Had I the power to create one national holiday, it would be James Madison Day, to be observed annually on his birthday, the 16th of March. Such a day may help us remember the only test that matters for any elected official.
While George Washington holds title as the father of our country, James Madison is our national architect. Madison is the father of our Constitution, an author of the Federalist Papers, and prime mover of our Bill of Rights. He may popularly remain in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson, but it could well be argued that he, Madison, was the greater of the two friends.
With a Presidential election heating up, my thoughts invariably turn to Madison and his near-sacred creations.
Madison loved freedom and liberty but faced the historical problem of stability in popular government. He understood that popular rule often led to mob rule, and so sought to protect the inherent rights of every individual – for it was the individual, not the community, that was created in God’s image, and thus was sovereign. Combing histories both recent and ancient, Madison looked for ways to control the baser impulses of man, without placing man under control.
Ultimately, Madison devised what he called a “republican remedy” to the problems of popular government. With a separation of powers and sufficient checks and balances, Madison believed he could provide a stable society and retain the position of the individual as being above (that is, greater than) the state. The result is the canon of America, referenced above.
Madison bequeathed the nation as perfect a system of governance as had ever existed before, or since. But there is a catch. Madison knew this. In perfection there is ever an inherent fragility. Madison warned that success in the American experiment required two ingredients that he was powerless to provide to future generations.
America could be a great and free nation of free men if and only if Americas maintained a value on “self-government” and vigilance to the “sacred fire of liberty.”
By self-government Madison recognized that everyone need participate and become stakeholders in the well-being and continuance of America. Madison also made clear that self-government began with each man governing first himself.
Vigilance to the “sacred fire of liberty” requires each and every man to hold his freedom, and thus the equal freedom of all others, as the greatest trophy of life. Liberty necessarily involves some risk and uncertainty, but it must nevertheless be prized as if given by God himself – because it is.
Madison’s instructive warning resonates still. In preparing for the election of an American President we should look past all the distractions, promises, and rhetoric and ask which candidate is most committed to defending self-government and stoking the sacred fire of liberty.