The Legacy Framework

 At JMU, our civic engagement goals are to advance the legacy of James Madison, Father of the Constitution, and to prepare students to be active and responsible participants in a representative democracy dedicated to the common good.

Guiding us is a new civic competencies framework, “I am Madison’s Legacy,” a set of six affirmative statements inspired by knowledge, skills, and dispositions associated with the historic James Madison. In presenting him as a political role model, we recognize that he exhibited many traits desperately needed today. At the same time, we refuse to idealize him; he had numerous flaws and foibles, and his legacy, like our nation’s, is mixed. We admit to a candid world that we, the people of the United States, are still evolving, still striving toward that perfect union. Looking ahead, we ask, what can each person do to secure the great nation he imagined?   

I am Madison’s legacy

I learn from and with others.

I foster collaboration.

I embrace complexity.

I value pragmatism.

I advance the public good.

I lead.


I learn from and with others…

So that we can draw on our different strengths and overcome our weaknesses.

“The best service that can be rendered to a Country, next to that of giving it liberty, is in diffusing the mental improvement equally essential to the preservation, and the enjoyment of the blessing.” James Madison to Littleton Dennis Teackle, March 29, 1826.

So that narrow ideas and biases can be enlightened by the insights of different perspectives.

Many years after the Constitution was framed, Madison recalled that most of the delegates had changed their minds on important questions over the course of the deliberations, and most would be “ready to admit this change as the enlightening effect of the discussions.” From “General Remarks on the Convention,” not dated.

By seeking to advance my own understanding of the subject, as well as the understanding of others.

“A tree of useful knowledge planted in every neighborhood, would help to make a paradise, as that of forbidden use occasioned the loss of one.” James Madison to Jesse Torrey Jr., January 30, 1822.

I foster collaboration…

By listening actively and respectfully to all perspectives.


“It is worthy of our consideration, that those who prepared the [Constitution], found difficulties not to be described, in its formation—mutual deference and concession were absolutely necessary. Had they been inflexibly tenacious of their individual opinions, they would never have concurred.” James Madison in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 24, 1788.

By building trust to achieve consensus.


During the ratification debates, Madison appealed to the near unanimity of the Framers of the Constitution as proof that all of the delegates were either “satisfactorily accommodated” by the compromises in the Constitution, “or were induced to accede to it by a deep conviction of the necessity of sacrificing private opinions and partial interests to the public good.”  Federalist No. 37.

By valuing our ideas more than my ideas.

When one of Madison’s correspondents referred to him as the “The writer of the Constitution,” he objected that he could “have no claim” to the title.  The Constitution “was not, like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, the offspring of a single brain. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.”  (James Madison to William Cogswell, March 10, 1834).

                By compromising to meet common goals if necessary.

When the Constitutional Convention was nearly finished with its work, Madison was deeply disappointed with the result.  He confessed to Jefferson that he believed the Constitution would “neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts against the state governments.”  Nonetheless, he believed it was of paramount importance that the Constitution be adopted—“If the present moment be lost it is hard to say what may be our fate”—and he worked tirelessly for ratification in spite of his personal disappointment.  Madison to Jefferson, September, 6, 1787.

I embrace complexity…

By acknowledging that social and political problems are interconnected and interdependent.

When it was suggested that the Constitutional Convention should propose amendments to the old Articles of Confederation as a sort of smorgasbord, and the states could pick and choose which changes they wanted to adopt, Madison answered that this method would not work, because the changes they needed to make would be too substantial and interconnected: “In truth my ideas of a reform strike so deeply at the old Confederation, and lead to such a systematic change, that they scarcely admit of the expedient.”  James Madison to Edmund Randolph, April 8, 1787.

By seeking out evidence from diverse sources, both past and present.

Shortly after graduating from college, Madison wrote to a friend: “The principles & Modes of Government are too important to be disregarded by an Inquisitive mind and I think are well worthy [of] a critical examination by all students that have health & Leisure.” James Madison to William Bradford, December 1, 1773.  In March of 1784, Madison asked Thomas Jefferson to purchase numerous books for him from Paris.  In particular, he sought books that would shed light on “the several confederacies which have existed…. The operations of our own [Confederacy] must render all such lights of consequence.”  The literary cargo that Jefferson sent formed the basis of one of the most important research projects in American history: Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies.” Madison’s notes were used to evaluate America’s existing political problems, find solutions, and defend those solutions after the Constitution was drafted.

By acknowledging that our decisions are contingent on and influenced by current trends and political coalitions (factions)


This awareness can be seen in Madison’s inability to come to terms with slavery, both as an individual and as a political leader. Although he deplored slavery, he never freed any of his own slaves. Madison believed that pervasive white prejudice in his era prevented whites and blacks from living together, so he favored gradual emancipation and colonization back to Africa. As the abolitionist movement grew, he worried that if disunion undid the republic, it would be enmeshed in the institution of slavery. Though a man of inexhaustible faith in the ability of a self-governing people to choose the just course, by 1835 Madison "owned himself almost to be in despair" over slavery, according to Harriet Martineau. A British abolitionist who visited Montpelier, Martineau recalled that Madison "without limitation or hesitation" confirmed to her all the evils of slavery. He told her that "the whole Bible Is against Negro slavery; but that the clergy do not preach this, and the people do not see it."


By evaluating the consequences, both the advantages and the disadvantages, of multiple courses of action.


In Federalist No. 10, Madison examined the nature of factions, which he believed were the “disease” of popular government, and reviewed several possible ways to control them.  Nonetheless, he recognized that some potential remedies were “worse than the disease.”

By recognizing that some questions are fraught with ambiguity.

Madison recognized that even in the natural sciences it is sometimes difficult to categorize the different “departments of nature,” but the uncertainty is even greater when studying human institutions: “Questions daily occur in the course of practice, which prove the obscurity which reigns in these subjects, and which puzzle the greatest adepts in political science.”  Federalist No. 37.


I value pragmatism…

By understanding the institutions, processes, and interested parties involved in an issue.

Madison recalled that each of the goals that the Constitution’s Framers were aiming for “was pregnant with difficulties. The whole of them together formed a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it. Adding to these considerations the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects, it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle.” Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 24, 1787.  

By taking a reasoned and practical approach to the problem at hand.

“No government of human device and human administration can be perfect; that that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government.”  Madison on majority governments (unknown recipient), 1833.

“It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the Importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that It had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great  point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism  of modern policy; that  within that  period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, In the  prohibitory example  which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!” Federalist no. 42

By assessing the likely practical consequences of a decision.

As a member of the First Federal Congress (1789-1791), Madison was involved in a number of protracted and nuanced debates over constitutional interpretation.  In assessing the constitutionality of a proposed national bank, Madison laid out “preliminaries to a right interpretation,” arguing that “Where a meaning [of the constitutional text] is clear, the consequences, whatever they may be, are to be admitted—where doubtful, it is fairly triable by its consequences.”  Assessing consequences as a test of a proposition’s value was characteristic of Madison, who during the summer of 1787 had “reminded” fellow Convention delegates “of the consequences of laying the existing confederation on improper principles,” and who vigorously opposed the Sedition Act of 1798, arguing that the common law understanding of freedom of the press could “never be admitted to” apply to America, since “a law inflicting penalties on printed publications would have a similar effect with a law authorizing a previous restraint on them.”  That is, such an interpretation of the free press provision of the Constitution would have a chilling effect on free speech.  Speech in Congress (2 February 1791); Speech at the Federal Convention (14 July 1787); Report of the Virginia Resolutions (7 January 1800).

I advance the public good…

By preferring the common good over my own private interests.

Madison believed that when “the great variety of interests, parties, and sects” within the United States was united within a single deliberative body, then a “majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.” Federalist No. 51.

By recognizing my obligation to participate in civic life [public meetings, voting, petitioning, dialogues, etc.].

“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” James Madison, speech in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 20, 1788.

By persevering to advance a just society.

“Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”  Federalist No. 51.

“Despotism can only exist in darkness; and there are too many lights now in the political firmament to permit it to reign anywhere as it has heretofore done almost everywhere.” James Madison to Marquis de Lafayette, November 25, 1820.

I lead…

By acting when I see a public problem or opportunity.

Madison’s efforts on behalf of religious freedom began with small intercessions against the prosecution of local Baptists.  He went on to pen Virginia’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” his landmark defense of religious liberty, and he ultimately ensured that the religious freedom clauses would be inserted into the First Amendment.

By working in pursuit of common goals rather than seeking credit for my own contributions.

Madison’s most important compositions—his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” the Virginia Plan, his Federalist essays and the “Virginia Resolutions”—were all written anonymously.

By reminding people about—and urging them to uphold—the governing principles on which a free society is based.

Madison was ambivalent about the need or value of a national bill of rights.  As he noted in a letter to Jefferson, “Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression,” and he warned that in a democracy, “the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. . . . Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done, and not less readily by a powerful & interested [majority] than by a powerful and interested prince.”  If that was the case, then limits scribed into a constitution were no better than “parchment barriers.”  What, value, then, might a bill of rights have in the case of an interested majority inclined to invade the rights of a minority?  Madison observed that over time, as “The political truths declared in that solemn manner [in a bill of rights] acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, [they may] counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”  He’d restate this idea in a speech to Congress eight months later.  Although all “paper barriers” (including bills of rights) might be thought “too weak” to guard the rights of a minority against an interested majority, he noted that they also have a “tendency to impress some degree of respect for them,” and consequently that they can “establish the public opinion in their favor, and rouse the attention of the whole community” in their defense.  Thus, a bill of rights “may be one means to control the majority from those acts to which they might otherwise be inclined.” 

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