James Madison’s yearning for self-government

As we commemorate Constitution Day this September 17, we might remember the outstanding contributions of the shy, 5’6″, no more than 100 lb. fellow from Piedmont, Virginia who is generally considered the father of Constitution.

Unassuming as James Madison was in appearance and demeanor, he made up for his longing for America. His ambition for his country was to prove to the world that humanity is capable of self-government.

To achieve this, citizens must develop habits of self-government.

Participation in civic affairs is one of the tools of democratic governance, but an active population alone is not enough for the task at hand.

According to Madison, what is particularly necessary is that citizens have a good understanding of their rights. and responsibilities.

The challenge for the citizen of a democracy is to moderate his desires and demands – to moderate the use of his freedom – so that he not only exercises his own rights, but shows respect for the rights of others.

In other words, autonomy requires us to practice measured freedom.

When Madison finished his contribution to the Federalist essays he wrote with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, he knew his investigation was only partially complete.

When the First House of Representatives closed in early March 1791 (during which Madison was de facto Leader of the House as well as leader of the new Republican Party), he immersed himself in the scientific project he had begun in the pages of the Federalist. In his rented room at Mrs. House’s boarding house on 5th and Market (then High) Street in Philadelphia, Madison settled into his scholarly harness to complete the “little task” he had set himself.

Madison’s self-proclaimed chore was to solve the age-old dilemma that had perplexed political philosophers since time immemorial: how to make republican government — government by the people — both good government and sustainable government.

Needless to say, there were good reasons why Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sydney, Montesquieu and others had not yet solved the problems of popular government. Madison’s self-proclaimed “little task” was the toughest political challenge of all.

From early March 1791 until he set sail with his friend Thomas Jefferson on the northern lakes of New York in May, Madison burned the midnight oil in his cramped quarters at Mrs. House’s inn.

During that lonely but productive spring, he read voraciously, took detailed notes, and mentally debated lingering questions with the “great oracles of political wisdom.”

Madison’s goal was to find out what the “great oracles” had ignored or overlooked. The result of this quest, he believed, could show us how to build a republic that would pave the way to freedom, fulfill the hopes of mankind, and vindicate the great experiment in self-government.

Imagine Madison’s excitement as he moved closer and closer to discovering the object of his political philosophical quest. “Such is the government,” he finally declared,

“What philosophy has sought, and mankind has sighed for, from the earliest ages. Such are the republican governments which it is the glory of America to have invented, and its unequaled happiness to possess.

Why did Madison discover this source that made the painfully shy boy so passionately expansive? Can we imagine for ourselves the dream of self-government that so inspired Madison?

No one has captured the essence of Madison’s aspiration to self-government better than the poet Robert Frost. What Madison meant by the American Dream, Frost said, was “self-mastery,” — “a new land [filled] with people who control themselves.

Leaving the people in possession of their government, and of themselves, requires “moderation…in government,” or moderation and limits to government. But self-government also requires “measurement” or “control” among the people themselves.

Frost was concerned, however, that the spirit of self-reliance and the strength of self-control were qualities that future generations of Americans might abandon.

Perhaps the progressive desire for greater national government control over our health, the education of our children, and our consciences, or the libertarian demand for immeasurable self-determination, are examples of contemporary paths taken that would have concerned Frost .

“Measurement always reassures me,” Frost wrote. Measure also reassured James Madison. Self-control – it is the virtue at the heart of our civic rights and duties.

It is the virtue that marks the very nature of the American pact. This covenant – our Constitution – requires citizens to practice measured freedom. It is the condition of freedom and the pace of self-government.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera