Wednesday, December 1, 2010

James Madison and Public Reason - The Basis for the U.S. Constitution

Just as Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, so James Madison has often been called "the Father of the Constitution" - both men were implementing a set of ideas into political realities.

To begin with, they wanted to dispel rumors about what the American Independence movement was really about. A series of misunderstanding clouded then, and in some history classrooms still clouds, the goals of the new nation.

One is that the Founders and the Constitution they created had a peculiarly modern and atomistic view of society. According to this myth, the Founders concerned themselves not with the formation of citizens engaged in a common enterprise, but with institutions that played individuals and interest groups off against one another in order to prevent the dominance of one or another faction.

Such an understanding may well be part of twenty-first century politics, but it was not part of Jefferson's view, when he wrote: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." The understanding of democracy demanded that citizens be educated, not only in the narrow sense of learning texts and facts, but also in the broad sense of developing a moral and practical philosophy. If citizens are to vote, they need a set of intellectual skills which will allow them to analyze complex debates about public virtue, and they need to have developed an ethic and the self-discipline to follow that ethic. Such are the prerequisites for a viable democracy. This also belies another misunderstanding of our constitutional system, which

suggests that the Founders (and Madison in particular) were guilty of anti-democratic elitism,

as Bradley Watson of Claremont Graduate University explains. Although widespread, this notion is undermined by the consistent expansion of suffrage and citizen participation in government, an expansion which began immediately after the ratification of the Constitution and continued steadily. One of the first steps of this expansion of broad-based was the Bill of Rights itself: the ink on the Constitution was barely dry, and already the rights of powers of the citizens over against the government were being expanded. A variation of this slander against Madison

relies on the more positive but still distorting label of aristocracy.

On the contrary, James Madison, was

a man deeply concerned with the ideas of civic virtue, citizen character, and common purpose, albeit in the service of the truly republican principles of the Declaration of Independence,


was well aware that event he cleverest institutional mechanisms are not substitute for the primary check on government: respectable public opinion. The spirit of a regime - that which gives force and direction to its fixed constitutional principle - is manifested and communicated in such opinion. The distinction between sound and unsound opinion runs throughout the founding debates and is evidenced in the structure of the Constitution itself.

At the core of American Independence movement

was the authority of the people and the sovereignty of informed public opinion. And so in Madison we see clearly the extent to which America is based on far more than the pursuit of self- or class-interest.

The "authority of the people" manifests an non-elitist and non-aristocratic outlook; the "informed public opinion" shows how education and ethical reflection forms citizens and is necessary for a sustainable democracy.

The importance of maintaining the cool and deliberate sense of the community as a governing force unites Madison's thoughts and actions into a coherent whole.

In order to carry out the debates and discussions which power a democracy, one needs a sense of community which is strong enough to patriotically bind together citizens who disagree. As citizens are formed, they engage in these debates at a more civilized level. Perfection would not achieved:

Madison rejected the idea of human perfectibility and the inevitability of progress in human knowledge. And yet he was not pessimistic about man's capacity for self-government: If respectable collective opinion were allowed to operate, a free people would be able to control their government and themselves.

The supreme focus of government is not its institutions and procedures, but a community of virtuous citizens.

Madison never doubted the fundamental natural truth revealed to the modern mind - that all men are created equal, and that consent to government is therefore q requirement of justice.

An infrastructure which allows communication is necessary, but only as effective as the level of ethical reflection in its supervisors. The participation of citizens is necessary, but only as salutary as power of the character formation.