Friday, January 13, 2017

James Madison: The Virtues of Constitutionalism

After winning the election of 1808, James Madison became the fourth president of the United States in 1809. Arguably, however, his most significant contribution to history happened twenty years earlier.

Madison’s impact on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, and the Constitution which it produced, is so extensive that he earned the nickname “Father of the Constitution.”

Constitutionalism is central to intuitive notions of fairness, justice, and equality. Constitutionalism is essentially a codification of the rule of law: constitutionalism is the demand that a plan of government be written, published, and carried out.

As historian Larry Arnn writes:

Ours, wrote Madison, is the first nation to adopt purely representative forms. This means that all sovereignty or authority to rule is located in the governed or in the people.

Because the Constitution is written, it is more objective. The text is fixed, and while some questions of interpretation are possible, it does not change over time.

Because it is public, it creates a sense of access and equality. Any citizen can learn what the system of government is and how it works. Citizens can use this knowledge to act politically to further their own interests or values.

Non-citizens can also access the Constitution and, using their knowledge of it, decide whether they want to attempt to become citizens. Larry Arnn continues:

But at the same time, the people do not occupy the offices of government — as they did, for instance, in Athenian democracy. America’s pure or simple “republicanism,” as Madison called it, makes possible the separation of powers both between the governed and their government and also inside the parts of the government.

The vision of American Constitutionalism is a republic with freely-elected representatives. The individuals in government represent the voters. Elected official act on behalf of the citizens.

The government should not rule the citizens: the citizens should rule the government.

The original intent of the Constitution was not to create a class of permanent career politicians. Those elected to Congress were to meet occasionally to transact whatever business was necessary, but should spend most of their time living in their communities and working at their own trades.

As Larry Arnn notes, the Constitution can be seen as an extensive list of ways to limit the power of government:

The sovereign people delegate their authority to government, separately to separate places. This separation is both horizontal, among the branches of the federal government, and vertical, between the states and the federal government.

By dividing power among the three branches of government, and then dividing it again between national and local governments, the Constitution seeks to preserve individual political liberty by ensuring that there is no large mass of power in any one office.

Another way to limit the power of government is to ensure that elected officials are representatives of the people, not rulers over them. Elected officials should serve occasionally, for short terms, and only for specified purposes.

The people themselves are outside the government, and they may intervene only at election time. Between elections, they watch, judge, and argue — in other words, they think before they act.

James Madison was a passionate abolitionist, and by the time he died in 1836, the end of slavery in the United States had become a historical inevitability.

Madison also understood that educated voters were good for the nation, and worked therefore with Thomas Jefferson to found the University of Virginia.

The rotation of officials in and out of government ensures that no one individual can lodge himself permanently in a position of power. Limiting the power of the government, in order to protect individual political liberty, includes limiting even the power which the voters might indirectly exert over each other.

Voters, at their own discretion, replace elected officials. Individuals in government offices should be replaced if the voters think that by such replacement, the will of the voters can be more accurately represented.

Over time, but only over time, they may replace the whole lot. This system limits both their power and the power of those in government.

Madison’s cabinet changed significantly during his presidency. At that time, there were only five cabinet offices: Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Treasury, and Attorney General.

During Madison’s tenure in office, there was a complete turnover in cabinet office. By the end of his presidency, none of the original five were left.