James Madison’s Pen

My hero, James Madison, died this week (June 28) in 1836.  As a president, our fourth, he was no great shakes, but as a “Founding Father” he was second only to Washington, for he was the creative genius behind two of the three pillars of our nation’s founding. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but Madison is responsible for the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Imagine almost single handedly drafting the blueprint that would be the basis for the world’s longest-lasting representative government.  For all intents and purposes that is what Madison did in 1786, in his private study, in his beloved home Montpelier, where — in the greatest one man “skull session” in history — he pored over hundreds of books on governments of the past in an effort to discover what had worked, what hadn’t, and why.

There are bookworms and then there are bookworms, and it isn’t every student who can plow through the strengths and weaknesses of the Amphyctionic Confederacy of 16th century Greece, the Helvitic Confederacy of 14th century Switzerland or the Belgic Confederacy of the 1600s.  Madison did, and he made lists of the defining features of those governments, both good and bad.  From those lists Madison began to form his ideas of how human nature affected government, and vice versa.  He concluded that a successful government must not ignore or work against human nature, especially our very human tendency to act in our own self-interest.  Rather, government should minimize its damaging effects and, when possible, turn self-interest “to the support of liberty and republican government.”

That is why Madison formulated a government with shared powers, all of which “would check each other.”  That is why he constructed a “Republican,” or representative government, instead of a pure democracy.  Madison wanted the wishes of the masses — based naturally on self interest — to be filtered through the judgment and wisdom of elected representatives, who would more likely act in the national interest.  And that is why he assembled a Bill of Rights, so that the God-given rights of the minority could never be violated by the numerical power of the majority.

As I have written before, it is dismaying how little respect is paid to Madison’s importance. No national monument stands in his honor, no holiday is set aside for his birth, and even his live-wire wife, Dolley, gets more press.  But as George F. Will once wrote, “If we really believed the pen is mightier than the sword, the nation’s capital would be named not for the soldier who wielded the revolutionary sword, but for the thinker who was ablest with a pen.  It would be Madison, D.C.”  

I, for one, would happily live in that city.