James Madison Understood Compromise, Humility: Jason Ross Op. Ed

December 24, 2020

In several states around the country, legislatures are debating whether to modify or even ban the Advanced Placement U.S. History course on grounds that it teaches a critical view of America.

Here in Ohio, new regulations will require all students to pass a year-end exam in American history and government in order to graduate high school, but the requirement won’t take effect until 2018 and it begs the questions of what materials will be taught and what exactly will be tested.

Perhaps the evident dysfunction in our national politics is a result of the way American history and civics are taught — or not taught.

Americans might look for advice on how to do better from our greatest civic educator, James Madison. It may be surprising to hear Madison described as a civic educator, but in his “Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787” and in his contributions to “The Federalist Papers,” Madison makes clear his commitment to teaching Americans about the origins, purposes and functions of their government.

Today, as we mark the 264th anniversary of James Madison’s birth, there are four lessons that Madison, the civic educator, can teach all of us.

First, Madison recognized that democratic government requires conversation. In his famous “ Federalist No. 10,” Madison taught that in a democracy based on the equal rights and liberty of all, conflict is inevitable. He challenged us to acknowledge that, 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. Elsewhere, he explained that we must seek to work out our differences through “ reason and conviction, not force or violence.”

Second, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Madison understood that not all conversations are created equal.

If our highest principle is democracy, it would be very easy for a technologically advanced people to let the majority rule via Twitter. Yet anybody who has spent more than five minutes scrolling through Twitter or other social media would know how bad an idea this is. Social media allows for people to express their immediate reactions, which are sometimes half-baked, sometimes threatening or violent.

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 we judge our representatives based on their ability to engage in sound-bite battles, we deserve the kind of representatives we get.

Third, Madison taught us that conversation requires compromise. Perhaps some may see compromise as a dirty word, as reflecting lack of principle or of conviction. For Madison, however, compromise simply acknowledged the vastness of 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. Perhaps he should be condemned for compromising at the convention. Or, perhaps he hoped to establish America’s freedom on the strongest foundation his generation was able to build, giving future generations the opportunity to make that union “ more perfect.”

Since a perfect society is impossible, given that we are imperfect people, we should all be open to compromise in keeping with Madison’s vision.

Finally, Madison gave us the lesson that real conversation requires us to be humble enough to change our minds. Some may be surprised to learn that Madison initially opposed the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Yet during debates about whether to ratify the proposed Constitution, as citizens increasingly called for the addition of a Bill of Rights, Madison changed his mind.

He actually went so far, as a member of the first Congress, as to usher the Bill of Rights through the adoption process. 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 accept them?

We all have lessons to learn from Madison. Adults may be unable to resist the urge to politicize history, but students have the opportunity to learn from Madison directly. If our students study Madison’s words — Madison’s way — through careful, challenging, respectful conversation, in which they are open to learning, there is still hope for a more perfect union.

This piece was first published in the Columbus Dispatch on March 16.