James Madison is remembered for many political accomplishments, including serving as the fourth President of the United States, taking a leading role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and contributing 29 of the 85 essays to The Federalist (1787-88), which Thomas Jefferson claimed was “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Madison himself, however, was not satisfied with the political analysis that he presented as Publius, believing that a more “thorough investigation” was needed. So, just three years later, he was again hard at work researching and writing on the subject of republican government. This stint of scholarly activity resulted in a comprehensive outline, “On Government,” and a series of nineteen articles published in Freneau’s National Gazette in 1791-92.
Three of these newspaper articles (or Party Press Essays)–“Public Opinion,” “British Government,” and “Spirit of Governments”–set forth the central tenet of Madison’s theory of republicanism, namely, the power and sovereignty of public opinion. Despite the current predominant view that Madison depended primarily on institutional mechanisms such as separation of powers and checks and balances to achieve political stability and safeguard liberty, these essays demonstrate that, first and foremost, he relied on public opinion to achieve political equilibrium and constrain the power of government (just as he argued in Federalist 51). Moreover, he believed that public opinion constitutes the rightful authority in republican government. The critical task of the statesman and good citizen, then, is to work to refine and enlarge public opinion so that it becomes reasonable and just.
In Madison’s view, the combination of a large territory, the principle of representation, the separation of powers (including federalism and bicameralism), and checks and balances provide the foundational conditions needed to shape and educate public opinion. However, these political elements were for Madison necessary but not sufficient conditions for genuine republican government. Accordingly, he also envisioned a dynamic process of political communication and deliberation in the republic, including among the representatives in the legislature, between the representatives and their constituents, and, most importantly, throughout the entire body of the people. In this way, public will could be modified and transformed into public reason.
Madison and the American Founders understood that, generally, the political history of the world was a history of the failure of self-government. Like his counterpart, Publius (Alexander Hamilton) in Federalist 1, Madison knew that if the American experiment were successful, it would mark the dawn of a new political order of the ages, for it would serve as a demonstration to the world that a people really are capable of governing themselves on the basis of reflection and choice. With hope for and pride in his fellow republican citizens, Madison triumphantly proclaimed in “Spirit of Governments” that the American model of government was that “for which philosophy has been searching, and humanity been sighing, from the most remote ages.” This is the republican government “which it is the glory of America to have invented, and her unrivalled happiness to possess.”
Colleen Sheehan, Professor of Political Science, Villanova University
Read the documents
- “Public Opinion” – www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2494
- “Spirit of Governments” – www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2497
- “British Government” – www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2506
Madison wrote the most complete original account of the process by which the Constitution was drafted and debated at the closed convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Fifty-five delegates from the several states, pledging themselves to complete secrecy until their task was complete, met to frame a Constitution for a federal republic that might last into “remote futurity.” The resulting Constitution would undergo a thorough and robust public review (described in our Ratification site), but during the drafting of it, delegates kept the windows closed and the drapes drawn, agreed that only secrecy would allow candid discussion and flexible deliberations. Madison’s journal of the proceedings was not published until 1837, a year after his death.
At our Constitutional Convention site, designed by Constitutional scholar Gordon Lloyd, Madison’s Notes are reproduced in daily installments, with links throughout to other sources of information on the site. You can move between Madison’s account of deliberations on a particular day to Lloyd’s own story of that day in his online narrative, “The Constitution as a Four-Act Drama,” or you can link to Lloyd’s brief, “Day-by-Day Summary.” You can also link to biographies of the delegates whose motions and arguments Madison cites.
Professor Chris Burkett of Ashland University and high school teacher Patricia Dillon produced this three-part unit on the challenges that faced the authors of the Constitution. Starting with the Founders’ realization that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate to the task of governing the new nation, the lesson plan covers steps taken to authorize the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia, the main issues that divided delegates at the Convention, and the compromises that were necessary for the Convention to fulfill its task of improving the American political system.
The teaching unit uses primary documents throughout, and lesson plans include worksheets to help students analyze this reading as well as instructions for role-playing games to simulate the issues contended at the Constitutional Convention.
This is part of a number of resources featured at the National Endowment for the Humanities website on Constitution Day. EDSITEment offers many other lesson plans related to Constitution Day, including lessons devoted to the contributions of particular Founders and lessons that explore our Constitutional system of checks and balances. This year you will also find Spanish-language resources at the Constitution Day site.
EDSITEment features a number of lesson plans on the contributions of Spanish-speaking peoples to American history and culture. You can find lessons on the historical origins and organization of Spanish missions in the New World and on the cultural significance of Mexican national holidays, as well as links to other resources.
The Ashbrook Center and Liberty Fund are proud to announce a series of four new seminars for teachers of American history or government. These seminars will explore the meaning of liberty in the U.S. Constitution by focusing on the debates over ratification and the origins of the Bill of Rights.
Four seminars will be offered during the 2010-2011 academic year, each to be held in one of the states at the center of the ratification debates over the U.S. Constitution: New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia. A total of seventy-two teachers–eighteen at each site–will be chosen to participate in the program. Each seminar will be led by an instructor in Ashbrook’s Master of American History and Government program who specializes in the American Founding period.
Each seminar will begin on Friday afternoon and conclude on Sunday afternoon. The seminars are offered at no cost and each participant will receive a $425 travel and expense stipend. Apply online.
The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution–the final stipulation in the Bill of Rights–states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Robert Alt is a Senior Legal Fellow and Deputy Director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Alt has written and lectured extensively on issues of constitutional law, with particular emphasis on civil rights law, election law, separation of powers, antiterrorism law, and the law of war. Prior to joining Heritage for a second time in 2008, Alt taught national security law, criminal law, and legislation at Case Western University School of Law in Cleveland. He first served at Heritage as Deputy Congressional Liaison from 1997 to 1999.
Alt will speak at the Ashbrook Center on Thursday, September 16, at 3 p.m. For more information on this event, including streaming audio of the lecture, visit ashbrook.org.
Ashland University’s master’s program in American History and Government is designed with high school teachers in mind. Courses are offered only during the summers, and you may earn the degree in as little as three summers of intensive coursework. If you already have a Masters degree or would simply like to obtain additional CEU’s, you may also attend specific courses for continuing education credit. Uniquely, the program engages in the substantive study of history and government. All courses emphasize the use of primary historical documents. Learn more about the program.
A sample course in the MAHG program: The American Founding
An intensive study of the documents that embody the principles of the American Founding, this course focuses especially on the principles and practices found in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. These principles are illuminated through a close study of the Constitutional Convention, the struggle over ratification of the Constitution, and the creation of the Bill of Rights. It includes a close examination of The Federalist and the Antifederalist papers. Offered twice during each summer, it is one of the core requirements for the MAHG degree. Professor Gordon Lloyd (Pepperdine University) who authored our special exhibits on the Constitutional Convention and the Ratification of the United States Constitution, co-instructs this course with Professor Christopher Burkett (Ashland University).
A pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. Copies of the booklet are available for $1.00 each. A 10% discount is available for purchases of 25 or more.
To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit ashbrook.org.