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TeacherLore

The Narrative Environment that Constituted James Madison’s Education

James Madison and the other Founders of the United States Constitution grew into consciousness in a narrative environment that was quite different from the narrative environment that exists in much of America today. We can get a glimpse of the differences by paying attention to the way some words were used. For example, in the second half of the Eighteenth Century, “democracy” was normally used as a term of disdain in the American colonies. Democracy was understood as something to be avoided, because it threatened liberty and justice.

One of James Madison’s teachers at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) was John Witherspoon. Witherspoon argued that governments had both noble and perverted forms. A monarchy could be perverted into tyranny, an aristocracy could be perverted into an oligarchy, and a constitutional polity could be perverted into a democracy. In a democracy, Witherspoon taught, it was the will of demogogues rather than the rule of law that was supreme.

Many people today have grown up in a narrative environment that teaches that majority rule is good because it is the best way for the most people to get what they want. Our narrative environment has been greatly influenced by the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued in the 1790s that “every action should be judged right or wrong according to how far it tends to promote or damage the happiness of the community.” He disliked the idea that the government could be trusted to make moral rules and argued that pleasure and pain were the true guides to what was right in in human conduct. He thought the government should act to increase the total amount of happiness by working for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

In practice, this idea wasn’t as useful as it might sound at first because people don’t agree about what is good or will make them happy. Some people want wild wolves howling in the woods around their chalet while others want sheep grazing unmolested in the pastoral meadow. Who is to decide?

For Madison and many of his contemporaries, the world had a moral order put there by the Creator, and people were given reason, by which they could see and understand that moral order.  A government brought itself into harmony with that order by establishing justice. A government was noble rather than perverse when it acted justly. Whether or not decisions were made by a majority or how many people particpated in the process was a different and less fundamental question.

By “justice” they didn’t have in mind the concept of “social justice” which has become popular more recently. In fact, the notion that the government should take property from some citizens and give it to others to have a more equitable distribution would have been nearly opposite what they meant. They believed that individuals had the right to be secure in their property, and that a just government would protect that right.  The law protected people from government power, and certain principles such as due process, the right to confront one’s accusers, the right to legal counsel, the right to confront one’s accusers, and bars against self-incrimination and ex post facto laws (laws applied retroactively, making something a crime that wasn’t illegal when it was done). Justice was brought about by having everyone judged by the same law.

Another example that illustrates how Madison and his colleagues might have thought differently than many people today is their discussion of the word “toleration” at the Virginia Convention of 1776. Madison’s mentor, George Mason, had drafted an article on religious freedom that stated “all men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience.” This was the common view of educated men at that time and place. It was drawn from John Locke’s Letters on Toleration, published in 1667.

But some, such as Madison, were also familiar with more recent arguments by Thomas Paine that toleration was “. . .not the opposite of intolerance, but . . .the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it.” Toleration seemed a privilege that authorities might give or hold back, but Madison wanted a more profound and absolute right. “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,” he wrote in his revisted draft of the article, and it “is the mutual duty of all to practie Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” This version passed without great controversy.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/22 at 06:14 AM

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