America's five-foot giant: James Madison

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted April 2, 2001

America's Constitution is not perfect, nor were the Founding Fathers who drafted it.

That document and its authors created a strong framework for central governance. But building a strong government isn't so hard -- great captains from Caesar to Napoleon managed to do that. The challenge was -- and remains -- to build into the very framework of government some mechanism for granting primacy to the principles of individual liberty.

The great secret of America's Constitution -- the reason it managed to preserve this balance between strength and respect for individual rights (except under the tyrant Lincoln, and always excepting that chattel slavery thing) for well over a century lay in the adoption of a scheme of "balancing" opposing powers.

Most schoolchildren can still explain how the powers of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary are limited and designed to serve as checks, one upon the other.

Fewer remember today the other balancing forces acknowledged in the text of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights -- among them the power of a free press as guaranteed in the First Amendment, and the power of citizen jurors (mentioned in no fewer than three of the first 10 articles of amendment) to block the enforcement of bad laws.

(Citizen juries, for instance, were the reason it was virtually impossible to win convictions under the Fugitive Slave Act in the northern states in the 1850s, no matter how overwhelming the evidence of "guilt" under this widely unpopular statute.)

But America's Constitution is no perpetual motion machine. It cannot long protect us in a land where a dumbed-down, propagandized populace has been gulled into rationalizing any usurpation by piteously mewling "They must have a good reason -- just shut up and show your ID card."

The founders warned us that we could expect to survive as a free nation only so long as the public at large remained educated to the reasons for America's complex and sometime frustrating form of government -- declined to trade their freedoms for a bowl of porridge, and remained ever vigilant in their defense.

A current report card on how well we're following that advice would verge on the depressing.

Leave aside for a moment the massacres of 1913 -- ending the state legislatures' vital veto over the federal Congress by stripping their power to appoint senators; replacing sound gold and silver coin with endlessly inflatable Federal Reserve confetti; launching the first "modest" federal venture into what would become the liberty-devouring War on Drugs; effectively bypassing the brilliant 125-year ban on direct federal taxation (except as apportioned by census) through the deadly and deadening Income Redistribution Tax.

How many Americans today blithely assert that America is a pure democracy -- a condition the founders would have condemned as mob rule -- rather than a constitutional Republic, guaranteeing virtually limitless personal and privacy rights, even in the face of a "vote" of 1,000-to-one?

How many of our delegates to Washington today will acknowledge that their oath to "protect and defend the Constitution" sharply limits the areas in which they can even consider legislating or allocating funds, to those specifically listed in Article I, Section 8? (Would "campaign finance reform" even be an issue, if Congress routinely refused to meddle in the affairs of the businesses who now consider it a wise investment to send courtiers bearing bags of such "protection money" every election cycle?)

Do we still jealously guard the separation of powers -- or do we shrug and say "whatever works" when unelected bureaucrats usurp lawmaking authority with their endless piles of regulations; when presidents wave thousands of acres off limits for human use with a flourish of their pen, when our legislatures are full of "citizens" drawing regular paychecks from executive-branch police departments or school districts?

Whenever some functioning of our system is criticized as inefficient, how quick are we today to endorse further "streamlining" through elimination of the Electoral College, or removing "recalcitrant" jurors to make conviction easier in some high-profile trial?

James Madison

Perhaps that's why the 250th birthday of James Madison -- now widely regarded by many historians as the Founding Father, chief engineer of the Constitution, chief promoter and one of the authors of the Bill of Rights -- passed largely unnoticed on March 16 (March 5, by the calendar in use at the time).

Madison served as Jefferson's secretary of state at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, of course, later assuming the presidency himself from 1809 to 1817. But his greatest legacy remains his success, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in steering a middle course between the emphasis on states' rights of his friend Thomas Jefferson (in hindsight, I think Jefferson was probably right), and the downright despotic vision of a central government promoted by the Hamiltonians, as seen in their passage in 1798 of the Alien and Sedition Acts (the outrage and catalyst that brought Madison back into public life.)

Only that compromise -- and his agreement to add a Bill of Rights -- closed the deal. (No second and ninth amendments: no United States.)

"He now appears so central that he has been called 'the founding father,' " Lance Banning, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and author of a 1997 book on Madison, told a Library of Congress symposium on March 16.

Five-foot-four and a mere 100 pounds, Madison gave up an early ambition to become a minister because of a weak speaking voice. In an era when our national politics seem to meld ever more interchangeably with "show biz," it's sobering to think how little chance such a figure might have at a role of national leadership today -- even after graduating Princeton in two years, successfully battling Patrick Henry to win enactment of Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom, and gaining wide recognition as the ablest member of the Continental Congress by the age of 32.

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations," Madison told the Virginia ratifying Convention on June 16, 1788.

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny," he wrote earlier that same year in The Federalist, No. 47.

How diligently do Americans heed that advice, today? How many even remember who gave it?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 1475 Terminal Way, Suite E for Easy, Reno, NV 89502. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at 1-800-244-2224, or via web site

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