Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy Birthday Constitutional Dad

Today is the 259th birthday of James Madison - our fourth president but also generally credited to be the father of our Constitution. Among the founders Madison gets the least coverage. Among presidents he is not rated near the top. But I am a fan none-the-less.

Madison went to what is now called Princeton and studied with the president (in what might be called the University's first graduate school and he being the first graduate student), John Witherspoon, who was a Scottish enlightenment figure who had been lured to Princeton and influenced at least a generation of students.

His influence on the Constitution is undeniable. With John Jay and Alexander Hamilton he co-wrote the Federalist - which was a set of 85 broadsides designed to influence the ratification of the proposed Constitution in New York but has become the best short statement on constitutional principles. I have always been amazed that these three writers got the essays done without word processors or faxes in about six months and produced something that has stood the test of time.

Clinton Rossiter, the Cornell scholar, did some great work on figuring out who wrote what. Madison is credited with several of the best essays. He had done an additional period of independent study in Jefferson's library before the Constitutional Convention, so the early essays on the history of political systems are clearly his. But then he also added - #10 (on Factions), #14 (on Separation of Powers), #37 (on Energy in political systems), #39 (on Federal versus National systems) and #51 (On Checks and Balances in political systems). #51 is especially timely in today's climate - there Madison (or Publius which was the pseudonym used by all three authors) argued that "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." He then suggests (in my opinion some of the most powerful language ever written about constitutional systems) "It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? 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, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." In the current debates about Slaughter rules and the appropriateness of reconciliation the proponents would do well to re-read(presuming that they ever did read in the first place) federalist #51.

No comments: