TAR HEEL VIEW: Can we still meet our founders’ vision?


The U.S. Constitution is never discussed more widely than in a presidential election year, something both ironic and coincidental since we harbor a suspicion that politicians in modern America don’t know a whole lot more about the document upon which our government is founded than anyone else.

The sad fact is most who talk endlessly about our Constitution are often not fully aware of all it contains, how it came to be, the brilliance it took to craft it, or the struggles to adopt it state by state. Many are unaware that there is a Constitution Day, celebrated today rather than Sept. 17 because it falls on a Saturday.

What is truly remarkable is America and its Constitution has outlived every attempt at similar government in recorded history. The reasons go back to one of the document’s primary architects, James Madison, and his often controversial notions.

Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution who ultimately became the fourth U.S. president, wrote in one of a series of essays called “The Federalist” that democracies “have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Madison authored 85 essays for newspapers in 1787 in collaboration with founders John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. The goal of the writings was to explain the U.S. Constitution to voters in New York to influence them to adopt it.

According to an interesting essay in the Sept. 3, Wall Street Journal, “Since Men Aren’t Angels,” a Madison essay known as Federalist 10 is a masterpiece of political reflection. In it, Madison outlines what could be characterized as a major pitfall of democracy: the tyranny of the majority. Madison warned of the danger posed by political, economic or social factions “adverse to the rights of other citizens” or the “permanent … interests of the community.”

But, Madison also noted, eliminating the causes of factions, which are often built upon an unequal distribution of wealth or property caused by freedom itself, creates a cure that is far worse than the disease. How, then, to promote both liberty and minority rights? Madison understood that talented political leaders — those generally identified as “statesmen” back in the day — accept this delicate balancing act between conflicting interests and can successfully navigate them.

And then Madison said something that should resonate with everyone in America today: But “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

Madison and Hamilton had a radical idea contrary to political theories of their day. Many believed only small republics could survive democratic government. But Madison and Hamilton envisioned a large republic and central government juggling so many varying interests that factions would be unable to “invade the rights of other citizens.”

In Federalist 51, Madison wrote of the balance of interest vs. interest — that opposing views should not be shut down but balanced against one another. And in framing a government “which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Today on Constitution Day we ponder the prescience of Madison, who seems in hindsight to have had an uncanny ability to understand very well the issues that define America and its divisions today. We will paraphrase his belief that if people (as opposed to just men) were angels, then government itself would be unnecessary. We see this in the human-involved erosions of Madison’s safeguards against a domineering government.

We pose two questions: First, can Americans still work together to find common solutions; and second, is government still willing to control itself?

The Burlington Times-News

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