James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” He was a statesman, a historian, a Pisces. He wrote the Bill of Rights.
But for some reason he doesn’t get the popular attention other founders receive, and Rebecca Burgess contends it may be because people today talk more and know less.
Not every past president and Founding Father needs his own national holiday. More legitimately concerning is the ever-growing distance between the sophistication of our technological methods of communication and the poverty of our public discourse. We are marvelously up-to-date but hardly well-informed. This is especially true when it comes to our particular constitutional form of government: knowing the branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial), by whom their powers are to be exercised, and, crucially, how they are to be exercised. …
Mere information about government (what now is often reduced to cries for “transparency!”) was only the baseline of what Madison had in mind. His intellectual dance around the issue of a bill of rights displays better how Madison connected popular opinion, political knowledge, and self-government premised on the preservation of rights (the first purpose of government, according to the Declaration of Independence). This is noteworthy, because Madison initially was not in favor of including a bill of rights in the Constitution—he believed that the Constitution was itself a bill of rights. Additionally, he was skeptical that a list of specified rights would have efficacy against actual abuses of those rights. It might only amount to a paper tiger, a “parchment barrier.” In other words (so to speak): They’re just words, words, words.
Burgess writes that “Madison was particularly concerned with the opinion of the vocal majority.” He anticipated that the tyranny of the masses executed through a central government could damage the rights of individuals, and he decided to write the Bill of Rights in order to ensure people felt a role and a stake in the federal republic outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
Why does Madison matter today? Partly because in the effort to gain political ground, Americans have become entrenched in their own belief system and more willing to argue with separate sets of facts. The facts themselves are not supposed to be negotiable; they are meant to be the immutable foundation on which debate is formed. And yet in the process of debate, Americans have left it to the government to choose the facts and make choices on our behalf.
We don’t know as much as we think we know because we tend to give up knowledge for less argument. This is exactly what Madison forewarned against in a letter now nearly 200 years old.
A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.