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Very modern Madison
“James Madison didn’t just embody compromise,” Kat Imhoff said. “He built it into our system of governance.”
In the fourth installment of JMU’s Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society, Kat Imhoff, president and CEO of The Montpelier Foundation, shared with the JMU community why the Father of the Constitution—and his former home—are still incredibly relevant and important today.
Despite his passing in 1836, Madison’s name continues to pop up in today’s current events. Just this past year, Imhoff recalled news articles on the government shutdown or Syria in which journalists posed the question, “What would James Madison think? What would he do?”
As Imhoff explained, Madison was, of course, a go-to intellect in politics from the very beginning. When President George Washington was elected to office, he called on Madison to write his inauguration address. Not knowing he’d been the author, Congress subsequently asked Madison to craft an eloquent response to the inauguration speech he himself had ghostwritten for Washington. Laughing at the situation’s irony, Imhoff pointed to Madison’s complete lack of ego in his political life: he was simply dedicated to the prosperity of democratic government.
One of the reasons that journalists continue to restore Madison’s ideals and revive his spirit is due to his grace in dealing with the “grey areas” of political matter. “For me, the grey is those radical concepts of statesmanship and compromise,” Imhoff explained.
Madison himself exemplified these characteristics. He was a close friend of James Monroe, despite running against him for presidency. He defended individuals’ freedom of consciousness. He composed what has been called “the most powerful defense of religious liberty ever written in America” in writing the document Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. And, unlike most wartime presidents, Madison did not quiet or interfere with dissenting opinions on and protestors of the War of 1812.
Imhoff explained that a group of intellectual thinkers, including JMU’s own President Jonathan Alger, was created to discuss Madison’s role in civic engagement. Among the topics that arose, three ideas dominated the conversation’s framework: that the stories of our past are critical to our present, that community engagement is deeply personal, and that the most transformational experiences in our history have not been evolutionary, but revolutionary—they come from bold risk takers.
“Madison’s life shows that when we find passion and have the opportunity to make change, we must seize it,” Imhoff asserted. Madison demonstrated “disrupting the present for the sake of the future.”
A look into Madison’s life and former home gives us incredible insight about the past, but also tells us a great deal about the present and future. Returning to the idea of Madison reacting to the government shutdown, or the type of partisan gridlock we see today, Imhoff spoke on his behalf: “Madison would say, ‘Go get elected. Be involved in a campaign. Serving the public should be honorable.’”
“There are now about 317 million people in the United States, compared to roughly 4 million in Madison’s time,” Imhoff reminded the audience. That is 313 million more voices that can be put to democratic use like Madison’s.
Imhoff explained that, in line with JMU’s mission to be an “engaged university,” Madison would want us to, above all, contribute something to society. Students and professors alike can look to James Madison for inspiration. “We should know our democratic DNA,” she added. “One of the first strands is knowing about Madison and his home.”
Ms. Imhoff’s presentation was the fourth of many lectures in the Madison Vision Series. The series is funded by donors to the Madison Vision Fund and sponsored by the JMU Office of the President and JMU Outreach and Engagement’s Madison Institutes.
The next lecture will be held on Wednesday, April 9, from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. in the Wilson Hall Auditorium. It will feature Former CEO of Hewlett Packard, Republican candidate for Senate from California, and current JMU Board of Visitors Member, Carly Fiorina.
March 19, 2014
By Rosemary Girard (’15)