Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Jefferson & Madison and the Principles of American Government

Early in the year 1825, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison corresponded on the subject of a government textbook for the school of law at the recently chartered University of Virginia, which would be opening for classes in March of that year.  Jefferson was the Rector, and his close friend and political collaborator, Madison, was a member of the Board of Visitors.  Declining to prescribe a textbook for any other subjects such as science or mathematics, Jefferson felt that he and Madison were qualified as the “best judges” as to the principles of government that should be taught at the new university. The following two letters ultimately served as the basis for the Resolution of March 4, 1825, adopted by Jefferson, Madison, and the other members of the Board of Visitors, that sets forth an immensely valuable, and profoundly significant description of the authentic sources of the principles of American government and of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
Monticello, February 1, 1825
Dear Sir
…In most public seminaries a text-book is prescribed to the several schools as the Norma docendi in them; and this is frequently done by the Trustees. I should not propose this generally in our University because I believe none of us are so much at the heights of science, in the several branches, as to undertake this, and therefore that it will be best left to the Professors, until occasion of interference shall be given. But there is one branch in which I think we are the best judges, and the branch itself is of that interesting character to our state, and to the U S. as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which are to be taught. It is that of Government. …I think it a duty to guard against danger by a previous prescription of the texts to be adopted. I enclose you a resolution which I think of proposing at our next meeting, for your consideration, with a prayer that you will correct it freely, and make it what you think it ought to be…
Affectionately yours.
Thomas Jefferson

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson
      Montpellier, February 8, 1825
Dear Sir
…I have looked with attention over your intended proposal of a text book for the Law School. It is certainly very material that the true doctrines of liberty, as exemplified in our Political System, should be inculcated on those who are to sustain and may administer it. It is, at the same time, not easy to find standard books that will be both guides & guards for the purpose. Sidney & Locke are admirably calculated to impress on young minds the right of Nations to establish their own Governments, and to inspire a love of free ones; but afford no aid in guarding our Republican Charters against constructive violations. The Declaration of Independence, though rich in fundamental principles, and saying every thing that could be said in the same number of words, falls nearly under a like observation. The "Federalist" may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution, as understood by the Body which prepared & the Authority which accepted it. Yet it did not foresee all the misconstructions which have occurred; nor prevent some that it did foresee. And what equally deserves remark, neither of the great rival Parties have acquiesced in all its comments. It may nevertheless be admissible as a School book, if any will be that goes so much into detail. It has been actually admitted into two Universities, if not more — those of Harvard and Rhode Island; but probably at the choice of the Professors, without any injunction from the superior authority.

With respect to the Virginia Document of 1799, there may be more room for hesitation. Though corresponding with the predominant sense of the Nation; being of local origin & having reference to a state of Parties not yet extinct, an absolute prescription of it, might excite prejudices against the University as under Party Banners, and induce the more bigoted to withhold from it their sons, even when destined for other than the studies of the Law School. It may be added that the Document is not on every point satisfactory to all who belong to the same Party. Are we sure that to our brethren of the Board it is so? In framing a political creed, a like difficulty occurs as in the case of religion though the public right be very different in the two cases. If the Articles be in very general terms, they do not answer the purpose; if in very particular terms, they divide & exclude where meant to unite & fortify. The best that can be done in our case seems to be, to avoid the two extremes, by referring to selected Standards without requiring an unqualified conformity to them, which indeed might not in every instance be possible. The selection would give them authority with the Students, and might control or counteract deviations of the Professor.

I have, for your consideration, sketched a modification of the operative passage in your draft, with a view to relax the absoluteness of its injunction, and added to your list of Documents the Inaugural Speech and the Farewell Address of President Washington. They may help down what might be less readily swallowed, and contain nothing which is not good; unless it be the laudatory reference in the Address to the Treaty of 1795 with Great Britain which ought not to weigh against the sound sentiments characterizing it.

After all, the most effectual safeguard against heretical intrusions into the School of Politics, will be an Able & Orthodox Professor, whose course of instruction will be an example to his successors, and may carry with it a sanction from the Visitors.
Affectionately yours,
James Madison

Sketch [Resolution for the Board of Visitors].

And on the distinctive principles of the Government of our own State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in — 1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of Union of these States.  2. The book known by the title of the "Federalist," being an Authority to which appeal is habitually made by all & rarely declined or denied by any, as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed & those who accepted the Constitution of the United States on questions as to its genuine meaning. 3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799, on the subject of the Alien & Sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the U. S.  4. The Inaugural Speech & Farewell Address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value; and that in the branch of the School of law which is to treat on the subject of Government, these shall be used as the text & documents of the School.
[Abbreviations and spelling modernized]
Photo of the Rotunda (c) 2014 by Anna Quillon [used with permission]

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