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TDIH: James Madison on the Constitution

On this day in 1787, the “Father of the Constitution” writes Thomas Jefferson. The Constitution had been sent to the states for approval mere weeks before, and James Madison was now writing to describe its provisions.

He thought the document a “miracle.”

Madison knew how hard the Constitutional Convention’s task had been. How could big and small states come together? How could north and south agree? Opinions among the delegates varied too greatly, and it had been difficult to find common ground. Could anyone really understand the challenges facing the Convention if they hadn’t been there?

Madison didn’t think so.

So why did Madison find himself explaining these dynamics to Jefferson? Wasn’t Jefferson there, too? The answer might surprise you because it tends to get left out of history books: Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention. Nor was he present during the state ratification debates. Nor was he a member of the first Congress that debated and approved our Bill of Rights.

Jefferson missed all of these critical founding events because he was then serving his country in France. How interesting. If he wasn’t there, why is so much weight sometimes placed on what Jefferson thought of certain constitutional provisions, especially the First Amendment?

Naturally, Jefferson helped in other ways. As Madison prepared for the Convention, Jefferson was in Paris, where he had access to a wide variety of books. Would Madison like him to send books to America? Madison quickly responded in the affirmative, asking for “treatises on the antient or modern fœderal republics, on the law of Nations, and the history natural and political of the New World; to which I will add such of the Greek and Roman authors where they can be got very cheap, as are worth having and are not on the common list of School classics.”

The Monticello website reports that Jefferson sent Madison more than 200 books during this time. Among these were the works of many political philosophers and historians. Madison used this information as he prepared for the Convention. His work laid the foundation for the delegates’ discussions during the summer of 1787 as they met and hammered out a new form of government.

He and other Convention delegates ultimately concluded that Americans would need something better than simple democracy: Unfettered majorities such as those found in pure democracies tend toward tyranny.

This conclusion led delegates to propose separation of powers and checks and balances in their new Constitution, as you may know. Most power is left to the states—or to the people themselves! Super-majorities are required for some actions. And we have an Electoral College. The Founders’ goal was to ensure self-governance, even as hurdles are thrown up, preventing bare or emotional majorities from tyrannizing everyone else.

Our Constitution was created by men who had done their homework. They were well educated men who knew the history of past successful—and failed—political systems. We dismiss their hard work at our own peril.



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