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 Montpelier Magazine

  Detail, James Madison Statue, Library of Congress

President Rose: Madison's profound and pragmatic genius still resounds

When historians rank the quality of presidents, James Madison generally is listed high, but he is rarely, if ever, included on that short list of truly great presidents - the handful of American leaders that is nearly always headed by George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. If presidents were ranked on the sum total of their contributions to our nation - covering their entire lives, not just their presidencies - then James Madison would surely be very near the top of the list. Unlike most presidents, Mr. Madison's greatest gifts to our democracy were made before he was president.

As important as his contributions were as the fourth president, as Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state and as a congressman, his greatest role in the establishment of our nation was the creation of one of the most important documents in history - the U.S. Constitution.

As the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison created the framework for a new form of government - one that continues to operate smoothly and one that is the envy of the world.

The tripartite system of government - establishing executive, legislative and judicial branches of government - has made the United States a sentinel for freedom and a model that is widely imitated but never fully duplicated.

The document that Madison authored has guided our nation for more than two centuries. The Constitution is a masterpiece that gives us a set of laws with the rigidity to deal with crises as well as the flexibility to change as society changes.

Within the last few years alone, our nation has experienced the ordeal of the impeachment of a president and of a bitterly disputed presidential election. In many nations, either of those occurrences would have created chaos - or, even worse, violence and civic disorder.

None of this occurred here. The American people were calm and confident. This is not to say that all were satisfied or silent. Some were exasperated; some protested; some were obnoxious. But all realized that the crisis would pass and America would not only survive the moment, it would also grow stronger because of the experience. The confidence of our citizens comes from 200 years of national success and from Madison's profound and pragmatic genius. Americans know that our nation has the mechanism - the U.S. Constitution - in place to peacefully resolve the outcome of any challenge to our way of life.

Madison's Constitution achieved the challenge he had given himself: "You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence upon the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government . . ."

Through our celebration of the 250th anniversary of Madison's birth, we join his contemporaries and the scholars of today in recognizing the enormous role he played in founding our nation.

John Adams, America's second president, was lavish in his praise of Madison: "His administration has acquired more glory, and established more union, than all his three predecessors Washington, Adams, and Jefferson put together." Henry Clay considered Madison the finest political writer in the new republic and second in overall importance only to George Washington. The man who assumed the presidency a century and a half after Madison, John F. Kennedy, called Madison the most underappreciated of the founding fathers.

James Madison University, the only university in America named for Mr. Madison, has taken a leadership role nationally in commemorating his life. A weeklong celebration in March at JMU featured a broad range of events highlighting the many contributions made by Madison. On James Madison Day itself, our main speaker was Associate Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court, which was created by Madison's Constitution.

The week's activities are featured in this issue of Montpelier, along with articles written by some of the nation's leading Madison scholars. All of us at JMU hope that this celebration will mark the beginning of a new and expanded appreciation among Americans for the huge role James Madison played in the creation of our nation and our way of life.

By Linwood H. Rose, President