Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A second post in honor of the Constitutional Dad

Two issues were left out of the earlier post about Madison. First, although Madison thought it unnecessary, he eventually supported the creation of the Bill of Rights. George Mason is generally credited with at least being the spark force behind the Bill of Rights - but Madison's change in view helped to create the document. His argument against the addition to the Constitution was simple in initially opposing amendments. He thought that the inherent protections offered by the Constitution were sufficient to protect the rights of citizens and to prevent an extension of power. His role in the Constitutional Convention was almost as an expert scholarly witness (brought about in part because of his intense study of political systems before the convention). But he was also a key political player in the discussions. In one sense his opposition to a Bill of Rights is a bit odd, based on his commentary in Federalist #51. When the Anti-Federalists pressed the case for the Bill of Rights, he eventually relented. Good thing, although some of the most important parts of the Bill of Rights have been largely ignored.

Second, the best way to understand Madison is to divide his life into three parts - the time before he became president (in which he became the leading scholar and proponent of the Constitution), his presidency, and the two decades after he retired back to Montpelier (his home) and his death in 1836. During that time he continued his life as a scholar and wrote extensively about issues important to him from the first period. Thus, it is easy to conclude that his important contributions to American life came outside of the middle period of his life, when he was president.

The picture is of the former president at age 82. Madison was the shortest president. A lot of the commentary both from his own writings and from other's descriptions describes how slight he actually was. So it is amazing to have him continue well into his eighties.

Like some of the other founders, Madison left the presidency less well off than when he entered. His final years were burdened with some significant financial challenges brought about primarily by two forces - the neglect that he had paid to his estate during his public service and at the same time the profligate behavior of one of Dolley's sons, Payne Todd. Madison was forced on more than one occasion to bail out the affairs of his stepson.

Finally one personal story. When my daughter was looking at colleges we were in Virginia to look at a couple of places and I asked her to join me in going to Montpelier, which is in Orange County,Virginia. We spent a couple of hours at the place. The site had been owned by the DuPont family before it was deeded to the National Trust. One of the original stipulations for the transfer was that part of the house, which did not fit into the architectural integrity of the original Georgian style be preserved as a remembrance of the linkage of Marion duPont Scott had with horses. The room was a gaudy sort of art deco arcade that in spite of the history of the owners was quite out of place with the house that Madison owned. My daughter, as we were leaving the grounds, said to me (in only the way that she can) "Gee, dad, thank you for taking me to Montpelier. I think I now understand the real attraction that you have always felt to Madison and his role in creating our system. I also enjoyed learning about President duPont."

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