Sunday, August 31, 2014

James Madison, Prudent Statesman

By: Tony Williams

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute is proudly hosting its semi-annual seminar on the life and writings of James Madison on September 12, 2014, as it advances its mission to teach teachers founding principles in preparation for Constitution Day. In anticipation of this educational seminar, following are a few thoughts on the caliber of statesmanship exhibited by our nation's fourth president.

In the modern world of politics, ideological purity and rigidity is considered a great virtue, and talking heads from both sides shout each other down instead of deliberating on public issues while ordinary citizens become disgusted with politics.  The example Founder James Madison provides an excellent antidote to this brand of politics. 

James Madison was a profound thinker.  He prepared for momentous occasions of deliberation, such as the Constitutional Convention, by studying ancient and modern history and thinkers, often thanks to the caseloads of books sent by his friend Thomas Jefferson.  Madison’s study of political history and philosophy gave him great insights into the nature of human beings and government.  His reading shaped his lifelong commitment to republican, constitutional self-government. 

Madison, however, was more than a philosopher who had deep thoughts in the solitude of his library.  He was a practical politician and prudential statesman who understood the art of deliberation and compromise in the pursuit of political objects including founding a nation.  If James Madison were ideologically rigid, the Founding would have looked very different or might not have happened at all.  The greatest example of his statesmanship come especially from 1787 to 1789. 

At the initial stages of the Constitutional Convention in June, 1787, James Madison’s Virginia Plan dominated the discussions.  Even when Madison lost his treasured ideas of proportional representation in both houses and a national veto on state laws failed, and he thought it had ruined his plan, he persevered and compromised to achieve his object of a written Constitution.  The document was signed September 17, and sent to state ratifying conventions.

Madison was one of the key proponents of the Constitution, known as Federalists, and wrote numerous Federalist essays as Publius, defended the Constitution tooth and nail against the unremitting assaults by Patrick Henry in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and was a strategist and correspondent behind the scenes to help win ratification.  Even when he lamented that several conventions caved into Anti-Federalist demands and allowed “recommended amendments,” Madison soon admitted the prudence of doing so and compromised to get ratification while preventing opponents from winning “conditional amendments” or even a second convention.

Madison was opposed to the inclusion of a Bill of Rights because he thought the enumerated powers created a limited government that had no authority to violate rights.  Ironically, however, he became the firmest advocate for the Bill of Rights in the First Congress to reconcile the opponents and the American people to the new Constitution to advance national unity.  On June 8, 1789, he introduced the Bill of Rights, stating, “We ought not to disregard their inclination, but, on principles of amity and moderation, conform to their wishes, and expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.  The acquiescence which our fellow citizens show under the government, calls upon us for a like return of moderation.”  He helped reconcile the different proposals for amendments and pushed them through the Congress for eventual ratification. 

Amity.  Moderation.  Acquiescence.  Deliberation.  Compromise.  These prudential political considerations do not mean a surrender of principle or letting the other side “win.”  They are the marks of the highest art of statesmanship in pursuit of the common good.  James Madison was a shining example of a principled, yet prudential, statesman that often appears to be lacking among modern politicians. 

Tony Williams is the WJMI Program Director and the author of several books including the forthcoming Washington and Hamilton: Forging a Nation (2015)

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