Posts tagged with: james madison

According to James Madison, when lawmakers exempt themselves from the legislation they pass, “The people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Over 1,200 organizations and companies have already secured ObamaCare waivers. However, currently making big headlines is a deal worked out by the President and Congress that exempts congressional members and staff from the full effect of the law. In actuality, lawmakers had to go back and secure the hefty subsidies for Congress and staff as that was set to end when the health insurance exchanges are implemented on January 1, 2014. The Wall Street Journal does a good job of covering the details of the exemption and stressing the point once again that Washington lawmakers voted on and passed a bill they didn’t bother to examine. The lack of oversight and vetting of the bill has led to the subverting of the legislative branch, as the executive branch has been rewriting portions of the law to make it even more favorable to Washington.

Arguing in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Federalist #57, James Madison made this argument:

I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.

If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.

Those are weighty words by Madison, but now they point not to the optimism of a new country trying to secure a lasting liberty, but the kind of despotism that should be feared by the people.

800px-Statue_in_Minute_Man_National_Historical_ParkSome politicians are calling for new regulation and restrictions on firearms, but why and how does the Second Amendment strengthen liberty? In a thoughtful post at the Carolina Journal today, Troy Kickler offers this historical assessment:

What did early jurists and constitutional commentators say regarding the Second Amendment? St. George Tucker in View of the Constitution of the United States (1803), the first systematic commentary on the Constitution after its ratification, describes the Second Amendment to be “the true palladium of liberty.”

As the preservation of the statue of Pallas in mythological Troy — the Palladium — needed to be protected for the ancient city’s preservation, so the Virginian believed that the amendment ensured liberty’s protection in the United States. If the nation had a “standing army” — Revolutionary era-Americans’ description for a full-time, professional army — while individual Americans were denied the “right to keep and bear arms,” then “liberty, if not already annihilated,” Tucker wrote, “is on the brink of destruction.”

To Tucker, the Second Amendment is the linchpin that ensures the existence of all the other liberties.

Tucker was not alone. Although U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story believed the national government should have more authority than did Tucker, both jurists interpreted the Second Amendment as liberty’s safeguard. In 1833, Story noted in his influential Commentaries of the Constitution: “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of the republic, since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers, and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”

These jurists repeated a widespread interpretation that had been practiced by the states. The first state constitutions — which remained unaltered and in effect after the Constitution’s ratification — protected individual rights to possess and bear arms and allowed for a state militia.


The first presidential election I remember was the Ronald Reagan – Walter Mondale race in 1984. My kindergarten class in the Philadelphia suburbs held a mock vote that Reagan overwhelmingly won. It of course reflected the way our parents were voting. I can remember at the age of five, John Glenn was one of the Democrat candidates seeking the nomination and I knew he was a famous astronaut. The truth is, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential elections and Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms by Ed Rollins and Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater by John Brady are two political books that deeply influenced my thought. Both books remain relevant and offer valuable lessons today.

Frank Hill, who directs The Institute for the Public Trust, has a solid post discussing Robert Kennedy, self-government, and tomorrow’s election. Hill quotes Lord Acton in his essay as well. He cites Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation Address” in South Africa in 1966. It was a striking address, touching on the universal truths recognized by the West. Below is a great line from Kennedy’s speech that day:

At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.

Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign are probably the two campaigns that offer the most mystique and magic for liberals and conservatives. One campaign ended with a tragic assassination and the other left conservative activists heartbroken by a narrow defeat. Both candidates were treated to adoring fans and followers and shook up the political landscape. While they represented different ends of the political spectrum, they were both visionary presidential campaigns. Those two campaigns caused a lot of young people to get excited not just about politics or power but deeper ideas about government and the human person.

Tomorrow is a big election. We’ve rightfully placed a heavy emphasis on the limits of politics here at the Acton Institute. Politics will not solve the deeper issues and problems facing this nation. The topic was the overarching theme of Rev. Robert Sirico’s 2012 Annual Dinner address. Jordan Ballor and I hosted an Acton on Tap addressing that very question in 2010. But elections and politics are important and serve a purpose. There are clear philosophical differences between the candidates and the peaceful transition of power reflects well on the foundations of our country.

At Acton we’ve always tried to raise the discourse and talk about higher truths. In a country that now faces crippling debt, moral chaos, and threats to religious freedom, we would be wise to draw upon some words James Madison used to close a letter he penned to a friend in 1774. Madison, concerned about persecuted Baptists in Virginia wrote, “So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us.” I would think most of our readers would agree and wish that much would be so.

I have been highlighting James Madison’s words on religious conscience on the PowerBlog over the past several weeks. The HHS Mandate is not simply an issue that can be wished, compromised, or willed away. Rick Warren’s statement, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do” is tied to Madison’s thoughts below. Madison has an understanding here that a citizen must be faithful to his religious conscience above and beyond any whims of the state. In fact, a citizen that is loyal to the higher order first can be compelled to act in good faith concerning the civil law. Thus to Madison, the highest law is the “Universal Sovereign” and man’s duty to his Creator trumps any civil pronouncement. Virginia’s advancement on the issue of religious liberty specifically found its way into the Bill of Rights.

The text below comes from “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” written by Madison in 1785 as an argument against a bill in the General Assembly of Virginia that sought to levy a general assessment for the support of teachers of religions:

We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.

Blog author: rnothstine
Monday, February 20, 2012

The HHS Mandate is troubling to so many simply because it’s a clear Constitutional violation. Any basic understanding of Constitutional rights and our religious freedom sees that this is primarily about religious liberty, and not solely an issue concerning contraceptives or Roman Catholics.

Last week we heard from James Madison on religious liberty in my post “Religious Liberty or Government Tolerance?”

In 1792, Madison wrote an essay titled “Property” in the National Gazette. This is a brilliant piece by Madison where he declares that government is instituted to protect the property of the person. “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights,” says Madison. There is all sorts of property according to Madison. As Madison understands, property is not just material property, but also a property of conscience or religious opinions. Madison notes that man “has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Furthermore, Madison declares this kind of property is “the most sacred.”

Madison said that those in government who violate that charge of protecting property “would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most complete despotism.”

Below is an excerpt from Madison’s essay:

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government where a man’s religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property, other property depending in part on positive law [but] the exercise of that being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man’s house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man’s conscience, which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection for which the public faith is pledged by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

The full essay is here.

Al Mohler absolutely dismantles Nicholas Kristof in this new piece. The cause of this skewering? Kristof’s “Beyond Pelvic Politics” column in The New York Times.

Mohler notes,

After asking his most pressing question, “After all, do we really want to make accommodations across the range of faith?,” he makes this amazing statement:

“The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can.”

That sentence caught the immediate attention of many. Could someone of Nicholas Kristof’s influence and stature really write and mean that?

Mohler highlights some of Kristof’s commendable work on human rights abuses (he’s the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes), but Mohler says “when it comes to human rights at home, Mr. Kristof reveals a horrifying blind spot.”

Our country is not a country that “accommodates” or “tolerates” religion. There is undoubtedly a growing disconnect of those who have no fundamental understanding of the meaning of religious liberty in the American framework. Now we are clearly seeing that the exponential growth of government is a grave threat to religious liberty. Some of the “enlightened” want to somehow “accommodate” religion, at least publicly.

Face it, many who no longer look to the Lord for their help, look to the state as their provider, caretaker, and the dispenser of whatever freedoms they are granted.

Concerning our fortress of religious liberty, look no further than a book I recently reviewed on James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. Madison objected to the “fullest toleration” of religious freedom in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, and his language found its way into the Bill of Rights. Brookhiser spells it out perfectly in his Madison biography and points to the uniqueness of America’s first freedom:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

Furthermore, take a look at “Birth Control Yes, Government Control No” in The Wall Street Journal for more on the threat to religious liberty.

Toleration or accommodation is of course flawed because it posits the notion that religious freedom or freedom of conscious is offered by the whims of the state. Many pundits rolled their eyes at the “war on religion” ad by Rick Perry during his presidential campaign. I admit, I think I rolled my eyes and thought it was quite the overreaction. I was too enlightened and nuanced for an ad like that. Given the actions of the executive branch, I don’t know if we can say it’s an overreaction anymore.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, February 3, 2012

James Madison has rightfully been forever identified as father of the U.S. Constitution, author of the Bill of Rights and coauthor of the Federalist Papers. In his new biography of America’s fourth president, Richard Brookhiser introduces us to Madison the politician. In many ways, Madison is the father of modern American politics, with all its partisanship, wheeling and dealing, vote getting, partisan media, and popular opinion polling.

Brookhiser helps us to see the early framers as they were, brilliant men, who more often than not, waded into petty partisan squabbling. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and unleash a sharp pen to advance power and their party’s ideas. Madison, who was quick to understand that political contention would reign in the new Republic, organized political coalitions and allies for the purpose of power.

Madison is also the architect of hyper partisan newspapers like the National Gazette in New York City. A publication that soon begins to slam Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and even Madison’s fellow Virginian George Washington. Like Jefferson, he was a Francophile to the extreme. Hamilton would counter that Jefferson and Madison “had a womanly attachment to France.” Jefferson and Madison would often write letters to their revolutionary heroes in France, and by the time those letters crossed the Atlantic, the intended recipients were already victims of the guillotine.

Over his political life, Madison could also be quick to change course, especially when it benefited him and his presidential administration. Long an opponent of many Federalist policies, when the nation needed sound fiscal policy and a strong military because of war, he simply reversed course, and implemented ideas he had once fervently opposed. At times, he favored a strong centralized government, and especially when Federalists were in power, he favored strong state governments.

Because of poor health, Madison had a premonition that he would die as a young man, but he outlived almost all of his contemporaries (1751-1836). Madison as elder statesmen spoke out strongly against nullification, an issue that has been resurrected today because of ObamaCare and other federal power grabs. He did not believe a single state could nullify a federal law. At the same time, he also made strong arguments for strict constructionist views of constitutional interpretation. He vetoed a transportation bill that would have funded roads and canals because it was not specifically enumerated and did not fall under the commerce clause. The U.S. Supreme Court would later declare that it did fall under the clause within Madison’s lifetime. Madison believed such legislation “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation.”

Later in life he also worried that political parties were becoming too regional. “Parties . . . must always be expected in a government as free as ours. When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole country, they strengthen the union of the whole, while they divide every part,” said Madison. He easily foresaw that the Missouri Compromise was spiraling toward dangerous disunion. Madison owned over 100 slaves and Brookhiser points out that unlike Jefferson, he did not offer lofty rhetoric concerning the evils of slavery. And unlike Washington, he did not free his slaves upon death. Later in life, Madison declared the whole bible to be against slavery and toyed with the idea of moving slaves to Liberia or out West, but offered no real feasible solutions on the issue.

His strict interpretive views of the Constitution made him an early opponent of the need for a Bill of Rights. Madison feared that listing rights in the Constitution might ultimately void the rights that were not specifically mentioned. Ultimately, he would be a champion of the Bill of Rights and had already heavily influenced them in his previous work in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Madison challenged George Mason who wanted a clause about tolerating religion. Brookhiser wonderfully explains Madison’s contribution to religious liberty:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

For much of Madison’s political career he plotted behind the scenes with his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson to destroy their political rivals. Madison often carried out the dirtier work of politics so Jefferson could appear above the fray as a man of the people. He was instrumental in creating a young republic that was ruled by Virginians in Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. Republicans accused Federalists of trying to create a ruling faction, but the Virginian statesmen were even more adept in creating a political dynasty. But Brookhiser also helps to bring to life a snippet of the beautiful correspondence between two lifelong friends and Virginians in Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson also entrusted Madison as the guardian of his legacy in America and as an overseer of the continued flourishing of the University of Virginia.

While this book is a good introduction to Madison, it is perhaps woefully short at 250 pages for a complete study of the fourth president and founding statesmen. Brookhiser’s strength lies in deconstructing Madison and unveiling his flaws and partisanship, and his political genius as well.

Some on the political right or some classical liberals say we need to go back to the Founding period or we need to follow America’s Founders as if they were all of one accord. They forget even the Founders trampled on the constitution with measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Louisiana Purchase when it suited them. Brookhiser concludes that while politics has changed, it has not to the degree that “would make it unrecognizable” to Madison.

“His intelligence and his knowledge of history showed him how this tension between different political spheres could be built into the Constitution as a bulwark of liberty, though he came to believe that appealing to popular opinion through the arts of argument and politics was a bulwark at least as strong.” says Brookhiser. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said Madison. That we do have a government that has lasted for 225 years is a testament to this great man. And he would be the first to say it could be improved and fight for that improvement.