James Madison, the clearest thinker

Today marks the 250th birthday of James Madison, the fourth president. Save for George Washington, none of the nation's framers did more to ensure the survival of self-government than he.

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 credit."

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 president.

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 her.

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 political contributors.

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 presidency.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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