Before James Madison was for the Bill of Rights, he was against it.
Today, after the 2016 election, and in the midst of fierce debates over fake news, free speech and the purpose of government, we can still learn from Madison’s humility.
Before the United States came to have its own Constitution, many of the state constitutions had brief, bold statements of the rights of each individual. Governments were limited so that opportunity was not.
Someone might try to create a constitution “in his closet or in his imagination,” Madison mused. But unless the constitution starts with human nature, it is destined for failure. Constitutions are made for people, and people are imperfect. Still, despite their flaws, human beings are capable of self-government. His groundbreaking political theory was that people could be trusted with self-government — if the right structural protections were put into place.
Madison argued that a good constitution should set the framework for freedom. Good government should never impede the progress of civil society. It must be strong in the protecting the rights of citizens. If it goes beyond that end, it endangers everyone.
The main reason Madison opposed including a list of rights in the Constitution was philosophical. Governments don’t grant natural, or human, rights. Rather, they protect them. Why list those rights and risk people thinking that government gave them the rights that are theirs on account of the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”?
Only when it became clear in Madison’s mind that the Constitution would not advance out of the Philadelphia Convention and be ratified by the states without inclusion of a statement of rights, Madison bowed to the political reality and rolled up his sleeves. As a member of the first Congress, Madison culled the list of rights from over 200 down to a more manageable number, after which various congressional committees whittled it further to 12, and the state ratification process to the final 10.
Madison’s brilliance shined most brightly when he didn’t get his way. On the losing end of nearly two-thirds of the key votes in the Constitutional Convention, Madison was humble enough to keep plugging away, despite the defeats. He knew that the cause of freedom was bigger than himself.
The same held true in the debate over the Bill of Rights, as Madison set aside his initial reservations and saw it as a way of educating citizens. If Americans reflected on the rights they had, and understood that the Ninth and 10th Amendments meant that the people and the states retained all rights and powers not specifically cited, there would be a good chance for more meaningful national unity.
This idea of civic education was novel. It said that while we’ll never achieve national unanimity about every policy (except by eliminating liberty), to function well as a people we must affirm a common purpose and learn better how to negotiate our differences.
Madison came to believe that the Bill of Rights could be a rallying point for citizens otherwise divided into a multitude of factions.
In the aftermath of the bitter 2016 election, it’s worth recalling Madison’s example. Despite his eventual support of the Bill of Rights, the “Father of the Constitution” never gave up his worry that that document, and the first 10 Amendments, are but “parchment barriers” if the people do not know and defend them.
The Bill of Rights may be 225 years old, but it’s still good as new.
• David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is president of the Bill of Rights Institute, and author of “Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue.”