy the flailing financial sector.

Review-Journal Publisher Sherman Frederick joined the fray with a rare mid-week column calling on Nevada Reps. Shelley Berkley, Jon Porter and Dean Heller to support the bailout/rescue.

"Despite the supercharged rhetoric surrounding this debate, I don't think we're headed to hell in a hand basket with a brief stop at the Great Depression," Frederick wrote. "But we are in a bad spot nationally with credit markets. If it is not fixed, it will exact great pain on growing markets such as Las Vegas. Las Vegas, of course, is already coping with the recession."

During a meeting with the newspaper's editorial board this past week, Berkley explained that she first balked at the bailout plan, which she said was essentially a two-page bill that gave unchecked access to tax money to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson without proper oversight by the Congress.

No proper checks and balances.

A couple of days later, the bill was rewritten into several hundred pages and Berkley had heard from dozens of people from across the business spectrum back home pleading for a bailout/rescue. She and Porter voted to approve it and Heller refused.

The Review-Journal quoted Heller saying, "You will end up with more deficits. This is out-of-control spending, partisan politics of the worst that I have seen in the short time I have been here."

Over the years, Congress has expanded its powers beyond anything imagined by the Federalists, to the point Congress can tell states to raise the drinking age or lower the speed limit or give standardized tests in public schools under threat of withholding tax money.

The press has chronicled it all. Good or bad.

We sometimes forget that there were also the Anti-Federalist Papers, such as No. 46, penned by An Old Whig and printed in the Maryland Gazette and the Baltimore Advertiser on Nov. 2, 1788.

The essayist predicted a future far different from that described by Madison.

"My object is to consider that undefined, unbounded and immense power which is comprised in the following clause -- 'And to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this constitution in the government of the United States; or in any department or offices thereof,' " An Old Whig wrote. "Under such a clause as this, can anything be said to be reserved and kept back from Congress? Can it be said that the Congress have no power but what is expressed? 'To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper' -- or, in other words, to make all such laws which the Congress shall think necessary and proper -- for who shalt judge for the legislature what is necessary and proper? Who shall set themselves above the sovereign? What inferior legislature shall set itself above the supreme legislature? To me it appears that no other power on earth can dictate to them, or control them, unless by force; and force, either internal or external, is one of those calamities which every good man would wish his country at all times to be delivered from."

Or as Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as saying after the Constitutional Convention, when asked what form of government had been wrought, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at