James Madison, the Clearest Thinker

Article excerpt

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. …