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"Return to Madison" remarks at Montpelier's birthday celebration
President Jonathan R. Alger
James Madison University
Remarks on the Occasion of James Madison’s 262nd Birthday
March 16, 2013
at James Madison’s Gravesite, Montpelier
(Remarks interrupted by rain)
Good afternoon. Honored guests, members of the Montpelier Board of Directors, President Imhoff and Montpelier staff, members of the James Madison University Board of Visitors, faculty, students and alumni, family, friends and fellow Madison enthusiasts, it is my great honor to speak at this hallowed place. On this day 262 years ago, James Madison was born. Perhaps more so than any other president or founder, James Madison is responsible for the creation and miraculous endurance of our republic. Known as the Father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison’s contributions to our nation should be remembered by every American. The sacred fire of liberty lit by Madison’s ideas burns to this day and draws us here to honor him.
I came to Montpelier for the first time only a few months ago. As a great admirer of James Madison, to me the trip here felt like a pilgrimage. When the mansion first came into view as we made our way up the long sweeping drive, I was struck by the majesty of the moment—as we feel when in the presence of greatness. During that visit, Montpelier board president Greg May invited me to speak at this annual event as we strode down a pathway that Madison himself must have walked many times. I could not have been more honored.
Indeed, this is a dream come true for me. As a political science major and history minor in college, I read many of the same texts Madison himself studied—as well as some of Madison’s own work. Even as a young child, I admired the creative genius of our forefathers. While other kids had stuffed animals or model airplanes displayed in their bedrooms, on my dresser I proudly exhibited a set of small ceramic statues of the American presidents. I like to root for underdogs and was always partial to Madison, because his was the shortest statue. Today his picture hangs proudly in my office.
As many of you know, Montpelier and James Madison University have long had a special bond. It began when Dr. Clarence Geier, an archaeologist at Madison, arranged an archaeology field school here at Montpelier more than 25 years ago. Our students and faculty have been coming to Montpelier ever since and have participated in digs all across the grounds. (Except for right here, of course. They are not allowed to dig in this particular area. You never know with undergraduates!)
From then the relationship between our two institutions has blossomed. This past November a bus containing JMU faculty, staff and me – as well as my wife Mary Ann and daughter Eleanor – came here to spend a day brainstorming with the Montpelier leadership and staff on ways to deepen our relationship even further. The primary objective of this deeper relationship is to bring more attention to James Madison and his ideas. This objective reflects the missions of our two great institutions, but it must go beyond those gathered here today. As a nation, we are in great need of what I will call a Return to Madison.
It is true that, during the past few years, more and more American citizens are professing respect for the U.S. Constitution. The document was read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for only the second time in history this past January. In fact, Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia’s Sixth District – JMU’s district – opened the reading with a delivery of the document’s Preamble. That’s a good start, but as a nation we must go much further. For this newfound reverence toward the U.S. Constitution to elevate us as a nation, we must explore and gain a deeper understanding of the principles on which the U.S. Constitution is based. We must Return to Madison.
Now, by suggesting this return, I don’t mean that we become a nation of history buffs (although that would be OK with me). Rather, a Return to Madison would provide us with very real and practical insights into how we as a society should confront issues facing us all.
Starting with a realistic view of human nature, Madison believed that politics was driven by “interest,” not by “virtue.” In his excellent work, The Sacred Fire of Liberty, Madison scholar Lance Banning captured this core principle. He wrote, “Madison did not assume that a republic could depend upon a superhuman readiness to sacrifice self-interest to the common good. Taking humans for the interested, opinionated creatures they are, Madison asserted that in a pluralistic, large republic, partial interests would be counterbalanced by competing interests.”
This was not new political thinking, of course. During the 16th century in Florence, Machiavelli (whose work was more nuanced than is often remembered today) explored what he called the “effectual truth” of politics. In other words, as Paul Rahe writes in his book, Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy, “[I]n order to avoid their ruin and achieve their preservation, men should govern themselves in accordance with how they do behave rather than in the distorting light of how they ought to.”
So Madison’s great innovation was to devise a system of government that sought to create political and civic conditions allowing the interests of individual citizens, groups, regions and other entities to balance one another so that no one of them could overtake the rest. He recognized that we would be a society with diverse perspectives and experiences, and that we needed a structure to allow that diversity to flourish.
Today – while publicly professing faith in the Constitution as a document – we seem to have forgotten this essential element. Far too often, our public discourse on the important challenges of our time degenerates into shallow shouting matches and name-calling in which we cry for the elimination of opposing views on political, social, economic and cultural issues. The people we despise across the political aisle, the fools on the television spouting their ridiculously wrongheaded opinions, the heathens who believe in a different god than we do – we not only hold them in utter contempt, we behave as if we want their ideas extinguished. And if they were extinguished – oh, if only they were extinguished – we believe the world would be a better place. If only we all agreed on everything – wouldn’t that be great! Yet we must be careful what we wish for. If that kind of wish were to come true, not only would our lives be much more boring—but our society would stop progressing and stagnate.
A Return to Madison would shine a light on the fact that the strength of our republic relies on the existence of opposing ideas and perspectives. Voices who advocate for Wall Street and others who focus on Main Street? They need each other. Republicans and Democrats need each other. Without the diversity of ideas and opinions, our civic balance would tilt and our system eventually would topple. The great man we honor today knew this was true. We as a society need to embrace this notion and continue debating the important issues of the day, but with reason and civility—not with hatred and hopes for total domination. We need each other. And I believe that spreading the understanding that our great Constitution is based squarely on this principle could lead to greater social harmony. Boy, do we need a Return to Madison.
Madison’s Federalist 10 is recognized the world over as one of the great examples of political thought in history. You might remember that Madison published the Federalist with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in newspapers while the states were considering whether to ratify the proposed Constitution. Of these 85 essays, Madison’s 10th is widely considered to be one of the best, and it’s about balancing competing interests. I love it for the philosophy it expresses, but also because it contains one of his most elegant turns of a phrase. If you’ve read much Madison, you know that his writing can be (to be honest) dense and elliptical. He is not often quoted in today’s sound-bite culture. But in the Federalist 10 he wrote, “liberty is to faction what air is to fire…” Think about that for a moment. “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire…” Madison was making the point that liberty creates a nourishing environment for faction. At the time, great fear existed that too much liberty could lead to dangerous factions emerging. Madison was resolute, however, and he completes the idea by writing, “But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
Madison is saying that even though liberty allows faction to thrive, it should not be curtailed. He goes on to observe, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
Thus even as Madison advocated for liberty despite its dangers, he was sure to remind his Federalist readers that man’s passionately held views are imperfect. Therefore, if we claim to respect our Constitution and if we understand this fundamental premise, we have a responsibility to change the tone of much of our civic dialogue. Now, to be clear, I am not arguing that we should hold our views any less dear. Passion leads great people to act. And I am not suggesting that we all adopt a relativist perspective – right and wrong do exist. As enlightened as Madison and his colleagues were for their time on so many issues, for example, even they were unable to come to grips with the tragic injustice of slavery
If Madison were here today, however, I believe he would remind us of our human limitations when we encounter and react to opinions that differ from our own. We can all benefit from trying to listen to and understand the views of others with civility and respect, even as we hold and espouse our own cherished points of view. As the president of the university named for James Madison, I feel strongly that our institution of higher education can best honor his legacy by embracing the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in our society, while fostering and modeling civil and respectful discourse on the great issues of our time. That is part of the reason why I began my own presidency with a “Listening Tour” to hear, and learn from, the richly diverse voices and opinions of our university community.
In my inaugural address yesterday at the university, I called for James Madison University to be the national model for the engaged university—an institution that combines a commitment to teaching and learning with a conviction that all humans are interconnected. This combination embodies James Madison’s ideals. If we enlighten ourselves through education and believe that we all are connected – even with those with whom we might passionately disagree – we honor Madison. I intend for this idea to be a hallmark of my administration at JMU.
Another hallmark will be to continue deepening the relationship between the university and Montpelier. Some of the ideas generated during our visit here in November already are taking shape. For instance, staff in our department of History and our Adult Degree Program are working with faculty here in the Center for the Constitution to create a course about James Madison and his ideas that includes online and in-person instruction, as well as visits here. The course will be available to JMU students and the general public. As we celebrated Madison Week on our campus these past few days, Montpelier has honored our university by loaning us several artifacts from its own collection. These exchanges are reminders of the man to whom we owe so much. Our educational initiatives can go a long way to motivate those who profess their faith in the U.S. Constitution to deepen their understanding of its underlying principles, and thus inspire a Return to Madison.
Let me share with you a personal story of my own heightened sense of Madison’s, and Montpelier’s, significance. While inside the house, I was surprised by how moved I was when I sat in the modest room that is believed to be Madison’s study. The thought that I was in the very room where James Madison read Machiavelli and Locke and Montesquieu and all the others; the room where he synthesized thousands of years of thinking into a framework for our most important founding document; the room looking west toward unsettled lands of great promise; the room in which James Madison addressed civilization’s most intractable problem – how to govern ourselves – I was filled with a sense of wonder and awe.
Yet another way in which the university will connect with Montpelier and its legacy will be to honor the memory of Dolley Madison, the great woman buried beside our 4th President. Dolley was herself an intellectual and social force who played a profound leadership role by convening people of different backgrounds for civil discourse. In fact, Yale University historian Catherine Alger wrote, “Dolley’s assumption that compromise would be the salvation of the system marks her as one of the most sophisticated politicians of her time.” Through a new initiative called Women for Madison, our university will celebrate the vital role women play in leadership and cultivating a culture of philanthropy.
Finally, as an advocate of education and an ardent student himself, I believe Madison would have enjoyed meeting today’s students who benefit from his legacy in this free and civil society. I wonder how he would have felt meeting students attending the university named for him. We have several with us today – can you come and join me here?
As many of you know, JMU has a robust study abroad program. I will tour several of our study abroad programs this summer for the first time as president, and my second stop will be Florence, the great city where republican thought reemerged during the 16th century. Machiavelli was the most influential Florentine political thinker of that time, and his work influenced Madison greatly. In fact, Machiavelli appears in one of James Madison’s adolescent “commonplace” books. A commonplace book was like an academic diary. Students during the era when Madison grew up dutifully filled their commonplace books with notes, quotations and poetry.
Students of our era – such as these fine students – and I will visit Machiavelli’s gravesite at the Basilica di Santa Croce in central Florence this summer. We will take with us the moving experience of being here at James Madison’s gravesite, and reflect on the republican ideal with which both men—and so many other people throughout history—have grappled. It is quite fitting that students attending a university named for James Madison make this journey, connect these two places and contemplate their meaning.
With this symbolic gesture, we hope to inspire all the students of James Madison University, the visitors to James Madison’s Montpelier and all who bear witness, to Return to Madison. Let’s go from this ceremony with a renewed sense of our roles as citizens, and of the power we have to live the ideals James Madison handed down to us through the ages. Thank you