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Profile: James Madison

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James Madison was a participant or observer in the following events:

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. [Source: ecollision (.com)]Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the creators of the as-yet-unwritten US Constitution, writes in his book Notes on the State of Virginia: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The passage follows Jefferson’s introduction of a bill in the Virginia legislature that guarantees legal equality for citizens of all religions, or no religion, in the state. The bill stalls until 1784, when Virginia legislator Patrick Henry introduces a bill mandating state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.” Fellow legislator James Madison, another author of the Constitution, presents an essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” that explains why the state has no business supporting Christian instruction. Madison garners some 2,000 signatures of support, and his essay becomes a linchpin of American political philosophy, endorsing the concept of a strictly secular state that later gives the Constitution the concept of “the separation of church and state.” In the essay, Madison declares “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every… man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.” He also writes that government sanction of a religion is in essence a threat to the idea of religion: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Madison, a Baptist mindful of the persecution of Baptist ministers being arrested in Virginia, notes that Christianity had spread in the face of persecution from worldly powers, not with their help. Christianity, he contends, “disavows a dependence on the powers of this world… for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.” Henry’s proposal directly challenges the idea of America as a refuge for the protester or rebel, he writes; instead, it is “a departure from that generous policy, which offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country.” Henry’s bill is roundly defeated, and Virginia establishes a law following Jefferson’s lead in mandating the separation between church and governmental affairs. After that law passes, Jefferson writes that the law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” The same mandate becomes part of Article VI of the US Constitution, which states that federal elective and appointed officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In 2010, scholar Kenneth C. Davis will write, “This passage—along with the facts that the Constitution does not mention God or a deity (except for a pro forma ‘year of our Lord’ date) and that its very first amendment forbids Congress from making laws that would infringe of the free exercise of religion—attests to the founders’ resolve that America be a secular republic.” Towards the end of his life, Madison will write a letter summarizing his views: “And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” (Thomas Jefferson 1782; James Madison 1784; Davis 10/2010)

After the failure of the US federal government under the Articles of Confederation, the men working to shape the new American government—later termed the “Founders”—determine that the new government must have a president with power equal to that of Congress and the Supreme Court. The federal government itself has far more power under the new Constitution than it had under the Articles, but many Founders worry that the government will have, or take upon itself, the power to constrain or even destroy individual rights and freedoms. The government, therefore, will have strict limitations on its functions, and will be divided into three co-equal branches. Debate over whether the new government should have a single president or an executive council rages, but eventually the Founders decide that a single president could best act decisively in times of crisis. However, Congress has the strength to curtail presidential power via legislation and oversight. One of the Founders’ most crucial decisions is to give Congress, not the president, the power to declare war and commit military troops to battle. Congress must also authorize any military actions that fall short of actual war, the creation and maintenance of armies, and exercise control over how the president can call on the armed forces in emergencies. Finally, the Founders, all too aware that until the English Revolution of 1688, the King of England could use his “prerogative powers” to dispense with a law that he felt unnecessary, move to ensure that the US president cannot use a similar usurpation of power to override Congressional legislation, writing in the Constitution that the president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” In 2007, reporter Charlie Savage, drawing on James Madison’s Federalist Papers, will write: “Knowing that it was inevitable that from time to time foolish, corrupt, or shortsighted individuals would win positions of responsibility in the government, the Founders came up with a system that would limit anyone’s ability to become a tyrant or to otherwise wreck the country. And over the next century and a half, the system worked as the Founders had designed it to work.” (Savage 2007, pp. 14-16)

James Madison, one of the founders of the American system of constitutional government (see 1787), writes of the importance of Congress, not the president, retaining the power to send the nation to war. “Those who are to conduct a war cannot, in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges,” he writes, “whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded. They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government, analagous to that which separates the sword from the purse, or the power from executing from the power of enacting laws.” (Savage 2007, pp. 19)

“Homeschool Day” in Des Moines, Iowa, sponsored by the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, features a number of Republican luminaries such as Governor Terry Bransted (R-IA), Representatives Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Steve King (R-IA), and former Godfathers Pizza CEO and 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain. During the festivities, Paul, an outspoken libertarian considered by many the “father” of the tea party movement, claims that the individual states can ignore or override federal laws—a tenet called “nullification.” The idea is centered in a unique interpretation of the Tenth Amendment that, when pursued to the extent that “nullifiers” or “tenthers” take it, essentially overrides the other aspects of the US Constitution in favor of states’ rights. The concept gained national notoriety in 1830, when Vice President John C. Calhoun set off the so-called “Nullification Crisis” that almost led to an armed conflict between South Carolina and the rest of the nation. It came to the fore again in 1956, when segregationists attempted to use the concept to persuade state leaders to ignore the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that mandated the desegregation of public schools (see March 12, 1956 and After). In recent years, it has gained popularity among some tea party-backed candidates (see October 14, 2010) and tea party pundits. Paul tells the assemblage that “in principle, nullification is proper and moral and constitutional.” He says: “The chances of us getting things changed around soon through the legislative process is not all that good. And that is why I am a strong endorser of the nullification movement, that states like this should just nullify these laws. And in principle, nullification is proper and moral and constitutional, which I believe it is, there is no reason in the world why this country can’t look at the process of, say, not only should we not belong to the United Nations, the United Nations comes down hard on us, telling us what we should do to our families and family values, education and medical care and gun rights and environmentalism. Let’s nullify what the UN tries to tell us to do as well.” Article 6 of the Constitution states that acts of Congress “shall be the supreme law of the land… anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Founding father James Madison argued that nullification would “speedily put an end to the Union itself” by allowing federal laws to be freely ignored by states. Think Progress legal expert Ian Millhiser notes that nullification is not just unconstitutional, it is “nothing less than a plan to remove the word ‘United’ from the United States of America.” (Constitution (.org) 8/28/1830; Millhiser 9/27/2010; Homeschooliowa (.org) 3/23/2011; Keyes 3/29/2011)


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