Monday, March 18, 2013

An uneventful birthday for Jemmy

It's really too bad. Even I forgot...and I'm a raving fan of James Madison...the mighty little Madison was 262 this past weekend, March 16 (1751.) Jemmy, as he was known to his friends and enemies, has no monuments in the nation's capitol, no face on the side of Mr. Rushmore, and no holiday marking him or his most amazing accomplishment, the U.S. Constitution.

Jemmy and Me
Think about it for a moment. We celebrate the Declaration of Independence, and we should. We celebrate Washington and Lincoln with the combined Presidents Day. We look at Mr. Rushmore and see them again along with Jefferson and Roosevelt (Teddy.) Washington's monument towers over the Mall, Jefferson, Roosevelt (Franklin,) and Lincoln gaze out from their memorials on the Mall. But Madison? Nowhere to be found except at his restored home and the Constitution Center in Philadelphia in the hall of the signers. Even there he is overshadowed by many of the others.

Why should we care? James Madison was slight of build but a giant when thinking about constitutions. He had studied every one he could lay his hands on, focusing as he said on republics "ancient and modern." But Jemmy was no dilettante. At 36, he was already an experienced politician having served in the Confederation Congress and the Virginia legislature. With Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin and a few others, he conspired to call the meeting we know as the Constitutional Convention, with a secret agenda to overthrow the existing Articles of Confederation.

The Articles had proven a disaster and the infant nation faced multiple crises including inability to pay its debts, threats of foreign invasion, individual states prepared to go to war with their neighbors or secede altogether, rampant inflation and foreclosures, open rebellion, and a deadlocked, impotent Congress.

When the delegates gathered in Philadelphia in May of 1787, it was Madison's "Virginia Plan" that formed the basis for the initial debates. The meeting was presided over by George Washington, who had been persuaded in part by Madison to come and provide political cover and credibility. Although when he signed his name to the final document, Madison was not happy with it, he was prepared to fight for it.

He teamed up with Hamilton and John Jay to write The Federalist to present a compelling case for ratification and then went into the Virginia Ratifying Convention to debate his high-profile adversary, Patrick Henry and win. Despite the fact that he was ill and exhausted from his non-stop work during the 4 months of the Constitutional Convention, he came out swinging and carried the day so Virginia ratified by a few votes. During the Convention he had been tireless, recording all the discussions, lobbying the delegates, and serving on committees.

But Madison wasn't through. He was elected to the new Congress and quickly became one of the most savvy and effective politicians and lawmakers. He gathered the suggestions for amendments into a package and fought for the passage of the Bill of Rights. He even engineered the passage of Hamilton's finance bill for the assumption of the state's war debts and the establishment of the first national bank, despite being opposed to the plan in principle.

Finally, after his long and successful legislative career and the appellation of "Father of the Constitution," which he rejected, he served in Jefferson's cabinet and then became the 5th president of the United States.

James Madison is as responsible for creating our country as any of the other more well-known figures. Without him, the Constitution might never have been written and accepted, and the country would have soon disappeared from history like so many other experiments in self-government. Madison would not have wanted a monument or public holiday for himself. He probably would have wanted a holiday for the signing of the Constitution, (September 17.)

As Madison himself wrote, "a crisis had arrived which was to decide whether the American experiment was to be a blessing to the world, or to blast for ever the hopes which the republican cause had inspired." Luckily for us, Madison was there to make the difference. Honor him by reading the Constitution and it's amendments.
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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, Ph.D., president, Advantage Leadership, Inc.
Learn more about Madison's pivotal role in the Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers (Check out the Madison's birthday special pricing.)
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