Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Publications

Madison’s Memorial

Res Publica

July 2001

by Joe Postell

I had the pleasure of taking a trip this summer to see the home of one of the most important Americans ever to have lived. In Orange County, Virginia, the house of James Madison stands today not as a national monument the likes of Monticello, but as a subtle reminder (in more ways than one) of the most industrious of the founding fathers.

As I passed through the home I noticed the study in which Madison must have spent an incredible amount of time. I was nearly overcome with awe due to what was presented before me: in front of my eyes was the room accountable for the cultivation of the mind responsible for the institution of Republican virtue in the early days of the American Republic. In this room, and in many others just like it across the geography of the early republic, Madison spent his nights copying notes from the Constitutional convention, or writing essays to combat the evil effects of theories of bad government, or corresponding with his closest political allies regarding the best means to inculcate good government. Long after the noble fathers had scurried home to their Abigails and their Marthas, Madison labored against the curse of his own ill constitution in order to create the most marvelous Constitution our history has ever known. Although he was by far the sickliest of the founding fathers, Madison spent more hours at work than any of his contemporaries.

However, after I reflected for a while on the life and contributions of this great man, another sentiment began to possess me. I began to search for an explanation as to why the fruits of this industrious temperament have gone relatively unnoticed in the grand scheme of history. There is no Madison memorial right next to the grand and famous structures built for great men such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Even contemporary historians tend to recognize Madison’s contributions in the 1790’s as the work of a man blinded by Anglophobia and the interests of his fellow Virginians. These minds scorn the theories set forth by Madison either because they feel that he was influenced too heavily by his close friend Thomas Jefferson, or because they agree with the private correspondences of leading Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, who claimed that Madison was at the head of a faction "injurious to my administration and to good government. They seem to overlook the fact that there never was a "Hamiltonian administration." I felt a sense of injustice rise inside of me; I failed to understand why such a marvelous man never got the esteem he justly deserved.

My thoughts raced back to the time I had spent in our nation’s capital. My mind scanned over the monuments to those great men…and then I understood.

At the library of Congress, there is a small, humble, but profoundly meaningful tribute to the man who can be justly called not only "Father of the Constitution," but also "Father of the Bill of Rights." In this library, where a serious thinker can read the famous Federalist Papers he had such a crucial role in drafting, some of Madison’s most meaningful statements are forever preserved, engraved into the marble on the outside of the library. Although there are no grand statues of Madison in his monument, there needn’t be any; Madison’s body was small and feeble. However, Madison’s monument is, fittingly, the only monument in D.C. with a statue erected honoring the mind. The library that shares the location with Madison’s humble memorial contains all of the necessities required for a serious life of study.

I realized that this, the library, was the most perfect tribute that could be given to a man of Madison’s stature. Just as his body was deprived of the durability that his colleagues’ constitutions were blessed with, his monument contains no testament to the commanding figure of James Madison. Then again, just as his mind was more passionate in the pursuit of wisdom and study than the other founding fathers, his memorial is a tribute to the life of study and the pursuit of wisdom.

In Federalist 37, Madison spoke of the distinction between the many and the few. According to Madison, the many are fit to rule themselves and to recognize wisdom when it is passed down to them, but only the few are capable of truly knowing wisdom.

As I left Madison’s humble home in Orange County, Virginia, my mind stumbled upon one of those odd coincidences that make one think about whether a divine providence is at work, due to the incredible order that one finds in the nature of events. Although the many may gawk at the awe-inspiring grandeur of the monuments built for other great men, those few knowers of true wisdom that Madison spoke of in Federalist 37 would pay daily tribute to his memorial, devoting their time not to examining great statues, but to the cultivation of the mind.

And as I drove away, watching the estate vanish slowly in my rearview mirror, I longed for the day, perhaps not too distant, when Madison would be vindicated among those few he admired so much. Fortified by my belief that the nature of events would not allow such a great man’s achievements to be slighted, I felt an assurance that the day would come when Madison would truly be known in academic circles as the most industrious founder, acknowledged for all of his glorious contributions to the government which that admirable generation of patriots handed down to us.

Joe Postell is a senior from Marion, Ohio, majoring in political science, philosophy, and history.

Get Email Updates

Subscribe to the Email Update