I’m nearing the end of Thomas Ricks’ marvelous book, First Principles, and it has already given me a new appreciation for James Madison as an American founding father. Sure, firebrands like Patrick Henry and John Adams and others were the detonators of our rebellion against English rule; and Thomas Jefferson gave the cause inspiring lyrics in the magical words of the Declaration of Independence; and General George Washington eventually found a way for a weak embryo of a nation to win its independence from an all powerful nation with the help of another all powerful nation on the battlefield — without turning himself into a dictator for life as was so often the case.
But as historians will tell you it was little five foot, and hardly more than a hundred pounds, James Madison from the Piedmont country of Virginia that mainly gave us the form of government we currently experience — thus the term Madisonian Democracy. Madison had become obsessed with learning the fatal flaws that caused so many forms of former governments, including most certainly democratic designs to collapse in upon themselves.
When Thomas Jefferson was in France he sent his friend Madison some two hundred books and told him to feel free to use his extensive library. Madison used these and other resources to study the governments of ancient Greece and Rome. His conclusion was (in my words) that being ego driven, human self-interest in the end always trumps the interest of the state. Indeed, a large swath of any citizenry is too local, factional and personally focused to care about the much larger national good, and thus things would eventually splinter apart.
It was obvious to many, including Madison, after winning independence that living under the Articles of Confederation was a woeful system of governance. He therefore became a leader in those agitating for a conference of states for devising a better form of national government, before the various states ended up at each other’s throats. This of course led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia.
It quickly became apparent among the various representatives that the moderate, easy going Madison was by far the most informed person concerning the subject at hand. And since his mild personality did little to generate individual hostilities most were willing for his ideas to take the lead. Madison’s great insight into government was that since it was impossible to remove human nature’s self-interest from the equation and self-interests was what had brought down pervious governments, the trick would be to devise of system of government where self-interest would function as a positive force within the governmental process — a hard nut for sure to crack.
The great regional mountain to climb by far was Southern slavery. How in world could all the idealism reflected in the Declaration of Independence be rationalized with slavery — yet the economic self-interest of the planter class was totally dependent upon slave labor? Abandoning slavery was a deal breaker for which even Madison had no good answer. So the peculiar institution was included in the Constitution both directly and indirectly. In other words passage of the 13th amendment ending formal slavery following the American Civil War of 1861–65 did not begin to cure the flaws embedded in the American system of government.
That a Donald Trump type flimflam artist could be elected president and come within a whisker of completely destroying our democratic institutions, which he derisively called the deep state, is an emergency event crying out for a second Constitutional Convention. Four years of the Donald’s wrecking ball has underscored serious systemic problems with our basic system of checks and balances and Federal representation.
I suspect that were James Madison alive today, with all that has been experienced and learned in the last 200 plus years, he sure would be eager to have a second shot at fixing the American system of government. After all when California’s 40 million folks have the same number of Senators, as North Dakota’s 280 thousand, there’s a foul-up somewhere. Sure, I know the BS, Senators represent land not people, but by that reasoning California should have 6 or 8 Senators.
So come on guys, where is the next James Madison pushing for a second Constitutional Convention? It is update time.