Gordon Lloyd and Jason Ross: Take the civics lessons of James Madison to heart

December 24, 2020

James Madison, born 264 years ago today, is worth remembering in a significant way.

In addition to his political contribution, America’s fourth president left an equally significant legacy as a civic educator. In his writings, Madison teaches Americans four lessons, without which the American system cannot work.

First, Madison recognized that democratic government requires conversation. His famous “Federalist No. 10” teaches that conflict is inevitable in a democracy based on the equal rights and liberty of all.

Though we may prefer others to share “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” as those like us, we cannot achieve this uniformity without infringing on the rights and liberties of others. If we wish to live in a society in which our rights and liberties are respected, we must respect those of others. When we differ on issues touching public life, we must seek to work out our differences through “reason and conviction, not force or violence.”

Madison’s second lesson is that not all conversations are created equal. If our highest principle is democracy, a technologically advanced people could easily collect the vote of the majority, perhaps via social media such as Twitter. Yet anybody who has spent time on social media would know how bad an idea this is, given the frivolous, half-baked and even violent nature of so much of what passes for discourse online.

Madison taught that if Americans want to live in a society that respects the equal rights and liberties of all, we must select representatives we can trust, and allow them time to reach consensus on tough issues. If Americans judge our representatives based on their potential to win sound-bite battles, we deserve the kinds of representatives we have.

Third, Madison taught us that conversation requires compromise, a word now seen as implying lack of principle or conviction. For Madison, however, compromise simply acknowledged the difficulty of achieving his vision of a nation committed to the equal rights and liberty of all.

Though he is known as the father of the Constitution, Madison actually lost at least as many battles in the Constitutional Convention as he won. Though he compromised on specifics, he built America’s freedom on the strongest foundation his generation was able to build, giving future generations the opportunity to make that union “more perfect.”

A final Madison lesson is that real conversation requires us to be humble enough to change our minds. Some may be surprised to learn Madison initially opposed the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Yet during the debates over ratification, Madison was swayed by his opponent’s arguments and, as a member of the first Congress, helped usher the Bill of Rights to adoption.

Should Madison be branded as an opportunist for this? Or should he be praised for his willingness to take opposing arguments seriously enough that he might be persuaded?

On his birthday today, the honor Madison would wish for is for Americans to engage him in conversation. Our organization, the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, has sought to keep alive the founding generation’s conversation about government through resources on our website, TeachingAmericanHistory.org/Founding, and through a new edition of Madison’s “Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.”

We owe it to ourselves, and our country, to take his lessons to heart.

Lloyd is a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio. He is editor of “Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.” Ross is director of programs at the Ashbrook Center: TeachingAmericanHistory.org/Founding.

This guest column was published in the Wisconsin State Journal on March 16.