Unlike other anniversaries, such as the Bicentennial in 1976 or
the rededication of the Statue of Liberty 10 years later, the event
will not coincide with fireworks or Tall Ships. Madison has no
monument on the National Mall. Nor are his admirers hawking funds
to build him a presidential library.
But Madison is not being ignored. Befitting his cerebral nature,
he is being feted at academic symposia - including one at his alma
mater, Princeton University - and, today at the Library of
Congress's appropriately named James Madison building.
Madison was unquestionably the clearest thinker among the
Founders. Even Thomas Jefferson deferred to his judgment. The
practically minded Madison all but made a career of keeping his
more idealistic and readily combustible mentor from "going over the
edge." (Jefferson would say: "A little rebellion every now and then
is a good thing." Madison would suggest that presidential aspirants
ought not be talking this way.)
Like Washington, Madison's greatness lay as much in his
character as in his achievements. Colleagues found him appealing
and persuasive because of the diminutive manner through which he
conveyed his brilliance. Ronald Reagan had to have been thinking of
someone like Madison when he observed, "There is no limit to what a
man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the
Madison let Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris lead the
debate for a new constitution, George Mason make the case for the
Bill of Rights, and Thomas Jefferson head the political party he
and Madison founded. Observers detected Madison's organizational
hand behind the success of each.
Madison performed his greatest service to posterity in his role
as the principal architect of the Constitution, admired the world
over for its ability to anticipate contingencies and for the
stability it brings to American politics. In 1787, he and his peers
sought a government that would simultaneously reflect the will of
the majority and protect individual liberties. He saw checks and
balances as the best means of achieving what many believed to be
two mutually exclusive ends: "If men were angels, no government
would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external
nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing
a government which is to be administered by men over men ... you
must first enable the government to control the governed; and in
the next place oblige it to control itself."
As president, Madison and the institutions he created were put
to a serious test. Forced into war with Great Britain in 1812 by a
firebrand Congress and Jefferson's failed "embargo" policies,
Madison, through his optimism and patience, lifted the morale of a
poorly prepared and ill-defended nation. After British troops
burned the White House and much of the national capital, a
"homeless" president, having shared in the sacrifice, became the
symbol of national reconstruction. When New England states failed
to support the war and threatened secession, Madison, suspicious of
aggrandizing executives, left dissenters undisturbed.
The balance he struck between force and restraint hastened the
arrival of the "era of good feelings" James Monroe would enjoy. It
also preserved American independence and its unity as a nation.
Intelligence, bearing, and demeanor accounted for most of
Madison's success as a politician. His wife, Dolley, supplied the
rest. "I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison
alone," declared Charles Pinckney, the man Madison defeated for
Dolley used her flair for public relations to build support for
"her great little Madison" (he stood 5'4" - never weighing more
than 140 pounds). In her role of hostess, she acted as the
president's lobbyist, intelligence gatherer, and pollster. With the
British about to burn the White House, Mrs. Madison delayed her
evacuation until she could salvage a Gilbert Stuart portrait of
George Washington. The thought that one of her successors would
take White House belongings home would never have occurred to
President Madison granted what had to have been the most
deserved pardon in history to pirate Jean LaFitte and his men after
they assisted Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans, the
principal American victory on land in the War of 1812. He never
evoked his power of office on behalf of his wastrel stepson or
Were Madison able to partake in today's events, he'd be proud
that most nations on his planet have entered his "workshop of
liberty." He would find the spread of his republican ideal evidence
of the "natural" impulse of humans to better themselves when freed
from the repressive hand of government.
Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate for Leadership project
at the Heritage Foundation. He writes and lectures on the American
Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor
James Madison, the Clearest Thinker
Alvin S. Felzenberg
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