- - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

We should make a practice of continually reading primary documents from the men and women who first settled these lands as colonists, fought for independence from Great Britain, and formed the United States government by the writing and ratification of the Constitution. What principles governed their thinking? What affections animated their actions?

Here is an excerpt of a speech that James Madison gave to the Virginia Ratifying Constitution, five days before they voted. I added a paragraph break to emphasize the point of the second half. Madison believed that the surest form of “checks and balances” is to be found in a virtuous citizenry, people who would exercise wisdom in the selection of the people who would govern.

I have observed, that gentlemen suppose, that the general legislature will do every mischief they possibly can, and that they will omit to do every thing good which they are authorised to do. If this were a reasonable supposition, their objections would be good. I consider it reasonable to conclude, that they will as readily do their duty, as deviate from it: Nor do I go on the grounds mentioned by gentlemen on the other side—that we are to place unlimited confidence in them, and expect nothing but the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue.

But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.

—James Madison, Virginia Ratifying Convention (20 June 1788)

Source: The Founders’ Constitution (The University of Chicago Press)
Volume 1, Chapter 13, Document 36


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